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‘$5,000 to Save a Life Is a Bargain’

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‘$5,000 to Save a Life Is a Bargain’

The organizations we recommend offer the best value for money. That often means saving the lives of children under the age of five, who would otherwise die from preventable diseases.

And look, what motivated me to do this work is thinking about the people I’m closest to. When my kids need antibiotics, I go around the corner to CVS. Literally every time I do that I think about how unfair it is that not everyone can do that.

Okay, but the people who consult GiveWell’s research are not the needy. They are donors, many of whom are extremely wealthy. What to do donors are you turning to GiveWell?

They turn to us for trust. They need the confidence that their money is making a difference. Many of our donors report this feeling: There are so many things I could do out there. How can I ever determine who is reliable at making an impact?

Sometimes donors expect to save a life for much less than $5,000 and are surprised when they encounter our estimate. But most share my belief that $5,000 to save a life is a bargain. We strive to be fully transparent about what goes into our cost-effectiveness estimates, including counterarguments, caveats, assumptions, best estimates and moral judgments. This transparency gives them the confidence to give more.

It is true that in the US we focus so intensely on quality of life that we may not realize that we have a life at all, that relatively few of our children die as infants. But won’t some people who are saved by malaria nets, for example, lead a very difficult life?

This is the sad reality of things, where we don’t even think about how lucky we are. And if you turn the question you asked around, it may seem like you’re actually asking whether someone can be very wealthy, have good physical health, and still be unhappy. Obviously that can be you.

Why have so many EAs shifted their focus from preventing disease to creating scenarios from the Book of Revelation involving AI?

Many EAs continue to work on global health. But the rapid advances in powerful AI systems should raise real concerns for everyone. Myself included.

When I got interested in EA’s philosophy, there were some crazy things.

You mean those scary questions like, “Would you let your mother die to save 100 strangers?”

Precisely. But I think there are enough challenges in the world that everyone should focus on the area where they think they can have the biggest impact. I’m glad there are a lot of great minds focused on AI and the broader questions in EA. Personally, I can do something to help those who are currently suffering.

So you founded the nonprofit GiveWell after working at Bridgewater, a for-profit (see notes) investment fund, yes?

Yes. And early on, there were a lot of stories about Holden and me, how hedge fund veterans turned to philanthropy. But we were only 26 and we had only been with the fund for a few years. Soon, Holden and I were talking to friends about how we could give away money.

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