When writing an essay, the first problem you might face is deciding on what topic to choose, which is pretty ironic if you’re writing a problem-solution essay.
The way out of that dilemma is to choose an issue that you’re really passionate about. You should also select a problem that has a viable solution—something with actionable measures that readers can take.
If you’re still stumped for ideas, then take heart. In this blog post, I offer 40 problem-solution essay topics to help you get started. Each topic will include links to sample essays to give you more ideas.
In each example, I present specific problems broken down by the issues of today (political, social, environmental, etc.) and ask questions that will help you consider different ideas on how they might be solved.
Each problem-solution topic I present offers broad possibilities, so you’ll have to do the important work of hunting down the facts and examples to provide specific solutions.
Ready? Let’s get started!
Problem-Solution Essay Topics—Social Problems
If you look around, you’ll see social problems that affect society every day. There are plenty of problems, even on your own campus, that need to be resolved.
Proposing solutions to social problems might seem challenging, especially when the issues seem so entrenched. Yet the point of a good problem-solution essay is to suggest solutions that are actionable–something that your readers can do.
Addressing specific problems will lead to specific, well-articulated solutions and to the most interesting and compelling essays. Here are five problem-solution essay topics that touch on social problems.
1. Problem: Undocumented immigrants
- Solution #1: Should the US government step up its deportation of undocumented immigrants, or should it offer asylum for those currently living in the country?
- Solution #2: How should the government address trade policies that affect the economies of South American countries and lead to immigration?
- Solution #3: Will ending the war on drugs provide some relief to the rise of undocumented immigrants arriving in the United States? Should there be more coordination between the US and Central American countries in how they deal with drug policies, and if so, in what ways?
2. Problem: Sexual assaults on college campuses
- Solution #1: What steps should universities take to prevent sexual assaults on campus?
- Solution #2: Should colleges provide safe places for victims to report rapes, and if so, how? What responsibilities should the administration have in protecting victim’s identities once they’ve reported the crime?
- Solution #3: In what ways should students be educated about rape culture, and what responsibility should colleges have in providing that education?
- Solution #4: Should student social services address rape culture? Should fraternities and sororities be more involved in educating students on rape culture? If yes, in what ways?
3. Problem: Mass shootings
- Solution #1: What role should mental health providers play in determining prevention? What policies or programs should be enacted that will provide greater care for people suffering from mental health issues?
- Solution #2: Should violence in the entertainment and gaming industry be addressed for a possible influence? How about the news media?
- Solution #3: What kind of gun control laws should be enacted? What role should gun manufacturers have? Should technology be used to decrease mass shootings? If so, in what ways can it be used?
4. Problem: Police brutality
- Solution #1: What are the possible ways in which communities can force local governments and police departments to address police brutality?
- Solution #2: What role should voting play? Should communities have a say in who heads the police department? What other ways should communities be able to review how local law enforcement polices communities?
- Solution #3: In what ways should the police department address cultural attitudes among officers about the people they police?
- Solution #4: What role does militarization in police departments play in police brutality? Should the federal government supply local police departments with military weaponry? If not, should there be a law against it? How should such a law be shaped?
Looking for a few articles about police brutality to get the research process rolling? Read 12 Articles to Support Your Police Brutality Essay.
5. Problem: Suicide
- Solution #1: What obstacles prevent people from getting help? Are there ways in which those obstacles can be addressed? What about social pressure, such as shaming? Should the public be educated about suicide? How might such programs be put into place?
- Solution #2: What roles should schools, colleges, police, social welfare, or other institutions play in recognizing those who are at risk, and how would they go about doing that?
- Solution #3: Should there be more therapy programs that are accessible for people? What about mental health programs for people who can’t afford them? In what ways should they be made available?
Example problem-solution essays on social issues
Problem-Solution Essay Topics—Economics
Everyone is affected by the economy in one way or another. They’re affected either directly through personal debts, indirectly through the loss of tax revenues that provide services for everyone, or through an uncertain job market.
A problem-solution essay that addresses economic problems is compelling precisely because everyone is eager for answers—especially college graduates. Check out these six problem-solution essay topics about economics for essay ideas.
6. Problem: Student loan debts
- Solution #1: What policies should the government enact that will help eliminate or lessen the burden for students once they graduate? Should there be greater consumer protections that protect students from predatory banking and credit loan institutions?
- Solution #2: Should universities and colleges bear a greater responsibility in protecting students from prohibitive debts? If so, how?
- Solution #3: Should state universities and colleges be allowed to enforce or raise student fees? If not, what alternatives would the schools have to pay for administrative costs?
7. Problem: Long-term unemployment
- Solution #1: Should there be programs on the local level that address long-term unemployment? If so, what? What laws or policies should the federal government enact that will address long-term unemployment?
- Solution #2: Should corporations take the lead on creating new job markets? If so, how could they implement programs to do so? How should the government encourage corporations to open up new markets? Subsidies? Tax breaks?
- Solution #3: What should individuals who are in long-term unemployment do? What programs should be accessible to them while they seek jobs? What about unemployment benefits? Should benefits be modified to address long-term unemployment rather than just short-term unemployment?
8. Problem: Consumer debt
- Solution #1: Should the government pass more rigorous consumer protection laws that will regulate and prosecute predatory banking institutions or credit loaning companies?
- Solution#2: Should the government provide debt relief programs? If so, how should they work and for whom? Should non-profit, non-governmental organizations, such as Occupy Wall Street, provide relief, or should the government create and enact such programs?
- Solution #3: What steps should individuals take to get out of debt? What programs, if any, are available for them? If none, what should be available?
9. Problem: Child labor
- Solution #1: What laws or policies can world governments enact that will address child labor?
- Solution #2: Should the US government enact trade policies that will address the problem? If so, what kind of policies should it enact?
- Solution #3: Do US companies exploit child labor, and if so, should local or state governments punish companies that do? What should citizens do? Boycott? Pressure congress to pass laws or prosecute?
10. Problem: Worker exploitation
- Solution #1: Should the government pass laws that protect workers? Should the government pass stricter laws that protect unionization?
- Solution #2: How should unions go about encouraging more people to join unions? What about workers who are unable to organize in their workplaces? What steps should they take to organize?
11. Problem: Home foreclosures
- Solution #1: What policies should be enacted that will ease economic problems leading to home foreclosures? Should the federal government enact laws that will protect homeowners, and if so, how?
- Solution #2: Should local governments pass laws to protect homeowners against foreclosures? What alternatives are available for local governments to prevent them? What should they do with homes that are underwater? How should they prevent blight?
- Solution #3: Should non-profit groups like Occupy Wall Street help people fight against foreclosures?
Example problem-solution essays on economics
Problem-Solution Essay Topics—Politics
Political problems are the most frustrating because the will to fix them is as elusive as the solutions. Perhaps this is largely because people get distracted by how challenging the problems are before they can even think about solving them.
The key to writing a good problem-solution essay is to think small. In other words, pick a very specific problem (money in politics, for instance) that will lead to goals that are clear and viable.
When you pick a topic that readers feel confident that they’ll be able to tackle, you’ll write an essay that just might move them to act.
Here are four political problem-solution essay topics to inspire action.
12. Problem: Money in politics
- Solution #1: What leads to the dependence on money in electoral politics, and what can be done to address the problem? For instance, what alternatives are available for candidates to raise funds for elections?
- Solution #2: Should the government regulate how much money is spent in campaigns? If not, what alternatives are available that will lead to campaign finance reform?
- Solution #3: Should the government pass laws that will define who should or shouldn’t be able to donate campaign dollars? If so, how should such a law be shaped? How should free speech rights be taken into consideration?
- Solution #4: Should the constitution be amended to address the problem? If so, what should be amended and how?
13. Problem: NSA spying
- Solution #1: Should there be more vigorous laws that protect Americans’ privacy rights from government surveillance? If so, what types of laws should be in place?
- Solution #2: Should congress be more proactive in monitoring the intelligence community? If so, how should Americans be certain that they are? In what ways should citizens be involved in the process?
- Solution #3: Do Americans have the right to know what the intelligence community is doing? If so, in what ways can that be done while protecting national security?
14. Problem: Partisanship
- Solution #1: Will electoral reform address the problems caused by partisanship? If so, in what ways?
- Solution #2: In what ways do American citizens help create partisanship? The media? How should Americans be better educated about their roles as citizens?
- Solution #3: Will media reform help address the problems that cause partisanship?
- Solution #4: How should political parties address partisanship? Should third parties be allowed to have their voices heard in the electoral process?
15. Problem: Voter disenfranchisement
- Solution #1: Should the federal government pass laws that will protect voter rights? Should the constitution be amended to protect voting rights for all citizens?
- Solution #2: How should state governments prevent partisanship from affecting electoral board policies? What should the public do to fight against voter ID laws or other laws that disenfranchise voters?
- Solution #3: What steps should be taken to revive people’s faith in the political process? Who should enact these steps? The public? Schools? The media? Politicians?
- Solution #4: Should congressional rules, policies, or social culture be changed to discourage and prevent obstructionism? If so, in what ways?
Example problem-solution essays on politics
By all measures, the environment is our most precious resource, yet we face many problems in trying to protect and preserve it.
A problem-solution essay that addresses environmental problems can be compelling and thought-provoking because it will alert readers to the necessity of proposing real solutions that people can enact as individuals or as political groups.
Here are five environmental problem-solution essay topics to start help you choose the focus for your own paper.
16. Problem: Climate change
- Solution #1: What kinds of laws or policies should the government pass that will address climate change?
- Solution #2: Should the government push for more trade policies that will address climate change?
- Solution #3: Should foreign policy play a role in addressing climate change? For instance, should the United States work with other heavy-polluting countries like China, and if so, how?
- Solution #4: How should the marketplace address the problem? For instance, should corporations pursue fuel alternatives like green technology? If so, how should they be encouraged to do so?
- Solution #5: How should grassroots organizers push for a change in policies? Who would be targeted for such a movement? The US government? The UN? Corporations?
Are you writing about global warming and need a few resources for your paper? Check out 12 Global Warming Articles to Help Your Next Essay.
17. Problem: Fracking
- Solution #1: Should the government pass laws that make fracking illegal? Should it promote energy fuel alternatives, such as green technology?
- Solution #2: How should companies that use fracking be discouraged from doing so? Should they be subject to civil lawsuits? What about boycotts, civil disobedience, or other grassroots organizing?
- Solution #3: What should be done to educate the public about fracking? Should the news media report on it more often? If so, how should environmental groups push the media to do so?
18. Problem: Endangered wildlife
- Solution #1: Should the government pass laws or policies that provide greater protections for preserving and protecting wildlife? If so, what types of laws? Should the government go after corporations that endanger wildlife?
- Solution #2: Should corporations take the lead in protecting wildlife?
- Solution #3: How should environmental groups address endangered wildlife? What are some of the things they can do to push the government and corporations to protect the environment?
19. Problem: Environmental pollution
- Solution #1: What should the government do about pollution? How should it be involved in long-term protections? For instance, should the government set aside relief funds or economic restorations for affected areas?
- Solution #2: What role should local and state governments play in protecting wildlife from pollution? Should local governments be stricter in regard to environmental studies for local projects, such as the building of chemical plants or factories near wildlife or residential areas?
- Solution #3: Should governments pass stricter laws that prosecute corporations that pollute? If so, how should the public push for such laws to get passed?
20. Problem: Environmental injustice
- Solution #1: Should local governments do more to protect communities from environmental injustices? If so, how? If not, what can the public do to fight against them? Will grassroots organizing help?
- Solution #2: Should the federal government provide relief for communities affected by environmental injustices? Should the US Justice Department get more involved in prosecuting corporations, or are local governments responsible for addressing the injustices?
- Solution #3: Should the media report more on environmental injustices? What can the public do to push the media to cover these stories? How should grassroots organizations get the information out to the public? Documentary films? YouTube? Crowdsourcing?
Example problem-solution essays on the environment
Problem-Solution Topics—Romantic Relationships
Anyone who has been involved in a romantic relationship has likely experienced both highs and lows. Some days can be pure bliss, and some days are, well … let’s just say they’re anything but blissful.
A successful problem-solution essay about romantic relationships will provide real solutions for couples experiencing the problem.
Here are five problem-solution essay topics about romantic relationships to inspire you.
21. Problem: Disagreements caused by social media
- Solution #1: Should couples stay away from most types of social media? Should they limit social media accounts? Would this bring couples closer together or create resentment?
- Solution #2: How might couples negotiate what is or isn’t acceptable behavior on social media accounts? Are discussions with old flames considered flirting or just simple discussions?
- Solution #3: Should couples share social media accounts? Should they know the other person’s passwords? Would this help solve any trust issues?
22. Problem: Safety concerns in online dating
- Solution #1: Does meeting a date in a public place help solve safety concerns? Should online dating services require background checks?
- Solution #2: Can asking the right questions help online daters really get to know a person, or is it too easy to pretend to be someone else online?
- Solution #3: Do shows like Catfish reduce instances of catfishing, or do they give people more inspiration?
23. Problem: Abusive relationships
- Solution #1: Would stricter laws help prevent abuse? Should it be easier for victims to file for protection orders against their abusers?
- Solution #2: Would additional education programs help prevent abuse?
24. Problem: Disciplining children
- Solution #1: Could parents go through counseling to solve their differences of opinion on disciplining children? Should parents have worked out such differences even before having children? Is it possible to work out such differences before having children?
- Solution #2: What type of parenting style is most effective in disciplining children? Does one style work best for all children? Should parents always use the same type of disciplinary style?
25. Problem: Teenage romance
- Solution #1: How do parents decide at what age their teens should be allowed to date? Should the dating age differ depending on the child?
- Solution #2: Should schools offer additional education about all forms of abuse? Would this help teens escape abusive relationships? Would it prevent abuse?
- Solution #3: Does social media create trust issues? Would more face-to-face interaction help teens establish more trusting and stable relationships?
- Solution #4: Should teens avoid serious relationships? Would they develop stronger and healthier relationships once they are older and more mature?
Example problem-solution essays on romantic relationships
Problem-Solution Topics—The Workplace
The workplace can be home to all types of problems, from technology failures to communication failures. While some problems can only be solved through a long meeting with HR, others must be solved between co-workers.
A problem-solution essay about the workplace should keep its audience in mind. A problem and its solution might look very different depending on whether you’re looking at it from an employee’s perspective or an employer’s perspective.
Let’s look at five workplace-related problem-solution topics to get you started on your paper.
26. Problem: Sexual harassment
- Solution #1: How should victims inform their boss or supervisor if they are harassed? Should the incident be documented in writing or discussed via email, in person, or on the phone?
- Solution #2: Do workplace training videos prevent harassment? Should other forms of training be in place?
- Solution #3: What should victims say to the person who is harassing them? Should they even confront the person?
27. Problem: Work-life balance
- Solution #1: Are people over-scheduled due to technology? Should people turn off their devices away from work? Should employers require (or suggest) times for employees to unplug?
- Solution #2: Are low wages causing people to work more hours and ultimately spend less time with their families? Would higher wages (including a higher minimum wage) solve the problem?
- Solution #3: Should younger generations develop stronger hobbies and interests outside of work? Should they minimize social events with their coworkers?
28. Problem: Employee privacy
- Solution #1: Should employees avoid conducting personal business on workplace computers?
- Solution #2: Does employer monitoring result in an invasion of privacy? Does monitoring employees help solve the problem of distracted employees?
29. Problem: Discrimination
- Solution #1: Will stricter laws help prevent discrimination in the workplace? Should companies audit their policies to ensure they discourage, rather than encourage, discrimination?
- Solution #2: What should industries more prone to discrimination do to change their ways? Can current employees speak up to change such discrimination? What might employees do in order to advocate for change?
- Solution #3: Do STEM programs and other education efforts help solve the problem of gender discrimination in science, technology, engineering, and math professions?
30. Problem: Social media use
- Solution #1: Would strict enforcement of computer use on the job prevent employees from logging in to their social media accounts at work? Should employers allow some personal time at work to check social media? Would this actually make employees more productive?
- Solution #2: Are social media accounts personal property, and should employers (and potential employers) be allowed to hire and fire based on personal accounts?
- Solution #3: Do company policies on social media use benefit only the company’s brand, or do they promote a more positive culture in the workplace? Does monitoring social media accounts solve any inherent problems of racism, stereotyping, etc., or does it merely highlight them?
Example problem-solution essays on the workplace
31. Problem: Obesity
- Solution #1: Will strategies such as taxing sugar drinks or adding nutritional information on fast food and restaurant menus reduce obesity? Is it the government’s place to legislate what its citizens eat and drink?
- Solution #2: Should schools require recess and physical education courses in order to help curb the current problem of childhood obesity?
- Solution #3: Should obese people pay more for health insurance? Would such a plan solve the problem of obesity by essentially forcing people to lose weight?
32. Problem: Opioid epidemic
- Solution #1: Should there be harsher penalties for doctors who continue to over-prescribe opioids to their patients? Should pharmacies more closely monitor prescriptions?
- Solution #2: Should manufacturers limit production of specific opioids? Should funding be provided to help researchers develop safer, less-addictive medications?
- Solution #3: Should additional treatment facilities be funded? Should Narcan be more readily available in schools, homes, and public facilities?
33. Problem: Technology addiction
- Solution #1: Does the problem of technology addiction begin at home? Should parents limit their children’s use of technology?
- Solution #2: Should schools encourage the use of more technology in the classroom? Should schools teach students about responsible use of technology?
- Solution #3: Should there be more technology-free zones in public? Would such zones help people leave their devices behind and thus lessen the effects of addiction?
34. Problem: Photoshopped images and self-esteem
- Solution #1: Should advertisers and publishers be required to limit the use of Photoshop or clearly state that images are digitally altered? Would these steps reduce body image concerns, particularly among young people?
- Solution #2: Would educational programs help young people understand that Photoshopped images are generally not attainable? Does self-esteem improve when companies show real people with more attainable body shapes?
35. Problem: Stress
- Solution #1: Should employers offer free or low-cost programs to help employees manage stress? Should employers offer additional sick and/or vacation days to help employees destress? Would this create a more productive workforce?
- Solution #2: Do practices such as meditation, soft music, and dietary changes help reduce stress?
- Solution #3: Should people make an effort to engage in more physical activity in order to alleviate stress?
Example problem-solution essays on health
Problem-Solution Topics—Off the Beaten Path: Ingenious Tips for College Students
Is your professor lenient on topics? Are you allowed to be a little more creative (and a whole lot less serious) when writing a problem-solution essay?
If so, try one of these five unique problem-solution topics that may allow you to express more of your creative talents.
36. Problem: Messy dorm room
- Solution #1: Could you hire a friend to clean your room? Could you hold a cleaning party? Should you call Mom and ask her to help clean?
- Solution #2: Do cleaning charts help organize tasks and actually help keep the space clean?
- Solution #3: Should you just get rid of almost everything in your dorm room and start again with a clean slate? Should you move to a new and cleaner space?
37. Problem: Forgot to study for an exam
- Solution #1: Could you ask your professor for an extension so that you can take the exam in a day or two? Should you try to convince all of your classmates to ask the professor to postpone the exam?
- Solution #2: Would it help to text everyone you know in class and ask them to help you cram before the test? Would they be willing to share their notes for you to review immediately before the test?
- Solution #3: Should you go to the doctor so that you have a doctor’s excuse that would allow you to make up the exam?
38. Problem: Loud neighbors
- Solution #1: Should you speak with them calmly and explain that you need quiet time to study, meditate, or just sleep? Should you bang on the door and yell loudly to get your point across?
- Solution #2: Should you avoid talking to your neighbors altogether and simply call the police?
- Solution #3: Could you soundproof your walls? Can you live in your space wearing noise-canceling headphones at all times?
- Solution #4: Should you ask to join the party and join in on the fun? (After all, you can always sleep or study later.)
39. Problem: Boring lectures
- Solution #1: Would asking your professor to create more interesting lectures actually inspire your professor to change his or her teaching strategy? Should you offer suggestions for more interesting lectures?
- Solution #2: Should you try drawing pictures, writing poetry, or taking creative notes to help pass the time as your professor rambles on?
- Solution #3: Should you drop the class and look for a professor with more engaging lectures? Is it too late to get into another class?
- Solution #4: Should you do nothing and accept the fact that sometimes you have to suffer through boring lectures?
40. Problem: No food in fridge
- Solution #1: Should you order a pizza? Should you do your grocery shopping online and have it delivered to your room?
- Solution #2: Should you save money and simply go to a friend’s place, hoping that he or she will feed you?
Example problem-solution essays on topics off the beaten path
Hopefully these problem-solution essay topics will make it easier to get started on your paper. And if you’re looking for help with the finer points of the problem-solution essay, don’t miss these resources:
I also recommend reading the posts below to give that extra boost to your writing style:
Already written and revised your paper but concerned that you don’t have a solution to your own writing problems? Let a Kibin editor help.
Good luck, and happy essay writing!
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We’ve spent much of the last eight years trying to answer a simple question: what are the world’s biggest and most urgent problems?
We wanted to have a positive impact with our careers, and so we set out to discover where our efforts would be most effective.
Our analysis suggests that choosing the right problem could increase your impact over 100 times, and so be the most important decision you ever make.
In trying to answer this question, we’ve had to tear up everything we thought we knew, and then again more than once.
Here, we give a summary of what we’ve learned.1 Read on to hear why ending diarrhoea might save as many lives as world peace, why artificial intelligence might be even more important, and what to do in your own career to make the most urgent changes happen.
In short, the most urgent problems are those where people can have the greatest impact by working on them. As we explained in the previous article, this means problems that are not only big, but also neglected and solvable. The more neglected and solvable, the further extra effort will go. And this means they’re not the problems that first come to mind.
Reading time: 30 minutes. If you just want to see a table of our answers, skip ahead.
Table of Contents
Why issues facing rich countries aren’t always the most important—and why charity shouldn’t always begin at home.
Most people who want to do good focus on issues in their home country. In rich countries, this often means issues like homelessness, inner city education and unemployment. But are these the most urgent issues?
In the US, only 4% of charitable donations are spent on international causes.2 The most popular careers for talented graduates who want to do good are teaching and health, which receive about 18% of graduates, and mainly involve helping people in the US.3
There are good reasons to focus on helping your own country – you know more about the issues, and you might feel you have special obligations to it. However, back in 2009, we encountered the following series of facts. They led us to think that the most urgent problems are not local, but rather poverty in the world’s poorest countries, especially efforts within health, such as fighting malaria and parasitic worms.
Why do we say that? Well, here’s a pretty staggering chart we came across in our research.
It’s the distribution of world income that we saw in an earlier article.
Even someone living on the US poverty line of $11,000 per year is richer than about 85% of the world’s population, and about 20 times wealthier than the world’s poorest 1.2 billion, who mostly live in Africa and Asia on under $500 per year. These figures are already adjusted for the fact that money goes further in poor countries (purchasing power parity).5
As we also saw earlier, the poorer you are, the bigger difference extra money makes to your welfare. Based on this research, because the poor in Africa are 20 times poorer, we’d expect resources to go about 20 times further in helping them.
There are also only about 47 million people living in relative poverty in the US, about 6% as many as the 800 million in extreme global poverty.6
And there are far more resources dedicated to helping this smaller number of people. Total overseas development aid is only about $131bn per year, compared to $900bn spent on welfare in the US.7
Finally, as we saw earlier, the majority of US social interventions probably don’t work. This is because problems facing the poor in rich countries are complex and hard to solve. Moreover, even the most evidence-backed interventions are expensive and have modest effects.
The same comparison holds for other rich countries, such as the UK, Australia, Canada and the EU. (Though if you live in a developing country, then it may well be best to focus on issues there.)
All this isn’t to deny the poor in rich countries have very tough lives, perhaps even worse in some respects than those in the developing world. Rather, the issue is that there are far fewer of them, and they’re harder to help.
So if you’re not focusing on issues in your home country, what should you focus on?
Global health: a problem where you could really make progress.
What if we were to tell you that, over the second half of the 20th century, progress on treatments for diarrhoea did as much to save lives as achieving world peace over the same period would have done?
Bet you can’t imagine a beauty pageant contestant standing up and saying her greatest wish is to end diarrhoea, but it’s true.
The number of deaths each year due to diarrhoea have fallen by 3 million over the last four decades due to advances like oral rehydration therapy.
Meanwhile, all wars and political famines killed about 2 million people per year over the second half of the 20th century.8
The global fight against disease is one of humanity’s greatest achievements, but it’s also an ongoing battle to which you can contribute with your career.
A large fraction of these gains were driven by humanitarian aid, such as the campaign to eradicate smallpox.8 In fact, although many experts in economics think much international aid hasn’t been effective, even the most sceptical agree there’s an exception: global health.
For instance, William Easterly, author of White Man’s Burden, wrote:
Put the focus back where it belongs: get the poorest people in the world such obvious goods as the vaccines, the antibiotics, the food supplements, the improved seeds, the fertilizer, the roads…. This is not making the poor dependent on handouts; it is giving the poorest people the health, nutrition, education, and other inputs that raise the payoff to their own efforts to better their lives.
Within health, where to focus? An economist at the World Bank sent us this data, which also amazed us.
This is a list of health treatments, such as providing tuberculosis medicine or surgeries, ranked by how much health they produce per dollar, as measured in rigorous randomised controlled trials. Health is measured in a standard unit used by health economists, called the “quality-adjusted life year”.
The first point is that all these treatments are effective. Essentially all of them would be funded in countries like the US and UK. People in poor countries, however, routinely die from diseases that would certainly have been treated if they’d happened to have been born somewhere else.
Even more surprising, however, is that the top interventions are far better than the average, as shown by the spike on the right. The top interventions, like vaccines, have been shown to have significant benefits, but are also extremely cheap. The top intervention is over ten times more cost-effective than the average, and 15,000 times more than the worst.9 This means if you were working at a health charity focused on one of the top interventions, you’d expect to have ten times as much impact compared to a randomly selected one.
This study isn’t perfect – there were mistakes in the analysis affecting the top results (and that’s what you’d expect due to regression to the mean) – but the main point is solid: the best health interventions are many times more effective than the average.
So how much more impact might you make with your career by switching your focus to global health?
Because, as we saw in the first chart, the world’s poorest people are over 20 times poorer than the poor in rich countries, resources go about 20 times as far in helping them (read about why here).
Then, if we focus on health, there are cheap, effective interventions that everyone agrees are worth doing. We can use the research in the second chart to pick the very best interventions, letting us have perhaps five times as much impact again. In total, this makes for a 100-fold difference in impact.
Does this check out? After years of research, analysts at GiveWell have estimated that spending $7,500 on 1,500 malaria nets through the Against Malaria Foundation is enough, on average, to prevent one death.10
In contrast, in rich countries like the US, it usually costs over $1m to save another life with health spending.11 So if we compare health in the US to global health, there is a 130-fold difference.12
It’s hard for us to grasp such big differences in scale, but that would mean that one year of (equally skilled) effort towards the best treatments within global health could have as much impact as 130 years – three career’s worth of time – working on typical rich country issues.
These discoveries caused us to start giving at least 10% of our income to effective global health charities. No matter which job we ended up in, these donations would enable us to make a significant difference. In fact, if the 100-fold figure is correct, a 10% donation would be equivalent to donating 1,000% of our income to charities focused on poverty in rich countries.
See more detail on how to contribute to global health in our full profile.
However, everything we learned about global health raised many more questions. If it’s possible to have 10 or 100 times more impact with just a little research, maybe there are even better areas to discover?
We considered lots of avenues to help the global poor, like trade reform or promoting migration, or crop yield research, or biomedical research.
We also seriously considered working to end factory farming, which led to us co-founding Animal Charity Evaluators, which does research into how to most effectively improve animal welfare. We still think factory farming is a very urgent problem, as we explain in our full profile. But in the end, we went in a different direction.
Why focusing on future generations can be even more effective than tackling global health
Which would you choose from these two options?
- Prevent one person from suffering next year.
- Prevent 100 people from suffering (the same amount) 100 years from now.
Most people choose the second option. It’s a crude example, but it suggests that they value future generations.
If people didn’t want to leave a legacy to future generations, it would be hard to understand why we invest so much in science, create art, and preserve the wilderness.
We’d certainly choose the second option. And if you value future generations, then there are powerful arguments that you should focus on helping them. We were first exposed to these by researchers at the University of Oxford’s (modestly named) Future of Humanity Institute, with whom we affiliated in 2012.
So, what’s the reasoning?
First, future generations matter, but they can’t vote, they can’t buy things, and they can’t stand up for their interests. This means our system neglects them; just look at what is happening with issues like climate change.
Second, their plight is abstract. We’re reminded of issues like global poverty and factory farming far more often. But we can’t so easily visualise suffering that will happen in the future. Future generations rely on our goodwill, and even that is hard to muster.
Third, there will probably be many more people alive in the future than there are today.
The Earth will remain habitable for at least hundreds of millions of years.13 We may die out long before that point, but if there’s a chance of making it, then many more people will live in the future than are alive today.
If each generation lasts for 100 years, then over 100 million years there could be one million future generations.
This is such a big number that any problem that affects future generations potentially has a far greater scale than one that only affects the present – it could affect one million times more people, and all the art, science and culture that will entail.
So problems that affect future generations are potentially the largest in scale and the most neglected. But are they solvable? Can we actually help future generations?
How to preserve future generations – find the more neglected risks
In the summer of 2013, Barack Obama referred to climate change as “the global threat of our time.” He’s not alone in this opinion. When thinking of the problems facing future generations, your mind might immediately jump to climate change.
And it’s true that probably the most powerful way we can help future generations is to ensure that they exist at all. If civilisation survives, we’ll have a chance to later solve problems like poverty and disease; while climate change poses an urgent, existential threat.
However, climate change is also widely acknowledged as a major problem (Donald Trump aside), and receives hundreds of billions of dollars of investment. You can read more in our full profile.
So, if you want to help future generations, we think it’s likely higher-impact to focus on more neglected issues.
Biosecurity: The threat from future disease
In 2006, The Guardian ordered segments of smallpox DNA via mail. If assembled into a complete strand and transmitted to 10 people, public health experts estimate it would have killed 10 million people.14
In the future, we can imagine diseases even deadlier than smallpox evolving or being created through bioengineering.
The chance of a pandemic that kills over 100 million people over the next century seems similar to the risk of nuclear war or runaway climate change. So it poses a similar threat both to the present generation and future generations.
But pandemic risk is more neglected. We estimate that about $300bn is spent annually on efforts to fight climate change, compared to $1-$10bn towards biosecurity – efforts to reduce the risk of natural and man-made pandemics.
At the same time, there’s plenty that could be done to improve biosecurity, such as improving regulation of labs and developing cheap diagnostics to detect new diseases quickly. Overall, we think biosecurity is likely more urgent than climate change.
Read more about how to contribute to biosecurity in our full profile.
Similar arguments could also be made for nuclear security, though it’s a bit less neglected and harder for individuals to work within.
But there are issues that might be even more important, and even more neglected.
Artificial intelligence and the ‘control problem’
Around 1800, civilisation underwent one of the most profound shifts in human history: the industrial revolution.15
Looking forward, what might be the next industrial revolution – the next pivotal event in history that shapes what happens to all future generations? If we could identify such a transition, that may well be the most important area in which to work.
One candidate is bioengineering – the ability to fundamentally redesign human beings – as covered by Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens.
But we think there’s an even bigger issue that’s even more neglected: artificial intelligence.
Billions of dollars are spent trying to make artificial intelligence more powerful, but hardly any effort is devoted to making sure that those added capabilities are implemented safely and for the benefit of humanity. This matters because of something called the “control problem.”
This is a complex topic, so if you want to explore it properly, we recommend reading this article by Wait But Why, or watching the video below.
And if you really have time, read Professor Nick Bostrom’s book, Superintelligence. But here’s a quick introduction.
In the 1980s, chess was held up as an example of something a machine could never do. But in 1997, world chess champion Garry Kasparov was defeated by the computer program Deep Blue. Since then, computers have become far better at chess than humans.
In 2004, two experts in artificial intelligence used truck driving as an example of a job that would be really hard to automate. But today, self-driving cars are already on the road.16
In 2014, Professor Bostrom predicted that it would take ten years for a computer to beat the top human player at the ancient Chinese game of Go. But it was achieved in March 2016 by Google DeepMind.17
The most recent of these advances are possible due to progress in a type of AI technique called “machine learning”. In the past, we mostly had to give computers detailed instructions for every task. Today, we have programs that teach themselves how to achieve a goal. The same algorithm that can play Space Invaders below has also learned to play about 50 other arcade games. Machine learning has been around for decades, but improved algorithms (especially around “deep learning” techniques), faster processors, bigger data sets, and huge investments by companies like Google have led to amazing advances far faster than expected.
Google DeepMind Plays Space Invaders at a super-human level
Due to this, many experts think human-level artificial intelligence could easily happen in our lifetimes. Here is a survey of 100 of the most cited AI scientists:18
You can see the experts give a 50% chance of human-level AI happening by 2050, just 35 years in the future. Admittedly, they are very uncertain, but high uncertainty also means it could arrive sooner rather than later. You can read much more about when human-level AI might happen here.
Why is this important? Gorillas are faster than us, stronger than us, and have a more powerful bite. But there are only 100,000 gorillas in the wild, compared to seven billion humans, and their fate is up to us.19 A major reason for this is a difference in intelligence.
Right now, computers are only smarter than us in limited ways (e.g. playing chess), and this is already transforming the economy. The key moment, however, is when computers become smarter than us in most ways, like how we’re smarter than gorillas.
This transition could be hugely positive, or hugely negative. On the one hand, just as the industrial revolution automated manual labour, the AI revolution could automate intellectual labour, unleashing unprecedented economic growth.
But we also couldn’t guarantee staying in control of a system that’s smarter than us – it would be more strategic than us, more persuasive, and better at solving problems. What happens to humanity after its invention would be up to it. So we need to make sure the AI system shares our goals, and we only get one chance to get the transition right.
This, however, is not easy. No-one knows how to code moral behaviour into a computer. Within computer science, this is known as the control problem.
Solving the control problem might be one of the most important research questions in history, but today it’s mostly ignored.
The number of full-time researchers working directly on the control problem is well under 100 (as of early 2017), making it some 100 times more neglected than biosecurity.
At the same time, there is momentum behind this work. In the last five years, the field has gained academic and industry support,20 such as a leading author of AI textbooks, Stuart Russell, and Stephen Hawking, as well as major funders, like the groundbreaking entrepreneur and billionaire Elon Musk. If you’re not a good fit for technical research yourself, you can contribute by working as a research manager or assistant, or donating and raising funds for this research.
This will also be a huge issue for governments. AI policy is fast becoming an important area, but policy-makers are focused on short-term issues like how to regulate self-driving cars and job loss, rather than the key long-term issues (i.e. the future of civilisation).
You can find out how to contribute in our full profile.
Of all the issues we’ve covered so far, solving the control problem and managing the transition to powerful AI are among the most important, but also by far the most neglected. Despite also being harder to solve, we think they’re likely to be among the most high-impact problems of the next century.
This was a surprise to us, but we think it’s where the arguments lead. These days we spend more time researching machine learning than malaria nets.
Dealing with uncertainty, and “going meta”
Our views have changed a great deal over the last eight years, and they could easily change again. We could commit to working on AI or biosecurity, but we might discover something even better in the coming years. Might there be problems that will definitely be important in the future, despite all our uncertainty?
Eventually, we decided to work on career choice, which is why we’re writing this article. In this section, we’ll explain why, and suggest other problems that are more attractive the more you’re uncertain. We think these are potentially competitive with AI and biosecurity, and where to focus mainly comes down to personal fit.
Global priorities research
If you’re uncertain which global problem is most pressing, here’s one answer: “more research is needed”. Each year governments spent over $500 billion trying to make the world a better place, but only a tiny fraction goes towards research to identify how to spend those resources most effectively – what we call “global priorities research”.
As we’ve seen, some approaches are far more effective than others. So this research is hugely valuable.
A career in this area could mean working at the Open Philanthropy Project, Future of Humanity Institute, economics academia, think tanks, and elsewhere. Read more about how to contribute in the full profile.
Broad interventions, such as improved politics
The second strategy is to work on problems that will help us solve lots of other problems. We call these “broad interventions”.
For instance, if we had a more enlightened government, that would help us solve lots of other problems facing future generations. The US government in particular will play a pivotal role in issues like climate policy, AI policy, biosecurity, and new challenges we don’t even know about yet. So US governance is highly important (if maybe not neglected or tractable).
This consideration brings us full circle. Earlier, we argued that rich country issues like education were less urgent than helping the global poor. However, now we can see that from the perspective of future generations, some rich country issues might be more important, due to their long-term effects.
For instance, a more educated population might lead to better governance; or political action in your local community might have an effect on decision-makers in Washington. We did an analysis of the simplest kind of political action – voting – and found that it could be really valuable.
On the other hand, issues like US education and governance already receive a huge amount of attention, which makes them hard to improve. Read more about the case against working on US education.
We favour more neglected issues with more targeted effects on future generations. For instance, fascinating new research by Philip Tetlock shows that some teams and methods are far better at predicting geopolitical events than others. If the decision-makers in society were informed by much more accurate predictions, it would help them navigate future crises, whatever those turn out to be.
However, the category of “broad interventions” is one of the areas we’re most uncertain about, so we’re keen to see more research.
Capacity building and promoting effective altruism
If you’re uncertain which problems will be most pressing in the future, a third strategy is to simply save money or invest in your career capital, so you’re in a better position to do good when you have more information.
However, rather than make personal investments, we think it’s even better to invest in a community of people working to do good.
Our sister charity, Giving What We Can, is building a community of people who donate 10% of their income to whichever charities are most cost-effective. Every $1 invested in growing GWWC has led to $6 already donated to their top recommended charities, and a total of almost one billion dollars pledged.
By building a community, they’ve been able to raise more money than their founders could have donated individually – they’ve achieved a multiplier on their impact.
But what’s more, the members donate to whichever charities are most effective at the time. If the situation changes, then (at least to some extent) the donations will change too.
This flexibility makes the impact over time much higher.
Giving What We Can is one example of several projects in the effective altruism community, a community of people who aim to identify the best ways to help others and take action.
80,000 Hours itself is another example.
Better career advice doesn’t sound like one of the most pressing problems imaginable. But many of the world’s most talented young people want to do good with their lives, and lack good advice on how to do so. This means that every year, thousands of them have far less impact than they could have.
We could have gone to work on issues like AI ourselves. But instead, by providing better advice, we can help thousands of other people find high-impact careers. And so, we can have thousands of times as much impact ourselves.
What’s more, if we discover new, better career options than the ones we already know about, we can switch to promoting them. Just like Giving What We Can, this flexibility gives us greater impact over time.
We call the indirect strategies we’ve covered—global priorities research, broad interventions, and promoting effective altruism—“going meta”. This is because they work one level removed from the concrete problems that seem most urgent.
The downside of going meta is that it’s harder to know if your efforts are effective. The advantage is they’re usually more neglected, since people prefer concrete opportunities over more abstract ones, and they allow you to have greater impact in the face of uncertainty.
Find out more about promoting effective altruism.
How to work out which problems you should focus on
You can see a list of almost all the problems we’ve covered here:
We’ve scored the problems on scale, neglectedness and solvability to help make our reasoning clearer. You can read about how we came up with the scores here. Take the scores with a fist full of salt.
The assessment of problems also greatly depends on value judgements and debatable empirical questions, so we expect people will disagree with our ranking. To help, we made a tool that asks you some key questions, then re-ranks the problems based on your answers.
Use the tool
Finally, factor in personal fit. We don’t think everyone should work on the number one problem. If you’re a great fit for an area, you might have over 10 times as much impact as in one that doesn’t motivate you. So this could easily change your personal ranking.
Just remember there are many ways to help solve each problem, so it’s usually possible to find work you enjoy. Moreover, it’s easier to develop new passions than most people expect.
Despite all the uncertainties, your choice of problem might be the single biggest decision in determining your impact.
If we rated global problems in terms of how pressing they are, we might intuitively expect them to look like this:
Some problems are more pressing than others, but most are pretty good.
But instead, we’ve found that it looks more like this.
Some problems are far higher-impact than others, because they can differ by 10 or 100 times in terms of how big, neglected and solvable they are, as well as your degree of personal fit.21 So getting this decision right could mean you achieve over 100 times as much with your career.
If there’s one lesson we draw from all we’ve covered, it’s this: if you want to do good in the world, it’s worth really taking the time to learn about different global problems, and how you might contribute to them. It takes time, and there’s a lot to learn, but it’s hard to imagine anything more interesting, or more important.
Apply this to your own career
Using the resources above, write down the three global problems that you think are most pressing for you to work on. Your personal list will depend on your values, empirical assumptions, and personal fit with the areas.
For each problem, list out some specific career options you could take that would help the problem. You can get ideas in our profiles, as well as further reading on each area. Also remember you can contribute to any problem area through donations and advocacy, even if it’s not the focus of your day job.
This list of problems is just a starting point. The next step is to find concrete career options that will make a difference within the area, which we cover in the next article, then to find an option with excellent personal fit, which we also cover later.