What We Can Achieve

Deworming clinic organised by the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI / schisto.org)

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When confronted with the many problems that we face, it’s easy to feel like there’s little we can do to help. However, we have robust evidence that shows that individuals can have a significant impact on improving the lives of others by donating to the best charities.

Global Poverty: A Case Study

There are many ways in which we can have a large impact through our donations, and the effective altruism movement is continually searching for and evaluating the most promising opportunities. Looking at global poverty offers one example of how well-targeted donations can have a hugely positive impact.

The problem

The scale of poverty is immense, and it is easy to think that we in the developed world are powerless to do anything about it. However, the facts tell a very different story.

Official estimates from the United Nations 2015 Human Development Report show just how unequally split the spending, income and health figures are for countries around the world:

  • Military spending worldwide exceeded $1.6 trillion in 2015[1], more than the GDP of the world’s 100 poorest countries combined.
  • Average gross national income (GNI) per capita in very high Human Development Index (HDI) countries is more than 18 times that in low HDI countries[2].
  • Life expectancy in very high HDI countries is a third higher than in low HDI countries. In 2013, the global under five mortality rate was 45.6 deaths per 1,000 live births[3], though spread unevenly across HDI groups. Low HDI countries had the highest rate (94 deaths per 1,000 live births) followed by the medium HDI countries (47), high HDI countries (15 deaths) and very high HDI countries (6 deaths)[4].

These figures show just how unequal the global distribution of wealth is. However, they also suggest that those of us who live in affluent countries could have great potential to help others through our resources.

What you can do: effective giving

Maybe you don’t give much to charity, but feel like you should. Maybe you’ve been put off by scare stories about donations going to waste due to political corruption or poor planning. Or maybe you haven’t thought much about what your donations could achieve.

If any of this applies to you, our message is simple: It’s good to give generously, but it’s just as important to give effectively. The difference in effectiveness - the good done per dollar donated - between different charities can be startling.

For an example of the difference that effectiveness can make, suppose we want to help people suffering from blindness:

  • In a developed country this would usually involve paying to train a guide dog and its new owner, which costs around $40,000.
  • In the developing world there are more than a million people suffering from trachoma-induced blindness and poor vision which could be helped by a safe eye operation, costing only about $100 and preventing 1-30 years of blindness and another 1-30 years of low vision, according to GiveWell.org
  • For the same amount of money as training one guide dog to help one person, we could instead prevent 400-12000 years of blindness.

And there are even more effective ways to give, which can transform the lives of hundreds of people. If a typical US citizen gave 10% of his or her income to the right NGOs[5], then every year they could:

  • Distribute 600 mosquito nets, protecting up to 1200 people and preventing one death[6], or
  • Treat 6,100 people for neglected tropical diseases[7].

Over the course of a lifetime we could leave an incredible legacy of diseases prevented or cured, and lives extended. We can do all of this without leaving our countries, without changing our careers, and within our means.

Taking action

At Giving What We Can we feel compelled by these facts to take action. That’s why we've each made a public pledge to give at least 10% of our incomes to the organisations we believe will do the most good in the world. Whatever our incomes, we will all have a tremendous effect on thousands of lives.

If you're ready to start making a huge impact, you can join us today by committing to give 10% of your income to effective organisations (1% of the spending money for students and people who have little or no income). Alternatively, you can start with Try Giving, and choose how much of your income to give, and for how long.


  1. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2015", April 2016 <http://books.sipri.org/files/FS/SIPRIFS1604.pdf > ↩︎

  2. United Nations Development Programme Human Development Reports. “Table 1: Human Development Index and its components”, <http://hdr.undp.org/en/composite/HDI> ↩︎

  3. The World Bank. “Mortality rate, under-5 (per 1,000 live births)”, <http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.DYN.MORT> ↩︎

  4. United Nations Development Programme Human Development Reports. “Under-five mortality rate (per 1,000 live births)”, <http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/under-five-mortality-rate-1000-live-births> ↩︎

  5. Based on the median personal income in the US of $30,240 according to US Census Bureau 2015 statistics. "PINC-01. Selected Characteristics of People 15 Years and Over, by Total Money Income, Work Experience, Race, Hispanic Origin, and Sex". ↩︎

  6. Based on GiveWell’s estimates of the cost of distributing malaria nets through Against Malaria Foundation funded distributions. <http://www.givewell.org/charities/against-malaria-foundation> ↩︎

  7. Based on GiveWell’s estimates of the cost of distributing a treatment through Schistosomiasis Control Initiative. <http://www.givewell.org/charities/schistosomiasis-control-initiative> ↩︎