The GiveWell Blog

Quality of life in the developing world

When we argue that donors should give internationally, one of the most common questions we get is, “Sure, you may be able to save a life in Africa, but what type of life are you saving? If you save a child from malaria will s/he likely die from something else soon after? Will s/he suffer from other problems that significantly reduce his/her quality of life?”

We recently published a report on standard of living in the developing world that tries to answer that question. It looks at what facts are available from relatively broad, plausibly representative studies to answer “what is life like in a poor country?” Here’s a summary of what we learned:

  • There’s a strong cross-country correlation between income and reported happiness. The Gallup Poll asked people around the world to rate their life satisfaction on a scale from 1 (the worst) to 10 (the best). People in poor countries are less satisfied with their lives (they ranked their satisfaction as 4.3 out of 10, while rich country residents ranked theirs as 6.7). (More at our review of the Gallup World Poll data.)
  • A child who lives past his/her 5th birthday will likely live a full life. Child mortality is much higher in poor countries than in rich countries. But those who live past age 5 have nearly a 70% chance of living until age 60. (More at our overview of life expectancy in the developing world.)
  • Most people in the developing world do not have AIDS, river blindness or other severe chronic conditions. Many of the diseases commonly associated with the developing world are fairly rare across all developing counties. Fewer than 1 out of 100 people have HIV/AIDS, 1 out of 40 have lymphatic filariasis, and about 1 out of 2,700 have river blindness. (More on the prevalence of disease in the developing world.)
  • Less severe chronic conditions, such as malnutrition and parasite infections, are very common. For example, about a third of children are stunted (significantly shorter than normal due to undernutrition). We are not sure to what extent stunting and other results of a poor or inadequate diet are likely to affect a child’s standard of living over the long term. (More on non-fatal health problems.)
  • Incomes are low, but discretionary spending does exist even among the poorest. People in extreme poverty (defined in the past as under US $1 a day of income) do not spend every “additional dollar” on additional food; they frequently own TVs and radios and participate in festivals. (More on what it means to live on less than $1 or $2 per day)

Bottom line

On one hand, people in the developing world have a tangibly lower quality of life. On the other hand, a life saved probably means many more years of functional life. We feel strongly that it’s worth addressing a major problem (such as tuberculosis or immunizations) even if other problems remain unaddressed.