Global issues Are we solving the wrong problems? 6 March 2022 • 21 mins reading time

In the modern world of NFTs and the Metaverse it’s easy to think that we’ve solved most of the critical problems facing our world. But is our focus on these menial problems drawing our attention away from the wider global issues that we should be helping to address?

This blog post aims to step back and explore how we think about the problems we currently work on versus the problems that I believe we should be focusing on.

I think in trying to understand the nature of global problems and exploring some hard questions we can each become a little more aware of the importance and complexity of tackling such issues.


Contents


What are problems?

Before we dive in, let’s step back and think about what we truly mean when we say that something is a problem.

Whenever we say we have a problem, what I think we mean is that something is stopping us from achieving what we want. Naturally then, whether something is a problem or not depends completely on our view of what we each believe success looks like.

Consider the case where you work in a high paying job that demands a lot of hours. If your idea of success is accumulating wealth, this is not a problem. However, if your idea of success is your wellbeing or amount of free-time, then this definitely is a problem. The same situation viewed with different lenses will naturally result in a different opinion over whether it’s a problem.

Problems allow us to determine what is standing in the way of improving our lives in whatever dimension we’re choosing to optimise for. When I talk about optimisation here, I’m referring to the deliberate use of our time, money, and other resources to eliminate problems in an effort to maximise a given dimension of our lives (i.e. what we deem to be success).


How to measure success

At an individual level, there’s plenty of different things we can choose to strive for in our lives, some healthier than others:

  • Money
  • Wellbeing and happiness
  • Free time
  • Status
  • Time spent with family
  • Lifespan
  • Number of friends
  • Career progression
  • Number of sexual partners
  • Fitness
  • etc.

Really this is just what we believe a successful life looks like. Most of the time, we don’t just focus on one thing and forget about the others. But rather, we set priorities. These priorities will change during our lives and this is okay.

It’s important to recognise that most of us need to have a minimum level of many of these such dimensions before we decide to prioritise any particular areas. For example, we generally aren’t going to be concerned about improving our fitness if we have no money.

These minimum levels will be different for different people. Some people may be content without any friends, others will need a close circle before pursuing anything else.

What does success look like for humanity?

This is an ethical conundrum and I’m not convinced there’s “one true answer”. It also begs the question of whether each person’s idea of success should align with the wider society’s view. What happens when these are misaligned?

To me, success means ensuring that everyone in world has the opportunity to experience high levels of wellbeing. Surely everyone deserves that? However, what’s concerning is that I’m unsure whether I can truly say that’s what I currently optimise my own life for currently. We’ll explore questions about such misalignment later.


Introducing Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is an ethical model that believes in trying to maximise wellbeing and happiness for everyone. I think you’d struggle to argue that this is an unhealthy position for us to start with for humanity.

Utilitarianism provides us with a heuristic we can use whenever we are faced with a decision.

To understand how we’d apply such a heuristic, let’s start with a basic monetary example. Consider your disposable income, for the sake of simplicity let’s imagine you have £100 left over each month. How should you use this?

There are three fundamental options:

  1. Save it
  2. Spend it
  3. Donate it

Viewing this situation through the lens of utilitarianism implies that our decision here should try to maximise wellbeing and happiness. However, this raises a few immediate questions that I’m not sure basic utility theory can help us determine.

Let’s explore some of these questions.

Whose wellbeing should we maximise?

Let’s imagine we decide to donate that £100 to improve the wellbeing of others, how do we decide which of the following to improve?

  1. The wellbeing of our friends, family and colleagues
  2. The wellbeing of our local community
  3. The wellbeing of our country
  4. The wellbeing of humanity

It’s not clear what the right answer here is given humans naturally tend to prioritise the wellbeing of themselves and the people closest to them.

Some other questions to ponder:

  • How does a country or community’s culture influence the scope that individuals and governments think at when faced with such decisions?
  • Is it okay to prioritise your own-wellbeing? If yes, how big of a gap is it okay to let emerge before prioritising others?
  • As the average wellbeing of an individual/community/country improves, does its focus shift to those less fortunate? If so, how?
  • Who’s responsibility is it to direct the scope? Is the onus on governments to ensure we’re thinking about these questions? Is it on social change organisations? Is it on individuals?

How do we measure wellbeing?

Wellbeing appears to be a combination of subjective and objective factors that combine to form a measure of an individual’s wellbeing.

When we even entertain the idea of measuring wellbeing, there’s a huge number of questions that immediately come to mind:

  • Is it possible to objectively measure wellbeing and happiness, or do you need to involve subjective measurements?
  • How do you account for subjective variations in the measurement?
  • How do you account for the variations of people’s wellbeing over a period of time?
  • Do different cultures perceive wellbeing in consistent ways?
  • Do we want to improve the mean, or the median?
  • Does a measure of wellbeing scale consistently?

How do we prioritise short-term vs. long-term wellbeing?

Let’s reconsider the simple £100 disposable income question posed earlier. You may decide to prioritise spending your disposable income each month, this may improve your wellbeing in the short-term, but what happens as you get closer to retirement age without savings? Either you have to begin saving most of your incoming in the last few years before retirement, or you have to work longer in your life. Was this a good trade-off? Maybe, each person will be different here.

Essentially, this boils down to the following question:

Is it okay to sacrifice our own/community’s/country’s wellbeing in the short term to reap a greater benefit in the future?

Discounting

The behavioural economic theory of discounting models the fact that we humans place a higher importance on the present that the future. Discounting makes sense for humans, after all, we may not be around in the future to reap the benefits of such a decision. Or indeed, our tastes may change!

Consider the following simple example, if I offered you £100 today or £200 in a month’s time, what would you choose? While this is a monetary example, the same principle applies to wellbeing or other measures.

There’s a number of open questions that I don’t know the answer to, but are worth listing for completeness:

  1. Does the discounting remain constant as one moves through the range of levels of wellbeing? For example, would someone who’s struggling with their wellbeing make the same decision as they would when they have a high level of wellbeing?
  2. Do different groups discount differently? For example, is the average individual approach to discounting the same as the discount function of a government representing those people?
  3. Are people’s approaches to discounting consistent over time?

Investing in the future

Beyond discounting, there’s a complimentary aspect that makes answering this question difficult – the growth of investments. Investing really only applies to money and the use of it to directly influence wellbeing.

Like discounting, there’s a number of economical questions here that are hard to answer:

  • How do you account for the lost wellbeing that that money could have helped achieve whilst you were waiting for the investment to grow?
  • Can you predict investment growth in a consistent enough way to justify decisions in delaying immediate action?
  • What is the impact of the investment itself? Is it ever okay to justify an investment in something that’s going to negatively impact humanity’s wellbeing in the short term (e.g. investing in weapons, oil, etc.) to reap a net wellbeing benefit in the long term by investing the profit made into yourself or communities?

How can we measure wellbeing at a global level?

Now that we’re aware of the sheer complexity of trying to define the application of Utilitarianism, let’s look at some of the existing ways that experts use to think about wellbeing across a population or community.

Let’s start simple.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

Wikipedia defines GDP as “a monetary measure of the market value of all the final goods and services produced in a specific time period by countries.”.

GDP is often used as a broad measure of economic progress and is generally considered to be somewhat of a measure of the living standards of a population. Living standards are only loosely correlated with wellbeing, so GDP really is not the best metric, but it’s good for a finger in the air measure, as we’ll see more about in a minute.

Map of global GDP

Legend for global GDP map

Gross National Happiness (GNH)

Gross National Happiness moves away from GDP by proposing that a country’s development is best served by placing equal value to economic and non-economic aspects of wellbeing. GNH was first suggested and adopted in Bhutan back in the 1970s.

GNH has 4 pillars and 9 domains that are used to help guide governance:

Pillars: Sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, environmental conservation, preservation and promotion of culture, and good governance.

Domains: Psychological well-being, health, time use, education, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.

Each domain is composed of subjective (survey-based) and objective indicators.

GNH has seen some traction outside of Bhutan with several other countries and states adopting similar approaches to help guide policy making. Unfortunately, due to the subjective nature of this measurement we naturally don’t have much data to see how various countries and communities stack up against each other on this.

Social Progress Index (SPI)

The Social Progress Imperative is a organisation that has produced the Social Progress Index which tracks how well countries meet the environment and social needs of its citizens. The SPI is composed of 3 pillars:

Social Progress Index pillars

The SPI is somewhat unique in that it has two unique characteristics:

  1. There are no economic variables measured
  2. Outcomes are measured instead of inputs

Here’s a full list of outcome indicators that the SPI measures:

Social Progress Index outcomes

What’s interesting about the SPI is that the Social Progress Imperative has also done some analysis to compare SPI vs. GDP:

Social Progress Index versus Gross Domestic Product

Some interesting takeways from this diagram, and some follow on questions:

  • GDP is loosely correlated with SPI, i.e. GDP is a rough predictor of wellbeing of a country.
  • Countries with similar GDPs can have wildly different levels of social progress
  • As a countries GDP goes up it gets harder an harder to increase SPI
  • It’s not clear that any level of GDP would allow most countries to reach a SPI of 100.
  • If GDP is not sufficient to reach an SPI of a 100, what other levels do countries have to pull?
  • What quick wins can countries with low SPIs take to move “up” in the graph without increasing their GDPs?

OECD Better Life Index (BLI)

The BLI was created in 2011 by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as an attempt to improve the way governments can measure the complexities of both economic and social progress.

This index has 11 pillars of wellbeing (from Wikipedia):

  1. Housing: housing conditions and spendings (e.g. real estate pricing)
  2. Income: household income (after taxes and transfers) and net financial wealth
  3. Jobs: earnings, job security and unemployment
  4. Community: quality of social support network
  5. Education: education and what one gets out of it
  6. Environment: quality of environment (e.g. environmental health)
  7. Governance: involvement in democracy
  8. Health
  9. Life Satisfaction: level of happiness
  10. Safety: murder and assault rates
  11. Work–life balance

On the BLI website, you can see the current rating of the included countries:

Better Life Index ranked countries

You can also specify your own weighting for each of the pillars to create your own customised index.

Legatum Prosperity Index (LPI)

The Legatum Prosperity Index is a framework that assesses countries on the promotion of their residents’ flourishing, reflecting both economic and social wellbeing. It captures the richness of a truly prosperous life, moving beyond traditional macroeconomic measurements of a nation’s prosperity, which rely solely on indicators of wealth such as average income per person (GDP per capita).

The Legatum Prosperity Index’s approach here seems certainly seems valuable and it approaches wellbeing from the angle of prosperity.

The LPI also acknowledges the challenges with defining measures of success for countries. However, they’ve spent the past decade trying to overcome these difficulties claiming:

In developing the current Index, we worked with more than 100 academics and experts around the world with particular expertise in each of the pillars of prosperity to develop an appropriate taxonomy of discrete elements and supporting indicators which, when combined, accurately capture prosperity in the world.

Here’s their top 10 countries from the 2021 edition:

Top 10 countries in Legatum Prosperity Index 2021

Notice how most of the indices we have considered all appear to have aligned on broadly the same measures. For example: safety, environment, health, education, etc.

It’s reassuring that most organisations and think tanks are all aligned on what it means for a population to thrive.

Thriving Places Index (TPI)

The Thriving Places Index is a UK-based index created by the Centre for Thriving Places. Like the other indices above, it tries to capture and identify conditions for wellbeing.

Thriving Places Index

However, unlike some of the other indices, it’s focused at a community scope rather than a country scope. For example, here’s a breakdown of my London borough:

Thriving Places Index for Tower Hamlets

The TPI website says that they collect the data for each measure from “established data agencies such as the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Public Health England (PHE) and the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD)”. They also explain that they “select indicators that measure or provide a proxy for, the key factors known to have an influence on wellbeing.”.

Annual World Happiness Report

The World Happiness Report is an annual UN publication with data based on responses from individuals. While it’s called “World Happiness Report”, it does appear to cover wellbeing more generally as it allows individuals to give a subjective impression of their quality of life.

Unlike some of the indices discussed above, the World Happiness Report doesn’t include a lot of social or economic indicators as they claim some of these indicators are not available in all geographies. However, Wikipedia claims the following are included:

  • GDP
  • Social support
  • Healthy life expectancy
  • Freedom to make life choices
  • Generosity
  • Perceptions of corruption

It’s also a more subjective measure than all of the indices above as all the data is gathered from individuals themselves. This means that the data really reflects how people feel, however there’s a few immediate questions that raises:

  • Can we expect people from all over the world to subjectively measure wellbeing consistently?
  • How important are the missing social/economic indicators in understanding the whole picture?

We’ve spent a lot of time now looking at the various ways different organisations have come up with to measure wellbeing and happiness. So leveraging some of this data, what can we learn about the most important problems?

The most pressing problems

So far this post has been rather academic, but at some point we need to recognise the problems that lots of countries and communities around the world are faced with. So far we have explored some of the complexities faced with addressing social and economic issues as well as the methods some organisations have proposed to measure the extent of these issues.

We’re now in a position to explore what the most critical problems are and to begin working out how we can help address some of them.

Awareness is the first step to building a better world

The UN lists the following global issues on their website:

Issue Challenges
Africa Climate change impact on agriculture and habitation. Poverty. Malnutrition. Ebola. Peacekeeping challenges.
Ageing Healthcare needs to support higher % of elderly people. Developing countries will need to have social and economic support in place for an older population as life expectancy increases.
AIDS Millions of people annually contracting AIDS with close to a million a year dying.
Nuclear safety Nuclear warfare risk. Safety of power plants.
Big data for sustainable development Getting the right systems setup. Ethical considerations. Ensuring privacy of citizens.
Children Education standards. Violence and conflict. Stunted growth from malnutrition. One in six children live on less than $2 a day.
Climate Change Rising temperatures and sea levels. Non-renewable dependency. Rapid development of China and India and the impact of that on carbon emissions.
Decolonization Around 2 million people still live under some form of colonization, e.g. Falklands.
Democracy Authoritarian regimes. Corruption. Developing nations need to adopt independent institutions, judiciary systems, and other democratic infrastructure.
Disarmament Nuclear, chemical, biological, and conventional weapons. Missiles, mines, ammunition, arms trade.
Ending poverty Education, malnutrition, discrimination, sanitation, water, and lack of access to other basic services. Impact of Covid. 10% of world live on less than $2 a day.
Food Malnutrition. Agriculture. Covid. Close to a billion people went hungry in 2020.
Gender Equality Patriarchies. Representation. Sexism in work and wider society.
Health Lack of health infrastructure and systems. Diseases. Sanitation.
Human Rights Political systems. Authoritarian regimes. Education.
International Law and Justice War. Crime. Terrorism.
Migration War. Conflict. Lack of human rights. Environment. Persecution.
Oceans and the Law of the Sea Biodiversity. Marine shipping. Pollution. Piracy. Over-fishing.
Peace and security War, conflict, terrorism.
Population Migration. Environment. Health infrastructure.
Refugees Conflict. Political and cultural challenges. Environment.
Water Sanitation. Drinking water. Agriculture. Hygiene. 2.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water.
Youth Education. Economic and social progress. Healthcare.

This list can feel overwhelming, particularly with the scope of the issues.

I think it’s also worth capturing some more concrete issues I believe are particularly pressing, particularly to developed nations:

  • Global alignment on priorities
  • Environment and climate change
  • Physical health, in particular obesity
  • Mental health
  • Over-consumption
  • Exploitation of workers
  • Digital security
  • Cost of living
  • Mindset and gratefulness
  • Accountability
  • Political polarisation
  • Discrimination and inequality

What can I do to help?

The size of some of these problems might seem quite daunting, but it’s important to recognise that we all need to do what we can to help move the needle on some of these.

I’ve broken this down into a few categories.

Use your time to get involved directly

Outside our work life, we all have time we could use to contribute directly to helping support efforts. There’s plenty of opportunities to get involved in volunteering and/or mentoring with causes that are close to your heart.

Some companies will offer employees a few days off work a year to engage in volunteering efforts – if you’re fortunate enough to work for such a company, definitely make the most of this option!

I recommend finding causes in your community that you can get involved with or more global causes that you can lend your expertise too.

Here’s some links for where to get started:

Regardless of where you are based, if there are organisations or events you know that you could help support, just reach out to them!

Use your money to support organisations

Not everyone is in a position to support organisations with their time and lots of people may wish to provide financial support instead or as well.

Using your money is also a great option for two reasons most people may be unaware of:

  1. Donations to charities are tax free in the UK, so if you’re a higher rate tax payer earner, a donation of £100 would only cost you £60 net. If you don’t donate through your payroll you can still claim the tax back.
  2. Lots of employers match or supplement donations. If your company matches then with the above example, the charity would receive £200 for your £60 net contribution. Pretty good deal!

Effective altruism

Effective altruism is a “philosophical and social movement that advocates using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis”.

Effective altruism is a network of people and organisations dedicated to finding solutions to global problems using research, education, and donations.

Most effective altruists donate a portion of their income to high impact causes. The Effective Altruism website cites GiveWell as an organisation focused on identify the best impact social causes that people can donate towards.

Giving What We Can is another organisation associated with the effective altruism movement. They offer resources to help people identify high-impact charities. They also offer the ability for people to sign a pledge to donate a percentage of their income to effective causes. Most people sign a pledge to donate 10% of their earnings. Some organisations also are beginning to take this pledge, the first I’m aware of was Sam Harris’ company.

Educate yourself and others

As I’ve mentioned already, awareness is the first step here for a step change in the impact we can collectively make. Most people are fairly oblivious to intricacies of measuring and addressing problems on a global scale – I should know, I was unaware for longer than I should have been.

The fact you are reading this is a sign that you’re engaging with this world. It’s important that we don’t stick our necks in sand, however it’s also unrealistic to expect everyone to devote all their time to thinking about and solving all these problems. Simply reading and engaging with the global issues in the world is a great step that most people can make.

For further steps, I recommend the following:

  • Watching TED talks
  • Reading books and articles
  • Attending conferences and meetups
  • Engaging with the people in your company that are responsible for any volunteering/mentoring organising
  • Engaging with issues in your local community
  • Doing your own research and writing

Consider changing roles or organisations

This last option is a little more drastic, but it’s worth remembering that we spend around 80,000 hours of our lives working. That’s a huge amount of time that we can be using directly to solving some of the global issues.

Depending on the size and industry of your organisation you may be able to find a role that gives you the ability to contribute more directly to some of these issues. If you’re senior enough, you may be able to even carve out a new role or organisational focus to start making steps to contributing.

If none of these are options and you’re still interested in contributing more directly, then looking for a new job may be your only option. Thankfully, it’s easier than ever to discover these organisations. Websites like 80,000 hours identify and share organisations that have a high-impact.


Closing

This has been a longer blog post than I’d intended. Originally I had set out to explore and highlight some of the most critical global problems just for the sake of making people more aware of them. However, during that process I fell down the rabbit hole of exploring utilitarianism and the many complexities of applying that at a global scale.

While researching all of this I was pleased to see the number of other people thinking about these issues, and of the organisations that have made some amazing progress here. It’s clear we don’t devote enough time or resources to these problems as we should, but I’m hoping that the tide will continue to move in the right direction here.

There’s still a huge amount for humanity to do, but it’s worth remembering how far we’ve come in the last century in a lot of areas.

I’m cautiously optimistic about the future, but it’s going to require the engagement and involvement of more and more people to address some of the most pressing problems facing us.

Let’s lead by example.


Measuring wellbeing

Getting involved