One of the lessons of Effective Altruism is that we can make a bigger difference by directing our donations towards overlooked causes. When a natural disaster hits the news, an appeal may often raise hundreds of millions of dollars. Other causes might get celebrity backing or be able to afford prime time TV or radio appeals. The biggest charities are household names and might even have a presence on your high street.
At the other end of the spectrum are the smaller charities, the ones that tick along in the background. Perhaps they specialise in doing one thing well, one particular problem, one solution, or one place. Find a good charity working smartly in an ignored sector, and you may well find a very effective place to donate.
Sometimes, the interventions that make the biggest difference aren’t obvious. When the people behind MIT’s Poverty Action Lab first started running randomised controlled trials, the first time the approach was applied to development, they started by trying to identify the initiatives that were best at improving education outcomes. There were a lot of candidate programmes – free school meals, help with uniforms, charities that donate textbooks, teacher training. The intervention with the biggest impact turned out to be one of the cheapest and most unlikely: deworming tablets.
Parasitic worms are common in Kenyan schools, and they contribute to overall malnutrition and poor health among children. Where children were part of a deworming programme, absenteeism was reduced by 25%. More days in school means better educational achievement, and higher earnings later in life. A tiny intervention, one that costs pennies, could have a lifelong impact.
Deworming is perhaps the archetypal unglamourous charitable cause. There’s no building to name after your donors and for local dignitaries to cut the ribbon on. There’s no photogenic handover of giant checks. A good number of people won’t ever have heard of the problem you’re trying to fix, and those that have may well feel a little squeamish about it. Celebrities are hardly going to queue up to be the face of deworming.
And yet, pound for pound it’s one of the most effective things you could possibly give your money to. That’s why the Deworm the World initiative was set up in 2013, and it’s a favourite cause of the effective altruist movement.
With top ratings from charity effectiveness agency GiveWell, deworming is now getting more attention and more funding. But it’s a good example of how the most popular ideas aren’t always the best, and that small things can sometimes make a bigger difference than we expect.