Policy careers

The 80,000 Hours ‘Banker vs. Aid Worker’ media campaign has certainly succeeded in causing a stir, but many have been misled about the central message of the organization. We are not based around the single idea that one should pursue a higher-earning career in order to donate the proceeds to charity – much less that bankers are inherently the most ethical career path.

Rather, we wish to reflect seriously and in clear-headed fashion upon the impact our careers can have, and adjust our life plans accordingly. This means looking into the tremendous power our earnings have, but our impact is by no means limited to them. For example, you can have a very high impact through campaigning or policy-making.

One of the highest-impact ethical people of the twentieth century was a man you have probably never heard of – Viktor Zhdanov, Deputy Minister of Health for the Soviet Union. In 1958, he called for a programme to eradicate smallpox at the World Health Assembly and then lobbied for its acceptance, which came the following year. In 1977, the WHO declared smallpox the first infectious disease ever eradicated by humanity.

Another integral figure was Donald Henderson, the head of the smallpox unit at the Center for Disease Control in the US, and the advisor who convinced President Johnson to fund the WHO eradication programme rather than other, less targeted health initiatives. The US became the single biggest donor to the programme, and Henderson himself went on to become its director in the 1960s.

To get a sense of scale on this, you have to realize that more people died of smallpox in the 20th century than died of war, genocide, murder, and political famines (like the collectivization famines in China and the Ukraine, which killed tens of millions of people) combined. It is estimated to have killed between 300 and 500 million people in the 20th century – and that’s before it was eradicated three quarters of the way through. Its eradication was arguably more iconic and historically significant than the moon landing.

It is clear, however, that the examples of Misters Zhdanov and Henderson should serve as an example, not a model – their contribution was unique, and unlikely to be repeated in our lifetime. Still, it does demonstrate that being in the right position – which might end up being a mid-to-high-level bureaucrat, as Zhdanov and Henderson were – can prove pivotal.

To take a more recent example, in 2010, the UK Department for International Development awarded the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative – Giving What We Can’s top recommended charity for cost-effectiveness – a grant of £25 million. Bearing in mind that funding for research into neglected tropical diseases (such as schistosomiasis) has been on a universally downward trend since the recession, this is no small achievement. Having been involved in the decision to fund SCI, and using that to increase that funding by only a couple of percentage points, would be an extremely high-impact contribution.

And it is this kind of example that 80,000 Hours seeks to encourage. There are a variety of ways to have a tremendous impact through your career, often within the field you feel most passionately about.