New Shallow Investigations: Telecommunications and Civil Conflict Reduction

We recently published two shallow investigations on potential focus areas to the Effective Altruism Forum. Shallow investigations, which are part of our cause selection process, are mainly intended as quick writeups for internal audiences and aren’t optimized for public consumption. However, we’re sharing these two publicly in case others find them useful.

The default outcome for shallow investigations is that we do not move forward to a deeper investigation or grantmaking, though we investigate further when results are particularly promising.

If you have thoughts or questions on either of these investigations, please use this feedback form or leave a comment on the EA Forum.

Telecommunications in Low and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs)

By Research Fellow Lauren Gilbert (EA Forum link)

  • Lauren finds that expanding cellular phone and internet access appears to cost-effectively increase incomes. Randomized trials and quasi-experimental studies in LMICs showed that gaining internet access led to substantial increases in income, with high social returns on investment.
    • We find these reported effects surprisingly large, and are continuing to dig into them more.
  • Lauren estimates that 3-9% of the world’s population do not have access to cellular service, and ~40% of the world’s population either have no access to mobile internet or do not use it. Lauren finds that the biggest barrier to usage is the cost of devices and coverage. These coverage gaps and costs are shrinking over time.
  • A large majority of spending on telecommunications is private/commercial, with a smaller amount of philanthropic spending. While the private investments are large, they aren’t as focused as a philanthropist might be on improving access for poor and rural communities.
  • Philanthropists could potentially help improve access by subsidizing investments in cell phone towers to improve coverage, and in internet cables to reduce the cost of internet. Lauren’s rough back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that these investments may be cost-effective. A funder could also potentially lobby for policy changes to reduce costs — for example, reducing tariffs on imported electronics or changing the rules around how spectrum can be licensed.

Civil Conflict Reduction

Also by Lauren Gilbert (EA Forum link)

  • Civil conflict is a very important problem. Lauren estimates that civil wars directly and indirectly cause the loss of around 1/2 as many disability-adjusted life years as malaria and neglected tropical diseases combined. Civil wars also substantially impede economic growth, mostly in countries that are already very poor. 
  • While civil conflict is important and arguably neglected, it isn’t clear how tractable it is. However, some interventions have shown promise.
    • Lauren finds some evidence that UN peacekeeping missions are effective, and argues philanthropists could lobby for more funding.
    • Some micro-level interventions, such as mediation or cognitive behavioral therapy, also have suggestive empirical evidence behind them. Philanthropists could fund more research into these interventions.