The Important/Neglected/Tractable framework needs to be applied with care
The Important/Neglected/Tractable (INT) framework has become quite popular over the last two years. I believe it was first used by GiveWell for their cause and intervention investigations. Since then Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours have adopted it with the addition of ‘personal fit’ as a further criterion, and it has been featured prominently in Will MacAskill’s book Doing Good Better.
This qualitative framework is an alternative to straight cost-effectiveness calculations when they are impractical. Briefly the arguments in favour of scoring a cause or charity using a multiple-criteria framework are:
It is more robust to a major error in one part of your research.
It forces you to look at something from multiple different angles and seek support from ‘many weak arguments’ rather than just ‘one strong argument’.
In practice it leads to faster research progress than trying to come up with a persuasive cost-effectiveness estimate when raw information is scarce.
A cause can remain important because it’s neglected.
A cause can remain tractable because it’s neglected.
A cause can be tractable because it’s important.
Another pitfall is to look at the wrong thing when evaluating ‘Importance’ (sometimes also called ‘Scale’). Imagine you were looking into ‘unconditional cash transfers’ distributed by GiveDirectly. What should you look at to see if it’s solving an ‘Important’ problem? Two natural options are:
The total number of people living in extreme poverty who could benefit from cash transfers.
The severity of the poverty of GiveDirectly’s recipients.
If someone is inventing something new, what you want to know is the size of the total problem that invention could contribute to solving.
If someone is scaling up something that already exists, what you want to know is the severity of the problem is that it solves per recipient (or, alternatively per dollar that is spent on it).