Rethinking longtermism and global development
How global development impacts the future of humanity
Longtermism has led some thinkers to peculiar conclusions about how to approach inequality between poor and rich countries. For example, in ruminating about the ways that thinking about the long-term future has changed his idea of cause prioritization, Nick Beckstead writes:
Saving lives in poor countries may have significantly smaller ripple effects than saving and improving lives in rich countries. Why? Richer countries have substantially more innovation, and their workers are much more economically productive. By ordinary standards at least by ordinary enlightened humanitarian standards saving and improving lives in rich countries is about equally as important as saving and improving lives in poor countries, provided lives are improved by roughly comparable amounts. But it now seems more plausible to me that saving a life in a rich country is substantially more important than saving a life in a poor country, other things being equal.
We think the view that high-income countries—and the people in them—matter more than low-income ones is simplistic, as it only considers the relative influences of high- and low-income countries in the present. In the last half-century, many low- and middle-income countries have experienced population growth and rises in per-capita national incomes, which have increased their technological, economic, and geopolitical power relative to established powers like the U.S. For example, the middle-income countries of China and India are now technological powerhouses that rival the United States. Ghana, South Africa, Guatemala, and Bangladesh are emerging tech hubs in the Global South.
We agree that more powerful countries are likely to have more influence on the long-term future than less powerful ones, and that a country’s economic development is a strong indicator of its technological and geopolitical power. However, this does not mean that developed countries matter morally more than developing ones. Rather, it underscores the importance of global development—the process of low- and middle-income countries becoming high-income ones. Similarly, although workers in high-income countries generally have higher labor productivity, a large component of this is the place premium. That is, a worker’s productivity increases—sometimes by a factor of 15 or more—when they move from a poor country to a rich country, simply because they are being paid more for the same work.1 Once again, this speaks to the importance of global development and helping people escape poverty.
This essay describes why it’s important for the long term future for everyone to be in a relatively high-income country, and what it might look like for global development to be a longtermist issue. Global development benefits the long-term future by increasing diversity in global institutions and reducing civilization’s vulnerability to global catastrophic risks like armed conflict and pandemics.
What is global development?
Effective altruists regularly talk about “global health and development” as a category of ways to do good. However, it’s clear now that development drives health much more than health drives development. Global development is the process by which low- and middle-income countries turn into high-income countries. The best modern example of this2 are the Asian countries of South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and China. These have been compared with other Asian countries that were thought to be “tiger cubs” in the ‘90s such as the Philippines and Thailand in the book How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell. In this book, Joe lays out a recipe for development. Here’s the summary from Bill Gates:
Create conditions for small farmers to thrive.
Use the proceeds from agricultural surpluses to build a manufacturing base that is tooled from the start to produce exports.
Nurture both these sectors (small farming and export-oriented manufacturing) with financial institutions closely controlled by the government.
Importantly, in South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and China, these steps were taken by relatively uncorrupted leaders who made it their life’s work to develop their home country. Other countries unable to develop had leadership who were swayed by the neoliberal free-market thinking pervasive at the World Bank and IMF at the time, or who were otherwise too corrupt or incompetent to stay true in delivering their development strategy.
Global development is important for the long-term future
In an EA Forum post, Beckstead defines three types of benefits that an intervention can have: proximate benefits, benefits from speeding up development, and trajectory changes. Global development would have immediate benefits for people alive today: economic development in low-income countries means that fewer people would experience poverty, illness, hunger, and violence. Speeding up development is speeding up the process by which countries become high-income, so it would ensure that people realize these benefits sooner.
But most of the benefits of global development are through trajectory changes that affect the long-term future. We argue that global development creates significant long-term benefits through this route. Global development can also lead to trajectory changes in the global political environment that would not happen if the development timeline were slowed down, since such changes can be locked in over time.
Global development increases diversity in global governance
One of the main ways global development benefits the far future is through its impact on diversity and inclusion in world institutions. As countries get richer, their people get better educated and thus better placed to participate in institutions with great decision-making power over the world, such as multinational corporations, governments, and international organizations. Increasing the diversity of decision makers in global institutions improves the quality of world governance, which enables humanity to better navigate existential risks and other global challenges.
Diversity in global institutions improves their efficacy in two ways. First, socially diverse groups outperform homogeneous groups at decision-making because they deliberate more carefully and pay more attention to facts. They also innovate more because diverse group members bring unique perspectives.3 Second, it improves value alignment between these institutions and humanity as a whole. It has been proposed that humanity should engage in a “long reflection” to decide what is ultimately of value before making potentially irreversible decisions regarding its future. For such decisions to reflect the values and needs of all of humanity, as many people as possible should be able to participate meaningfully in the global institutions making these decisions.
Currently, about 689 million of the 8 billion people worldwide live in extreme poverty, and they cannot participate meaningfully in world governance as long as their basic needs are not met.4 2.9 billion people lack Internet access, which is an important communication channel through which people make their voices heard on global issues and influence global institutions. Internet adoption is uneven across social groups: for example, women, people in rural areas, and people over age 25 are less likely to have Internet access. These disparities are especially pronounced in the 46 UN-designated Least Developed Countries (LDCs).5
Another barrier to diversity in global governance is the structure of institutions such as the United Nations, which is not designed to represent the general will of humanity. UN institutions represent the will of states—especially the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China. Although a diverse group of countries have voices in the UN, their citizens do not, especially in the case of authoritarian states.
Global development reduces existential risks
Another important way in which global development improves the long-term future is by reducing existential risks, particularly risks from pandemics and political instability. 80,000 Hours estimates that the risk of a biological existential catastrophe in the next 100 years is about 1 in 1000.6 Poverty makes communities more susceptible to spreading infectious diseases. For example, a study of Monrovia, Liberia, in 2014 found that people living in slums who caught the Ebola virus spread it to an average of 3.5 times more people than people living in rich neighborhoods. This is because these neighborhoods are overcrowded, contaminated, and lacking in sanitation and health care infrastructure.7 Also, malnutrition weakens the immune systems of poor people, thereby making them more vulnerable to disease.8 Raising national income improves population health and enables countries to invest more in public health infrastructure, which makes populations more resilient to potentially catastrophic pandemics.
Global poverty also causes existential risk through its negative effects on international security. Many developing countries, particularly weak states, are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty, corruption, and political instability: “Inept, corrupt, or weak governance fosters poverty; widespread poverty makes effective, equitable governance more difficult to achieve; and when weak governments fail to improve their people’s lives, their legitimacy suffers.” Weak states often engender terrorism and crime because they are unable to maintain law and order in their territories.9
Global development in practice
There are two general ways to increase the living standards of people around the world. The first is reducing barriers to immigration to high-income countries so that more people from low-income countries can move to them, take advantage of the place premium, and send money back to their countries of origin. The second is to pursue policies to increase the productivity of low-income countries so that their people are better off.
Reducing barriers to migration
Opening up borders in high-income countries does not decrease opportunities for those in high-income countries (although it may stress city infrastructure if not planned well). Matthew Yglesias writes about a six-month period in 1980 where 125,000 Cubans left the Cuban port of Mariel and arrived in Florida (a 7% increase in the labor workforce). These immigrants weren't particularly skilled, but no decreases in natives’ wages occurred. Yglesias explains that immigrants increase the quality and variety of goods and services available, instead of competing for native workers’ jobs. Furthermore, when the supply of hired help is increased, some college-educated women who might have otherwise been stay-at-home moms are more likely to work.
Immigrants also send money back home: for example, according to the Central Bank of the Philippines, between 1975 and 1994 Filipino overseas contract workers sent remittances totaling $18.196 billion (for comparison, the Philippines is currently $46B in debt to the World Bank, IMF, etc.).10
Closing the digital divide is also one way to gain some of the benefits of open borders, by opening up opportunities for jobs in high-income countries that can be done remotely to people in lower income countries.11
Economic growth improves quality of life better than public health interventions. However, it is difficult for a country to increase its income unless the country's leadership is both dedicated to this cause, and following the correct strategy towards development. As pointed out by a report from Rethink Priorities last year, land redistribution (the first step of developing a country according to How Asia Works) is unlikely to happen without some kind of major turmoil (such as a country gaining independence) as landowners have political power, even if landowners are vastly outnumbered.
Here are some examples of organizations pursuing catch-up growth in low- and middle-income countries:
The World Bank and IMF provide loans and advice to low and middle income countries for development. Depending on the income of the country, the loan may not have to be repaid.
The Gates Foundation provides entrepreneurial support.
Entrepreneurs such as Sierra Juice and Jaza Energy contribute by providing jobs and increasing production value of exports. Interestingly, investment in non-hydro renewable energy has actually tipped to be greater in low- and middle-income countries than in high-income countries, now that solar has become cheaper.
The Center for Global Development advocates for rich-world policies that benefit low- and middle-income countries.
Other organizations engage in activities such as microloans, which are shown to benefit the recipient as long as the microloan is not used to fund people joining multi-level marketing schemes. Organizations like Grameen America should stop allowing the loans to be used for this purpose.
Overall there are many more initiatives meant to alleviate poverty than to encourage the economic development and democratic power necessary to end it. Given that government-led development is hard without a people in power dedicated to and capable of executing development strategy, the mechanism by which development happens is by successful businesses giving people stable jobs, especially jobs that upskill workers in their career.
While a naive application of longtermism might lead one to think that low-income countries are less important than high-income countries, this view is facile because it ignores the fact that countries can and do develop over time. Rather, longtermism speaks to the importance of developing low-income countries into high-income ones. Global development improves the long-term future of humanity by improving global governance and decreasing civilization’s vulnerability to catastrophic risks. This makes global development a pressing longtermist issue.
Thanks to Luke Eure for inspiration from sharing his brief overview of Kenyan entrepreneurship and industry.
Clemens, Michael, Claudio E. Montenegro, and Lant Pritchett. “The Place Premium: Wage Differences for Identical Workers across the U.S. Border.” Center for Global Development, July 3, 2008.
It's less useful to examine older examples of development such as Europe, because it involved a lot of harm violence, slavery, and illness. Good books on the topic of European development include Guns, Germs, and Steel, as well as Empire of Cotton: A Global History. The development of the US is also difficult to separate from the two world wars, and isn’t discussed in depth here. Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy covers some of this history.
Rock, David, and Heidi Grant. “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter.” Harvard Business Review, November 4, 2016.
vickyCYang. “Collective intelligence as infrastructure for reducing broad existential risks.” EA Forum.
“Facts and Figures 2021: 2.9 billion people still offline.” International Telecommunications Union, November 29, 2021.
Koehler, Arden, and Benjamin Hilton. “Preventing catastrophic pandemics.” 80,000 Hours. Accessed August 31, 2022.
“Book Discussion: Too Poor For Peace? Links Between Poverty, Conflict, Demography, and Environment.” Wilson Center, October 5, 2007.
“Book Discussion: Too Poor For Peace? Links Between Poverty, Conflict, Demography, and Environment.” Wilson Center, October 5, 2007.
Choy, Catherine Ceniza. Empire of Care (American Encounters/Global Interactions) (p. 227). Duke University Press. Kindle Edition.
Someone wrote a cause exploration prize entry on this: Cause Exploration Prize: Unfettered Global Internet Access & Device Ownership - EA Forum