The GiveWell Blog

Region-based vs. program-based approaches to developing-world health

Deciding where to give involves making major judgment calls: decisions that rest on subjective and otherwise highly debatable claims (such as the decision of which sort of life change to aim for). We have no pretense of being able to make such judgment calls “objectively” or “perfectly. Rather, we try to:

  • Be explicit about which values we are pursuing and which judgment calls we’re making. For example, we’ve already declared our preference for funding proven and repeatable interventions, and we’ve declared our decision to focus on developing-world direct aid for the coming year.
  • When practical, leave major judgment calls to our donors rather than making them ourselves, by recommending a variety of charities that are strong according to different criteria. This approach is especially important for judgment calls that our donors haven’t agreed to in advance (unlike the two listed directly above).

We are currently focusing on health interventions for the developing world (we will research other aspects of developing-world aid later in our process). One of the major judgment calls involved in choosing a health intervention is the decision between a region-based approach and a program-based approach to giving.

Taking a region-based approach means focusing on a particular part of the world; learning as much as possible about the people who live there, the opportunities they have, and the problems they face; and then finding a program that is well-suited to addressing the particular needs of this region. For regions with many interrelated health problems, such a program will likely be one that aims to strengthen the general quality of health care in the region, which will make it possible to address many health issues at once. (One such program is Partners in Health, a recommended charity from our last round of research that focuses on bringing full-service health care systems to poor rural areas.)

Taking a program-based approach means focusing on a particular intervention (or cluster of interventions); learning as much as possible about the conditions under which this intervention has been shown to improve lives in the past; and then finding a program that replicates this intervention across many regions. (This is the approach we took in evaluating Population Services International, which markets materials such as condoms and bednets across the world.)

A region-based approach has the advantage that it is more likely to be well-fitted to the particular people it serves and their needs. A program-based approach, however, may in some cases be a simpler and/or more cost-effective way to address a particular health problem, which means that it may be a more efficient and reliable way of changing lives for the better.

We will be taking both approaches, and presenting the options for donors that correspond to each. In future posts, we will discuss the specifics of (a) our region-based approach, i.e., how we will be choosing one or more countries to focus on; (b) our program-based approach, i.e., how we will be choosing one or more interventions to focus on.