The case for and against using your career to combat smoking

We’ve released a new problem profile on reducing tobacco use in the developing world.

Smoking takes an enormous toll on human health – accounting for about 6% of all ill-health globally according to the best estimates. This is more than HIV and malaria combined. Smoking continues to rise in many developing countries as people become richer and can afford to buy cigarettes.

There are ways to lower smoking rates that have been shown to work elsewhere, such as informing people who are unaware about how much smoking damages their health, as well as simply increasing the price of cigarettes through taxes. These are little used in developing countries, suggesting there is a major opportunity to improve human health by applying the World Health Organization’s recommended anti-tobacco programs.

In the profile we cover:

  • The main reasons for and against thinking that smoking in the developing world is a highly pressing problem to work on.
  • How to use your career to reduce the health damage caused by smoking.

Read our profile on tobacco control in the developing world.

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Is global health the most pressing problem to work on?

Every year around ten million people in poorer countries die of illnesses that can be very cheaply prevented or managed, including malaria, HIV, tuberculosis and diarrhoea.

In many cases these diseases or their impacts can be largely eliminated with cheap technologies that are known to work and have existed for decades. Over the last 60 years, death rates from several of these diseases have been more than halved, suggesting particularly clear ways to make progress.

In our full ‘problem profile on health in poor countries’ we cover:

  • The main reasons for and against thinking that this is the most pressing problem to work on.
  • How to use your career to combat diseases of poverty.

Read our profile on health in poor countries.

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Opportunity to work at JPAL as a Research Associate – just hours left to apply!

The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) is the world leader in conducting evidence-based research in developing countries. Their mission is to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence.

They are currently running a winter recruitment drive (96 total positions) which ends on at 6am EST January 8th. Applications submitted during the drive will be reviewed and short-listed candidates will be contacted. During the rest of the year, applications are reviewed on a rolling basis.

What is the position?

Research Associate (RA) positions last 1-2 years, and come in two types. Field RAs (38 positions available) are based around the world, managing field implementation of specific research projects. University-based RAs (8 positions) are primarily based in North America, focusing on data analysis of research projects.

What are the benefits of the position?

  • Work directly on J-PAL research programs, which are used by Givewell and other organizations to determine the most effective global poverty interventions (a top cause).
  • Cultivate high-quality research skills. Other organizations pay J-PAL to teach them these program evaluation techniques.
  • Work in a developing country, which can be very useful if you want to work in international development.
  • Build a network and career capital for evidence-based development work. Many NGOs now have full time positions for Monitoring and Evaluation.1 Some RAs go on to top PhD programs or start their own impact evaluation NGOs.2
  • It’s paid!

Overall, if you’ve already got a graduate degree, this looks like a good way to start a career in evidence-based international development. However, we have not performed an in-depth investigation of the pros and cons of this job – this assessment is based on our background knowledge and what we’ve read about the positions online.

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Which cause is most effective?

In previous posts, we explained what causes are and presented a method for assessing them in terms of expected effectiveness.

In this post, we apply this method to identify a list of causes that we think represent some particularly promising opportunities for having a social impact in your career (though there are many others we don’t cover!).

We’d like to emphasise that these are just informed guesses over which there’s disagreement. We don’t expect the results to be highly robust. However, you have to choose something to work on, so we think it’ll be useful to share our guesses to give you ideas and so we can get feedback on our reasoning – we’ve certainly had lots of requests to do so. In the future, we’d like more people to independently apply the methodology to a wider range of causes and do more research into the biggest uncertainties.

The following is intended to be a list of some of the most effective causes in general to work on, based on broad human values. Which cause is most effective for an individual to work on also depends on what resources they have (money, skills, experience), their comparative advantages and how motivated they are. This list is just intended as a starting point, which needs to be combined with individual considerations. An individual’s list may differ due also to differences in values. After we present the list, we go over some of the key assumptions we made and how these assumptions affect the rankings.

We intend to update the list significantly over time as more research is done into these issues. Fortunately, more and more cause prioritisation research is being done, so we’re optimistic our answers will become more solid over the next couple of years. This also means we think it’s highly important to stay flexible, build career capital, and keep your options open.

In the rest of this post we:
1. Provide a summary list of high priority causes
2. Explain what each cause is and overview our reasons for including it
3. Explain how key judgement calls alter the ranking
4. Overview how we came up with the list and how we’ll take it forward
5. Answer other common questions

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Health vs education

If you want to make a difference with your philanthropic donations it is important to donate to a good charity, rather than buying books for a school that has no teachers and so on. But how do we decide? It is all very well to say that a charity that saves 100 lives is better than a charity that saves 10 lives for the same cost, but not all charities are so easily comparable. Here I will try to compare health and education interventions…

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