Bangladesh food

Tyler Cowen: How to help Ukraine? Prioritizing food and migration |

“If you had a billion dollars to spend, how could you best help the world?” This is a question I hear a lot, and with the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine, it is all the more urgent. There is a philosophical movement, effective altruism, devoted to this question, but the charity debate has mostly taken place in a world with a relatively stable geopolitical order. How should war change responses?

I don’t know how best to help the immediate victims in Ukraine, but I have some ideas about how the conflict should change broader philanthropic priorities. In times of war, it is all the more important to focus altruistic efforts on two issues: food and migration.

In times of war, basic human needs become more pressing, especially food. For example, Ukraine provides much of the world’s grain, including many of the world’s poorest countries. The largest importers of Ukrainian cereals are Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan, and in percentage terms Yemen, Libya and Lebanon are particularly dependent. Since conflict and sanctions are also troubling Russia, Russia is not only a major exporter of grain, but also the largest exporter of fertilizer.

With so much of Ukraine under siege, these supplies are both blocked or threatened, creating a risk of hunger and malnutrition for grain importers.

Raising the productivity of agriculture, especially in the poorest countries, should now be a higher priority. When the food supply from a source like Ukraine is interrupted, poorer countries should have other supply options. The Green Revolution has been wonderful for India and Pakistan in increasing crop yields – but it turns out that a lot more agricultural innovation is needed.

One of the dangers is that a more conflict-prone world will become more protectionist and restrictive, in order to ensure the availability of domestic supplies, whether food or other basics. This would make it more difficult for the poorest and most affected societies to find alternative sources of supply in the face of crises. The goal should be a world of food abundance and relatively free trade, not national self-sufficiency.

The important point is how the relative calculus changes in times of major conflict.

In a world at peace, public health interventions are highly cost-effective, and they likely will be in times of war. But their relative benefits, compared to other interventions, may diminish. Saving lives with drugs is worthwhile, but many drugs are expensive. If lives can be saved by simply shipping and trading food, and profitably, it will be preferred to saving lives with medicine.

The transfer of public health services may also be less damaged by war conditions. Often, public health remedies come from the United States, Western Europe, or a few other relatively wealthy countries. These countries are less likely to be affected by major wars. So if a major war occurs, the flow of these public health remedies probably requires less repair work than the flow of food. Unlike advanced medicines, food is very frequently traded from one poor or middle-income country to another.

Another wartime philanthropic priority is the discovery and repurposing of talent. Before, during and after the Second World War, for example, a significant part of European cultural and scientific talent moved to the United States or other Anglo-Saxon countries. The United States and the global scientific community fared much better.

This makes it all the more imperative that talented people leaving Russia, Ukraine and Belarus have good options. Not only could their talents be wasted if they stay, but their productivity could be enhanced if they leave. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus have reasonable education systems and a long history of producing gifted artists and scientists.

How good is the infrastructure to get people out of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus? How easily can refugees be matched to where they should go? Is there a supporting infrastructure along the way? What about Russians who find themselves outside the Russian border and do not want to return – what kind of legal status could they hope to obtain?

Heroic efforts are being made to help Ukrainian refugees, but much of it is improvised. The world can do much better, including for Russian and Belarusian citizens, and I hope we will.



Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the Marginal Revolution blog. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.


©2022 Bloomberg LP Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.