Global poverty could be more cost-effective than animal advocacy (even for non-speciesists)

An­i­mal welfare work has the po­ten­tial to be much more cost-effec­tive than work on global poverty. While it de­pends greatly on how much you value a hu­man com­pared to a non­hu­man an­i­mal, the suffer­ing in fac­tory farms ap­pears quite se­vere and the scale of fac­tory farmed an­i­mals ( ~9-11B in the US, many more globally[1]) is greater than the to­tal world pop­u­la­tion, over 10x the num­ber of ex­tremely poor peo­ple, and over 40x the num­ber of peo­ple af­fected by malaria.

Based on this, some have sug­gested that the only rea­son to think that an­i­mal welfare doesn’t dom­i­nate global poverty is speciesism, or the be­lief that non­hu­man an­i­mals do not have sig­nifi­cant moral worth.

How­ever, an­other rea­son to think that global poverty work could be more effec­tive than an­i­mal welfare work is based on strength of ev­i­dence—we have enough ev­i­dence to know the very best global poverty in­ter­ven­tion, but we don’t have enough ev­i­dence to know the very best an­i­mal welfare in­ter­ven­tion.

In this ar­ti­cle I want to take a look at what this might mean in prac­tice—when you have strength of ev­i­dence for global poverty but not for an­i­mal welfare in­ter­ven­tions, you likely aren’t com­par­ing the best an­i­mal welfare in­ter­ven­tion to the best global poverty in­ter­ven­tion. In­stead you are likely com­par­ing the mean an­i­mal welfare in­ter­ven­tion to the best poverty in­ter­ven­tion.

Fur­ther­more, this could en­tail that global poverty is bet­ter now[2], since there are rea­sons to think the mean an­i­mal welfare in­ter­ven­tion could be quite worse than the best global poverty in­ter­ven­tion.

Keep in mind, how­ever, that I think it could en­tail this con­clu­sion, not that it ac­tu­ally does. I use “X could be true” in the sense of it is pos­si­ble that X or it is rea­son­able for some peo­ple to think X based on what we cur­rently know. I do not use it in the sense that X is more likely than not or I be­lieve X and you should too.

Also, even if global poverty could be bet­ter right now in the ab­stract, there are still many ad­di­tional con­sid­er­a­tions I don’t write about here, such as think­ing about marginal fund­ing, think­ing about coun­ter­fac­tu­als, think­ing about long-term flow through effects, think­ing about the value of re­search or meta-work, etc.

The Range of Global Poverty In­ter­ven­tions

In “On Pri­ors”, Michael Dick­ens graphed the list of cost-effec­tive­ness es­ti­mates from the DCP2 and found an ex­po­nen­tial curve in terms of $/​DALY (blue is the min­i­mum es­ti­mate, red is the max­i­mum es­ti­mate):

My own anal­y­sis of the raw data pro­vided shows the min­i­mum es­ti­mates dis­tributed with a mean of $804.78/​DALY, a me­dian of $313.50/​DALY, a min of $1/​DALY, a max of $5588/​DALY, and a stan­dard de­vi­a­tion of $1250.12/​DALY. The max­i­mum es­ti­mates are dis­tributed with a mean of $3557.66/​DALY, a me­dian of $929/​DALY, a min of $5/​DALY, a max of $26813/​DALY, and a stan­dard de­vi­a­tion of $6738/​DALY.

While there are good rea­sons to not take the DCP2 es­ti­mates too liter­ally, we’re lucky there’s a large wealth of re­search on global health in­ter­ven­tions which al­low us to make rea­son­able at­tempts at rank­ing differ­ent in­ter­ven­tions in or­der of their cost-effec­tive­ness.

If we did not have this re­search and had to sam­ple an in­ter­ven­tion at ran­dom, we would end up with the mean in­ter­ven­tion with a po­ten­tial cost-effec­tive­ness of ~$805.78-$3557.66/​DALY. Us­ing the DCP2, we can se­lect an in­ter­ven­tion with a po­ten­tial cost-effec­tive­ness of ~$1-5/​DALY, a po­ten­tial gain of over 700x!

Com­par­ing to An­i­mal Welfare Work

Com­par­a­tively, there is very lit­tle re­search on how to best im­prove an­i­mal welfare, and what re­search that does ex­ist has his­tor­i­cally lacked con­trol groups, been statis­ti­cally un­der­pow­ered, and suffered from many other prob­lems (see Sec­tion 4 of “Method­ol­ogy for Study­ing the In­fluence of Face­book Ads on Meat Re­duc­tion” for a good re­view).

The largest scale RCT on an­i­mal ad­vo­cacy to date was only pow­ered enough to rule out a rate of 4.2% or higher at 80% con­fi­dence , though we aren’t sure how much lower the true con­ver­sion rate is or if there are other in­ter­ven­tions with a big­ger suc­cess rate. If we were to come up with some sort of DALY vs. in­ter­ven­tion graph for an­i­mal rights, what would it look like?

We’re likely smart enough to ex­clude in­ter­ven­tions that are likely to be quite in­fe­rior from a scale per­spec­tive, like farm sanc­tu­ar­ies, we still likely face a large range of po­ten­tial cost-effec­tive­ness. While we don’t know yet if the shape is log­a­r­ith­mi­cally dis­tributed like it ap­pears to be for global health in­ter­ven­tions[3], it seems to me that a lot of the in­ter­ven­tions that “smart money” would pick in­clude the pos­si­bil­ity of no im­pact (be­ing ac­tu­ally worth­less) and net nega­tive im­pact[4] (ac­tively caus­ing more harm per each dol­lar spent), even be­fore con­sid­er­ing their pos­si­ble far-fu­ture effects.

This sug­gests that while the best in­ter­ven­tion in an­i­mal rights could ex­ceed that of global health by ~250x[5], the mean in­ter­ven­tion could be much worse than the best in­ter­ven­tion from global poverty. Since we don’t have enough ev­i­dence yet to pin­point the best an­i­mal welfare in­ter­ven­tion, we’re in the same situ­a­tion as be­fore where we are star­ing at an un­la­beled graph, forced to pick the mean in­ter­ven­tion.

Ex­tend­ing to the Far Fu­ture

At this point there’s still an open ques­tion about how to ex­tend this to the far fu­ture. This is quite hard for rea­sons that Michael Dick­ens points out in “Are GiveWell Top Char­i­ties Too Spec­u­la­tive?”—while we might have a pretty good idea of what the near-term effects of GiveWell top char­i­ties are (namely, less malaria, less par­a­site in­fec­tions, and more wealth) and we might have some idea of the medium-term effects (more eco­nomic growth, es­sen­tially no net pop­u­la­tion growth), we have no idea of the long-term effects and this could dra­mat­i­cally change the over­all cost-effec­tive­ness.

This un­der­mines the “strength of ev­i­dence” ap­proach in fa­vor of global poverty, but there still are many plau­si­ble views one could make that sug­gest global poverty comes out ahead. For ex­am­ple, one could rea­son­ably think that…

It’s not clear to me which of these views, if any, are cor­rect, and I hope to ex­plore them a lot more, in­clud­ing the many other view that I did not write down here. How­ever, it is clear to me that one could rea­son­ably think that global poverty is more effec­tive than an­i­mal ad­vo­cacy, even while agree­ing that non­hu­man an­i­mals have sig­nifi­cant moral value, based on the prin­ci­ple of com­par­ing the best in­ter­ven­tion to the mean in­ter­ven­tion.

Edit: This post origi­nally in­cor­rectly as­sumed that ran­domly se­lect­ing from all pos­si­ble in­ter­ven­tions would yield the me­dian cost-effec­tive­ness, not the mean cost-effec­tive­ness.


[1]: I’ve heard num­bers around 60B (for one ex­am­ple, from ACE, though I’ve also heard it el­se­where), but I’ve never been able to track down an au­thor­i­ta­tive cita­tion for this (nor have I tried par­tic­u­larly hard). How­ever, I don’t think the pre­cise num­ber is that im­por­tant for this anal­y­sis.

[2]: I think this anal­ogy can be similarly ex­tended to most other causes where there isn’t much ev­i­dence yet to pick among a large range of po­ten­tial in­ter­ven­tions, many of which are of zero im­pact or net nega­tive.

[3]: I’m pretty cu­ri­ous what the over­all shape of in­ter­ven­tions plot­ted against cost-effec­tive­ness would look like. I think in the case of non­hu­man an­i­mal ad­vo­cacy there could be rea­sons to think that the shape could look pretty weird if there is a large pos­si­bil­ity of net-nega­tive effects[4] or if many mes­sages had roughly the same out­come (for ex­am­ple, maybe on­line ads and pam­phlets are roughly equally per­sua­sive).

[4]: This would be pos­si­ble if, for ex­am­ple, it were true that caged-free cam­paigns re­sult in a lower liv­ing stan­dard for hens (though see the re­sponse from Bol­lard and en­su­ing dis­cus­sion ) or if Direct Ac­tion Every­where’s con­fronta­tional ac­tivism ap­proach ac­tu­ally drove peo­ple away from an­i­mal rights. Both of these seem plau­si­ble enough to me to in­tro­duce nega­tive val­ues into my con­fi­dence in­ter­val for their cost-effec­tive­ness es­ti­mates, even if I don’t think they are more likely than not.

[5]: For ex­am­ple, if the true con­ver­sion rate of on­line ads hap­pens to be 3%, this sug­gests ~144-80388 days of an­i­mal suffer­ing averted per dol­lar (us­ing the “Sim­ple Calcu­la­tor”, fix­ing con­ver­sions /​ pam­phlet at 0.03). If we as­sume hu­mans are worth 1-300x more than non­hu­mans, this crudely sug­gests an es­ti­mate of 0.001-220 DALY /​ $. Flip­ping that to $/​DALY would be $0.004 - $1000 /​ DALY.