Funding Exceptional People

I’ve thought for a while that a blind spot in EA is the funding of exceptional individuals who grew up in underdeveloped or developing communities, who have strong and credible desires to improve their community. I’m not talking about educational NGOs or initiatives who aim to improve general level of access to or quality of education. Instead, this is about identifying people who could be the next Malala, Nelson Mandela or Pixley ka Isaka Seme – a lesser known figure who went to school in the US thanks to a scholarship, then ended up founding the ANC, the organization ending apartheid in South Africa.

The effect of this type of funding is hard to quantify. But I’d like to state 2 reasons for it to be seriously considered:

  1. These people have considerable comparative advantage to improving their countries and countries similar to theirs. Those who need funding for their education are likely to have experienced the worst problems in their countries, have better cultural contexts, receive higher approval from the local population and become role models for their community when they succeed. If an equally talented individual outsider wants to intervene in the same community, they must spend significantly more resources just to get themselves up to speed on the problem.

  2. There are important areas that are difficult for “outsiders” to improve: social justice, human rights, civil rights of various groups, politics. Funding someone’s law degree if they then proceed to be heavily involved in local pro-bono law practices or improving their political system seems under-attentioned: high returns, scarce alternatives.

The actual implementation of this is challenging. For one, the return on such funding is challenging to predict. At the moment I’m thinking we should treat this problem like VC funding for individuals.

Another issue is there’s not a good pipeline of people to fund and, unlike publicly accountable organization, there is no mechanism in place to vet, check and enforce the agreements between donors and their beneficiaries. But this is solvable with organized efforts, as long as we determine that this is a potentially high-value funding activity and want to make it happen.