Naive application of the ITN framework on a situation like the one in Gaza might lead us wrong

Like many others, I have been following the developments in Gaza and Israel over the past month with increasing horror. Of course this is not the only horrible thing happening in the world, but for me processing this one has become harder than for other cases of suffering. For other issues such as global poverty or animal welfare I have figured out some sort of sustainable guidelines for how much I expect from myself and if how I am going to contribute, and this allows me some peace of mind to just get on with it. This feels different, and I am not convinced if or how my regular guidelines apply.

One of the many things I appreciate about the EA community is that I can often find support in solving these kinds of practical moral questions, and that is one reason to bring the discussion here. Another one is that some reasoning I have seen from an EA perspective is based on an application of the ITN framework that appears quite naive to me. This post is therefore both a pushback against that naive ITN analysis and an outline of my own reasoning at this point—which is still preliminary and under development. I would very much like to hear how others are thinking about this and what you think could be constructive attitudes and “behavioral guidelines” to adopt.

Naive application of ITN

The reasoning I have seen (though mostly not this explicit) goes something like this:

  • Importance: Sure, there is a lot of suffering right now, but this is only severely affecting about 2M people. Compare this to the 650 million people living in extreme poverty, or to x-risk causes where the whole future of humanity is at stake, and this looks rather small.

  • Tractability: The Israel-Palestine conflict has been going on for a long time and appears really difficult to solve, so tractability is probably very low.

  • Neglectedness: There is lots of media and social media attention on this right now, and huge protests in cities around the world, so neglectedness is basically as low as gets.

And so, the conclusion might be that this scores really low on ITN and we should focus on something else.

Why I think this reasoning is flawed


First of all, on importance, apart from 2 million people still being a lot of people, I think the implications of how this situation develops may go far beyond the consequences for those who are suffering right now. I’m definitely not the best informed person to make a complete analysis of this, but two aspects appear particularly salient to me:

International relations: If the situation escalates further, it seems like we could face some scenarios that would be much worse for the world at large both from an immediate humanitarian perspective and from a long term, survival-of-humanity perspective. It doesn’t seem out of the question that this could potentially lead to a broader conflict with further breakdown in trust and increasing hostilities between different countries and regions in the world which could have very longterm consequences. On the other hand, in a more positive scenario we might see consequences such as strengthening of international law and an increased confidence that difficult conflicts can be solvable.

Societal values: Development of better values in society has been suggested as one of the important things we could do today that might contribute to a better long term future. The collective response to a situation like this seems like it could be significant for shaping what values become more or less mainstream and encouraged. Increasing hostilities could seriously beat back progress made toward a world where we care about everyone.

Tractability and neglectedness

The naive analysis for tractability and neglectedness seems to hold if we are assessing the cost-effectiveness of donations. If the conclusion of the analysis is limited to that it would be better to donate to AMF than to humanitarian aid for Gaza, then yes, I think that makes a lot of sense. However, for a situation like this one money for donations might not be the most valuable resource[1]. What seems to be most in demand is that we use our political power as citizens to push our governments to work for a ceasefire[2].

For such a case, it seems to me like tractability and neglectedness are much more intertwined than when we speak about donations, and I am not sure it makes complete sense to analyze them separately. Of course this situation is not as neglected as the ongoing war crimes in Burkina Faso. Does this mean that we should rather go to protests against those other war crimes and post about them instead on social media? I don’t think that sounds convincing. For this case (and probably many other political type problems) the tractability appears to depend directly on the attention the matter is attracting. Achieving a ceasefire for Gaza could be a much more tractable cause because it is not neglected. This is different from the type of problems where one more donation can always save one more life—here it seems to be more about reaching some kind of tipping point.

Additionally, if we consider the long term consequences on international relations and societal values, this point in time might even be unusually tractable—a window of opportunity where major actors have not yet fully committed one way or the other, and there is a global movement pushing for a ceasefire that has momentum. Preventing further escalation at the point we are now may be a lot more tractable than addressing the situation at some later stage (something like the concept of plasticity outlined in What We Owe The Future?).

Not everything is a tradeoff between causes

An important aspect for my reasoning is also that this does not appear to be a clear case of prioritization between different important causes, as it is when I donate money or choose a career direction. It seems like there are plenty of pretty straightforward ways to support the existing ceasefire movement without subtracting much from my other work. In terms of cost-effectiveness, I think we could make a pretty good case for contributing in low-effort ways such as signing petitions organized by reputable organizations, writing an email to the politicians that represent us, sharing some reports from reliable sources on social media or (on the slightly more time-consuming side) attending a protest that someone else organized. I would not expect this to be the most important contribution I could make for a better world during my lifetime, but it does look like a pretty low-hanging fruit for contributing to something very important at a low cost.

I would be very interested in hearing how other people reason both about the current crisis specifically and how you think about engaging with political movements (especially on a non-professional, citizen-level) more generally.

  1. ^

    Large amounts of humanitarian aid has already been dedicated to Gaza, but very little of this is able to enter as the territory is under blockade.

  2. ^

    I don’t know if I should expect some people here to find advocacy for a ceasefire controversial—to me it seems pretty straightforward, and while I do not have deep knowledge of this conflict I am fine deferring in this case to the unanimous judgment of bodies such as Amnesty, MSF, the Elders and a majority of the UN. But much of my point is anyway more general than just for this specific case.