Things I learned from Toby Ord

March 2013

Toby Ord recently gave a talk about foreign aid to Harvard High-Impact Philanthropy, titled “Aid Works (On Average)”. It was really enlightening in many ways. Here are a few juicy points from the talk itself:

During the Q&A afterwards, Dr. Ord brought up a few other really interesting points.

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I think the 1000x more effective figure is coming from the Disease Control Priorities Project. E.g. they give the cost of malaria prevention at $5-$15/DALY, while treating osteoporosis is $34,166-$835,622/QALY. (The low-cost treatments mostly seem to be measured in DALYs and high-cost ones in QALYs - not sure how they compare exactly, but assuming they’re somewhat comparable, wow.)



Anonymous, it’s true that the best currently-known interventions are a thousand times more effective than average, but Toby was talking about a different comparison: spending money on future research into find interventions that are even more cost-effective than the best currently known ones, versus spending that money on the current best-known interventions. That is to say, spending money on research might be 1000 times as effective as malaria prevention, not as osteoporosis.

The claim of a factor of 1000 in this scenario has a couple distinct parts:

  1. Funding future effectiveness research has a good chance of uncovering other cost-effective interventions

  2. Such interventions are going to be a lot more cost-effective than the current best-known ones

  3. This will cause a lot of money to be diverted to said new interventions

These effects, when combined, are what will produce the additional factor of 1000. I was just surprised at the magnitude of potential difference.