activism development

The world’s least glamourous charitable cause?

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.


  1. A great post. It is the simple and effective remedy of an ill that can make such a difference in many, many lives. I recall reading in grade school what a scourge that scurvy and rickets were until the simple and effective remedies were found. Same for the benefits of a clean water source for consumption — not as easy a fix and of course, that cause is easily supported publicly, but it positively affects people at their bedrock — like deworming. Bless you for ever trying to bring us workable ideas that will ease some of the world’s woes.

  2. Delighted to see this issue highlighted in your blog. Folk may also be interested in a small charity working with children and mothers in six African countries. De-worming has long been one of their treatments. I was alerted to them by a friend who wrote a book on his work as a parasitologist called Afterthoughts of a Worm Hunter and got nominated for the strangest book title award. It’s awhile since I read it but seem to remember it being very accessible to the non-scientist.
    Many thanks for your blog – the best I get!

    1. Thanks Liz! Sadly no reviews on Amazon for your friend’s book, which kind of proves the point about it being an unglamourous subject! My wife’s uncle is a parasitologist and worm expert, and he talks with great enthusiasm about the subject, so clearly not everyone is turned off by them.

  3. Visiting via *Relax*.

    Thanks for highlighting a point I wouldn’t have otherwise considered. It is said that the devil is in the details. This certainly is one of those details.

Leave a Reply to Relax... Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: