Note: this page summarizes the rationale behind a grant to the Center for Global Development, made by Good Ventures (in partnership with GiveWell according to the framework laid out previously). Center for Global Development staff reviewed this page prior to publication.

In a nutshell

A concept note submitted by the Center for Global Development (CGD) describes the proposed grant, which consists largely of support for Senior Fellow Michael Clemens' research agenda on international labor mobility, though the grant would be formally unrestricted. The total amount requested is $1,184,000 over 3 years.

Because of CGD's funding structure, Dr. Clemens may be able to pursue the majority of his work in the absence of additional outside funding. However, our understanding is that most of CGD's programmatic work is supported by specific funders, and so we've determined that our interest in the cause of labor mobility and principles of good citizenship call for a grant. In addition, we value CGD's work and see support for CGD as a good thing, though we do not have a strong understanding of what the likely direct impacts of this grant will be.

Based on these considerations, Good Ventures decided to grant the full amount requested to CGD.

Published: March 2014

Grant documents

The Center for Global Development shared several documents with us in the process of considering this grant:

Rather than summarize it here, we assume that readers of the remainder of this page will have read the concept note.

Rationale for making the grant

The cause

We have identified labor mobility as a priority cause, and as such have prioritized it for possible "learning grants". As part of our search for potential grant opportunities, we spoke with Michael Clemens at the Center for Global Development, the most prominent advocate for this cause that we know of.

Michael Clemens' work

CGD Senior Fellow Michael Clemens' research is responsible for the issue of international labor mobility initially coming to our attention, and his arguments on the topic remain part of the reason we are interested in it. We have not attempted to formally assess the policy impact of his work, but we have the impression that it is cited by other economists and, more rarely, in the media, and that his efforts contributed significantly to the U.S. government's decision to make Haiti eligible for access to the H-2 temporary work visa program in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.4

With that said, we note that Dr. Clemens' work bridges academic and advocacy contexts in a manner that may make success in both realms difficult. We do not perceive his academic work as totally dispassionate, and do not have a strong sense of his likelihood of success as a public advocate.

Room for more funding and fungibility

Michael Clemens' migration work has previously been funded by the MacArthur Foundation.5 CGD reports that they have not identified any other plausible funding sources for Dr. Clemens' research agenda, in part because of shifting priorities within foundations and the fact that the topic of migration and labor mobility is relatively controversial within some US foundations and amongst several of the (non-US) government funders that account for a significant percentage of CGD's restricted funding.6 Accordingly, we believe that CGD would struggle to raise restricted support for Dr. Clemens' full portfolio of proposed work, particularly the working groups, in the absence of support from Good Ventures.

We do not have a clear understanding of how the absence of restricted support for Dr. Clemens' work would affect his or CGD's output. As of January 2014, Dr. Clemens' work is currently supported by CGD general operating funds. He is not required to raise funding to support his research agenda, and he is not at risk of losing his job if he does not receive restricted funding.7 However, CGD officials have written publicly that they perceive targeted support from funders as a vote of confidence in their research and that “something is amiss” if they are “unable to attract specific support” for a research program after funding it out of general funds for several years.8

CGD representatives told us that in the absence of restricted support for his labor mobility research agenda, Dr. Clemens might devote more of his time to other research projects, such as a new project on Mexico, and that whatever work he did would be on a “shoestring budget.”9 The 1-2 proposed working groups are an example of work that we believe would be relatively unlikely to occur in the absence of a grant, though they make up <10% of the overall budget.10

Overall, our best guest is that the majority of the direct impact of the proposed grant would stem from increased unrestricted support for CGD, rather than from augmenting CGD's labor mobility work. We do not have a clear understanding of what the causal impact of additional unrestricted funding for CGD would be. A few relevant considerations:

  • CGD representatives told us that most of their funding is restricted, and that they greatly value unrestricted funding because it makes them less vulnerable to the whims of funders and gives them freedom to experiment with new initiatives.11
  • CGD is not planning to significantly grow as an organization, so there's a possibility that additional funding may serve to increase their savings rather than expanding their programmatic efforts.12 We are uncertain how much unrestricted support CGD is aiming to raise or when additional unrestricted support raised this year is likely to be spent.
  • Raising significant funds from a more diverse group of U.S. foundations is a major development goal for CGD.13

Risks to the success of the grant

The most salient risks to the success of the grant that we see, in direct impact terms, are the possibility that marginal unrestricted funds for CGD are saved for a long period of time or that marginal expenses turn out to be relatively ineffective. For the reasons described above, we believe it will be very difficult to ascertain whether either of these are the case.

We also see a possibility that the grant could be harmful, but regard it is as unlikely. The most plausible scenario we imagine involves the grant leading to increased CGD research and advocacy related to labor mobility. This could conceptually be harmful if CGD is successful in having a policy impact but turns out to be wrong about the appropriate labor mobility policies to adopt, or if their advocacy efforts accidentally move policy in an unintended direction (e.g. by making unpopular arguments in favor of labor mobility more salient).


We see the main rationale for this grant as a combination of “giving to learn” and “good citizenship.” This grant supports the work of one of the most prominent advocates for greater labor mobility, it is a demonstration of our interest in the cause, and it positions us to follow CGD's work more closely over time, as well as providing a vote of confidence and some degree of financial support for their work.

Plans for learning and follow-up

Key questions for follow-up

Questions we hope to eventually try to answer include:

  1. What does Dr. Clemens end up working on over the next three years? The concept note CGD prepared contains a number of projects, more than we would guess could be completed in the period of the grant, and so we will be interested in knowing which research projects Dr. Clemens ends up devoting the bulk of his time to. (This question is not at all meant to tie his hands, but just to allow us to understand which projects he ends up working on.)
  2. What is the quality and impact of CGD's labor mobility research? We have examined some of CGD's labor mobility research in some depth, but we haven't attempted to thoroughly understand the practical or ideological influence of that work. We may draw on CGD's attempts to track their policy impact in trying to understand the impact of their labor mobility research.14
  3. What impacts, if any, do the working groups appear to have? Relative to other parts of the grant proposal, we believe these are disproportionately likely not to occur in the absence of a grant, so tracking them may give additional insight into the impact of additional support for CGD's labor mobility work.
  4. How do our basic views about CGD change? We have previously recommended unrestricted support to CGD while noting that we have a very imperfect understanding of their impact. Fairly deep exposure to one research area might give us better information about how to approach CGD as a whole.
  5. Does this grant serve our intended purposes in terms of access to CGD and making other potential labor mobility grantees aware of our interest? Are CGD staff helpful in sourcing and evaluating other giving opportunities? Do other grant seekers reach out to us because we support CGD's labor mobility work?

Follow-up expectations

We expect to have a conversation with Dr. Clemens every 3-6 months for the duration of the grant to learn about the status of his research and advocacy efforts, with public notes if the conversation warrants it.

Towards the end of the duration of the grant (i.e. in the third year), we plan to attempt a more holistic and detailed evaluation of the grant's performance, aiming to answer the questions above.

We may abandon either or both of these follow-up expectations if labor mobility ceases to be a focus area, or perform more follow-up than planned if this work becomes a key part of our priorities.

Our process

The Center for Global Development submitted a proposal for this grant to Good Ventures in January 2014, following several conversations between GiveWell and Good Ventures staff and CGD Senior Fellow Michael Clemens about philanthropic opportunities related to labor mobility.15

We shared a draft version of this page with Center for Global Development staff prior to the grant being finalized.


Document Source
CGD Migration Budget Source
CGD Projected Statement of Expenditures Source
CGD Proposal for General Support: Accelerating research and policy solutions to increase labor mobility for development Source
Clemens 2012 Source (archive)
MacDonald and Moss 2014 Source (archive)
Notes from a conversation with Michael Clemens on November 13, 2013 Source
Notes from a conversation with Todd Moss and Katie Martel of CGD, January 21, 2014 Unpublished
  • 1.
    CGD Proposal for General Support: Accelerating research and policy solutions to increase labor mobility for development
  • 2.
    CGD Migration Budget
  • 3.
    CGD Projected Statement of Expenditures
  • 4.

    Clemens 2012

  • 5.

    Notes from a conversation with Todd Moss and Katie Martel of CGD, January 21, 2014

  • 6.

    Notes from a conversation with Todd Moss and Katie Martel of CGD, January 21, 2014

  • 7.

    Notes from a conversation with Todd Moss and Katie Martel of CGD, January 21, 2014

  • 8.

    “We use the flexible funds as our precious venture capital, supporting experiments with new programs and work on issues that have yet to attract traditional funders. At the same time, funder priorities are a vital signal of the value of our work, as programmatic grants are the closest thing we get to a market test. If a project has been unable to attract specific support after several years of drawing on our venture capital, it’s a pretty strong signal that something is amiss.” MacDonald and Moss 2014

  • 9.

    Notes from a conversation with Todd Moss and Katie Martel of CGD, January 21, 2014

  • 10.
    • CGD Proposal for General Support: Accelerating research and policy solutions to increase labor mobility for development:
      • “CGD will launch a Working Group on Designing and Evaluating Bilateral Low-Skill Labor Mobility Agreements to consider opportunities for bilateral labor mobility treaties between high and low income countries. Clemens’ work on Global Skill Partnerships will identify lessons from case studies (likely from Tunisia and Morocco) that could be applied in other countries as a pilot program.
      • CGD’s ongoing work on Migration as a Tool for Disaster Recovery will continue to explore both marginal changes to migration policy and more ambitious policy initiatives that will allow migration to compliment traditional humanitarian relief and disaster recovery efforts. Nearly all high-income countries have systems in place to assist victims who classify as refugees when they flee their homelands; however, the international community and high-income countries individually lack any mechanism to assist those who flee because of natural disasters.
      • CGD will explore the possibility of a Working Group on Creating a Migration-for Development Unit within the US Government (USG). This effort will leverage the Center’s strong networks inside the USG as well as our credibility as an independent source of research to explore how particular agencies and departments could integrate migration policy issues into their development activities.”
    • “Annual Working Group costs for Years 1-3 are estimated to be between $20-$30K per Working Group. This includes includes 10-15% of Michael's time, research support, and a combined $5K for consultants and $4-6K for relevant travel expenses.” CGD Migration Budget
  • 11.

    Notes from a conversation with Todd Moss and Katie Martel of CGD, January 21, 2014

  • 12.

    “Pressures to grow are tremendous. The universe of good ideas and smart people wanting to work at a think tank is nearly infinite. Working on development, where everything seems to be “important,” the potential areas of new research are nearly limitless. The optimal size for a think tank, of course, depends on the organization’s mission and business model. For CGD, our size is a deliberate balance of two objectives. We believe we need to be large enough to have a critical mass of senior in-house staff members to cover the breadth of issues and to enable organic interactions (via seminars and over the water cooler) that generate new ideas. At the same time, we want to stay small enough to maintain a family-like culture where everyone knows everyone else, our fundraising and administrative burdens can be kept light, and our research agenda is manageable enough for the president to be well informed about progress in all major areas of CGD’s work. The answer we’ve arrived at for CGD is about 18 senior researchers, 60–70 total employees, and a $12 million annual budget. We have been roughly at this level for the past five years, and we do not expect to grow much larger over the next decade.” MacDonald and Moss 2014

  • 13.

    Notes from a conversation with Todd Moss and Katie Martel of CGD, January 21, 2014

  • 14.

    “2. Impacts Database and Influence Database. Tracking CGD’s impacts and influence—even in minor ways—is crucial to the Center’s effectiveness as a think-and-do, ideas-to-action institution. In light of this, in July 2012 CGD’s communications team updated and revamped its internal Impacts and Influence Database in the Center’s intranet. This database is a complement to the ER exercise, but one that also captures smaller impacts such as media citations, congressional testimonies, briefings to high- level officials, publications, dialogue with policymakers, etc. CGD would be happy to provide screen shots or additional information on this database upon request.
    3. Policy Pitch Tracker. While CGD is continuously revisiting the way in which it tracks and measures impact and influence—in part through internal regularly-updated Impacts and Influence Database— until August 2013 it lacked a mechanism for tracking mere attempts at influence (as one of CGD’s economists quipped, it’s a bit like the need to register randomized controlled trials when they are launched; as without such a registry it’s impossible to know what has been tried in the past). After several internal discussions regarding the best way to keep a record of attempts, under the leadership of the Center’s policy outreach team the Center has recently launched a trial version of an internal policy pitch tracker. This tracker will also be continuously updated and will provide a record of CGD policy pitches—aka highly targeted suggestions for a specific action to a specific individual—as they are made, even if no immediate outcome or impact ensued as a result. A screen shot of the current iteration (still in beta form) of preliminary entries in this new exercise can be shared upon request.” CGD Proposal for General Support: Accelerating research and policy solutions to increase labor mobility for development

  • 15.

    See, e.g., Notes from a conversation with Michael Clemens on November 13, 2013. Other conversations were off the record.