I was born in Šiauliai, Lithuanian SSR. My first memory is playing kanklės (a traditional plucked string instrument) and singing my then-favourite lament about heartbreak and the brutality of the sea. My mum was clinging to the TV. It was January 13, 1991, and my civilian, unarmed dad was defending the Vilnius TV tower against Soviet tanks.
Oh mother, oh sea
How cruel you are
Uniting the hearts
Just to tear them apart
I call my dad on January 13 every year to remind him how proud I am to be his daughter. We giggle at the memory and tell stories of independent Lithuania’s first steps. Over the next decade, institutions were established, borders opened, crime rates dropped, economy skyrocketed, hot water became the norm, and my family settled comfortably in the middle-income bracket.
And yet this story could have played out very differently. Cut off from energy sources, lacking domestic savings and access to capital markets, with inflation soaring and no means to kickstart the economy, Lithuania could have suffered the fate of Central Asia.
It did not. Explanations are numerous, but this much is clear: we could not have done it alone. We had help, and because of that help, I was fed, dressed (often with second-hand clothes from Germany), and schooled. At 18, I left Lithuania and spent years studying and working in Europe, a journey that ultimately led me to Google and Japan. While my story is not much different from those of my Lithuanian, Latvian, or Estonian classmates, it is a story of privilege — the sort of privilege that most of the world’s 7.7 billion people will never experience.
The difference between them and me? Luck. The factor that largely determines one’s life expectancy, education level, and income is their birthplace. And I want to change that.
I remember the first time I read Peter Singer’s Famine, Affluence, and Morality. By that time, I had spent countless evenings researching poverty, inequality, and global health. I knew I was only scratching the surface, and after reading the article I decided it was time for a change.
In the article, Singer proposed a moral framework that required everyone to give “until we reach the level of marginal utility”. In other words, inflicting suffering is acceptable — and required — as long as the benefit to the recipient is greater than the suffering of the benefactor. You would probably agree with me that it’s not an ethical theory — it’s a mutual self-destruction manual. But it is a beautiful, inspiring manual that’s also mostly right.
A powerful example of employing the principles of utilitarianism is Toby Ord’s The Moral Imperative toward Cost-Effectiveness in Global Health. The essay vividly demonstrates that doing good is not enough; rather, we should measure the effectiveness of our efforts and focus on solutions that lead to the most good. This is the key insight that underpins the effective altruism movement. It is also echoed in the approach to economics employed by randomistas who use randomized controlled experiments to rigorously evaluate the effects of social interventions.
The randomista movement has transformed development economics. When I graduated with a BSc in Economics 10 years ago, I was sick of sweeping assumptions and models that “explained the world”. The assumptions are still there. The models haven’t gone anywhere. But there’s now a new way one can examine important questions. Instead of choosing a theoretical model (and its often implicit assumptions) and hoping it will work, one can now test the model and be sure that it will¹.
Now, remember — the single best predictor of one’s life expectancy, education, and income is their birthplace. So how does one go about changing that?
The truth is, I have no idea. Adam Smith posed the question in The Wealth of Nations back in 1776. 250 years later, the debate is still ongoing. But while we don’t have the answer, we have many possible answers. We’ve borrowed theories from other disciplines, developed new models, gleaned insights from empirical research, run experiments to test hunches. Look — we even think we might be able to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030.
And yet we’re nowhere near taking away the predictive power of one’s birthplace. For that, we’ll need more ideas, new models, better approaches. Hell, we might even need another paradigm shift. And I’d like to be there when it happens. So I’m going back to school.
¹ Of course, randomized controlled trials are no silver bullet. Jeffrey Sachs has observed that complex challenges require multi-faceted solutions, and that often these solutions are impossible to measure. In other words, choose the right tool for the job.