A brief look at reducing the efficiency of genocides 2020-11-11T18:07:30.870Z


Comment by nlheath on What are the best places to share one-off opportunities for impact? · 2021-01-18T15:49:34.481Z · EA · GW

Suggestion: Title Edit

I clicked on the title of this post hoping it included a specific opportunity. It may be useful to change the title to include a reference to the opportunity itself.


Comment by nlheath on A brief look at reducing the efficiency of genocides · 2020-11-15T20:12:03.544Z · EA · GW

You could (and likely are) correct that the US military intervening would have cost (in cash and political capital) more than the number ($8500) cited by Frank Wisner, the undersecretary of defense for policy. I have no idea what all is covered by his sum, but it does not seem a stretch to me that it was not all-inclusive. 

Interesting citations regarding firearm ownership. Thanks for sharing. I would not have thought of that one myself. You also made a good point about the difference between military-grade armament and small arms possession.

I think there are a few complicating dynamics:

  1. Types of Injury
  2. Historical Tensions
  3. Timeline
  4. Long-run spill-over effects
  5. Incentive risks

Types of Injury

There were certainly guns present and used during the Rwandan Genocide, especially by the military/militia groups. That said, the distribution and use of machetes was pervasive and brutal. Dr. Orbinski observes that the Interahamwe utilized machetes for violent acts that would have been near impossible for a gun to inflict. What would a greater prevalence of guns have done to the types of injuries inflicted?

Historical Tensions

Unfortunately, the Rwandan Genocide was not the first violent tension between the Tutsi and Hutu populations. So it seems unclear to me what effect arming the Tutsi minority would have had. This is also one difference from the African American population. In Rwanda, the Tutsi’s were traditionally the empowered population. 


Access (guns or otherwise) requires infrastructure. Infrastructure takes time and coordination. Once the violence started, the bulk of it only lasted 100 days. So any promotion of ownership would have had to have happed in advance. What tensions would that have caused? 

Long-run spill-over effects

Beyond the historical tensions, there would likely be effects of increased gun ownership. How would more prevalent gun ownership affect suicide rates, domestic violence, accidental injury, school violence, etc.?

Incentive risks

At the risk of being unproductively vague: Who would develop the markets for gun ownership? The US? The private market? Who regulates it? How does regulation affect corruption? Where is the line between self-defense and violence as preventative action?

I appreciate you keeping the conversation going. You have raised multiple points I would have missed.

Comment by nlheath on A brief look at reducing the efficiency of genocides · 2020-11-12T07:23:19.790Z · EA · GW

Thanks for reading my post and sharing your thoughts.

With regard to any criticism you may have derived from the post, I am assuming you are referring to my choice of the phrase “failed to act.” As an American, I expect my elected representatives to intervene in genocides or other human tragedies. I understand that there are rational limitations to this opinion and that other voters do not agree. (I also have no interest in sparking a political debate here.) I hold no judgment around the process of how to intervene, as it is well beyond my expertise. I do believe that any genocide or event of mass suffering is caused, at least in some part, by a failure on the part of those with the ability to act. 

In regards to the plane, it very well could have been a poor idea for many reasons. I found it interesting because it was a number offered by a credible source that allowed for a calculation.

I agree that Rwanda is certainly an obvious case for intervention. As you mentioned, there would likely have been limited international risk from a global power (save France). It’s recency also allows some benefits from perspective and analysis; familiarity with the context, news coverage, recent UN trials, etc.

I came to the same conclusion the protracted conflict with world powers (i.e. the Holocaust) would certainly be more complicated to intervene in.

Thoughts on your other possible techniques:

  • Try to prevent the causes of genocides.
    • Prevention is certainly the ideal. There are considerable resources poured into global politics, international peacekeeping, the UN, etc. 
    • I would be curious to see what prevention tactics are the most effective.
  • Working on genocide forecasting, so that vulnerable populations can prepare.
    • This was one of my original directions with this article actually. As I found a couple of organizations engaging in that exercise (cited in the post) I moved away from that direction.
  • Promote emigration rights (it doesn't matter how many countries will let you in if your current country won't let you out).
    • Interesting. I certainly hear more about entry than exit issues. It could be a valuable element to look at.
  • Promote firearm ownership in vulnerable populations.
    • I gave this one some time before I sat down to respond. There are a lot of layers and it touches on issues that spark strong opinions around the world. In regards to promotion (of anything really), it takes time and coordination, an asset likely to be in rare supply during a genocide. In the Rwanda example, the ethnic populations seem to have mixed quite a bit, making targetting difficult. Let’s say you could overcome all of that, the issue of arming groups of people is one that seems to me (not an expert) to have intolerably high risks with the sunniest upside being deterrence. History is rife with examples of governments arming one group only to later have to fight that very same group. There are likely many great studies on the subject. Such an intervention seems beyond the scope of “do no harm” and a number of international standards.
Comment by nlheath on Best time-travel intervention? · 2020-11-03T07:29:02.807Z · EA · GW

Interesting thought. Certainly one of the most influential pieces of writing. Selectively editing one of the most scritized documents in existence would be incredibly difficult, have a high risk potential, and massive potential for impact. It sounds like you are refering specifically to the New Testament (given the language and time specifcations).  Given the Old Testament's roots into all Abrahamic traditions (Judaism,  Islam, and Christianity +) the exposure could be significantly larger than just a New Testament "intervention."