Elie Hassenfeld Q&A: ‘$5,000 to Save a Life Is Good’

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Sometimes donors expect to save a life with less than $5,000, and are surprised to meet our estimates. But many come to share my belief that $5,000 to save a life is a bargain. We want to be transparent about what we value in our pricing – including arguments, cautions, assumptions, estimates, and ethical judgments. This exposure gives them the confidence to give more.

It is true that in the US we are so focused on the quality of life that we cannot appreciate that we are alive, so few of our children die in infancy. But won’t some of the people who are saved from malaria have a difficult life?

This is the real sad thing about things, that we don’t even think about the opportunities we have. And if you change the question you asked, it would sound like you’re wondering if a person can be very rich and healthy but not happy. Obviously you can be.

Why have so many EAs turned their attention from disease prevention to cooking up Book of Revelation events related to AI?

Many EAs continue to work in global health. But the rapid progress of powerful AI systems should raise real concerns for everyone. I included it as well.

When I first became interested in EA’s philosophy, there were a few things that didn’t make sense.

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

Exactly. But I think there are so many problems in the world that we need each person to focus on the area that they think they can have the most impact on. I’m glad there are so many good ideas focused on AI and so many questions in EA. I, personally, can bring something to help people who are suffering right now.

So you created the non-profit GiveWell after working at Bridgewater, an investment fund [checks notes] for profit, yes?

Yes. And in the beginning there was a lot of talk about Holden and me, how “hedge fund veterans” were turning to philanthropy. But we were only 26 years old, and we only stayed in the bag for a few years. Before long, Holden and I were talking to friends about how to donate money.

I chose it because of the clean water in Africa. I don’t know how or why I chose it. Maybe I think like, Water is the most important thing for man. Donating money for clean water seemed like the right thing to do. In the early days of GiveWell, we saw that diarrhea and dehydration were among the leading causes of death. Why? Why? I was just blown away by this: We live in a world where people without clean water die of diarrhea. But clean water is not the best we can provide. To be honest, I still wish we could do more to provide people with safe water.

Why is this difficult?

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