We’ve spent much of the last 10+ years trying to answer a simple question: what are the world’s biggest and most neglected problems?
We wanted to have a positive impact with our careers, and so we set out to discover where our efforts would be most effective.
Our analysis suggests that choosing the right problem could increase your impact by over 100 times, which would make it the most important driver of your impact.
Here, we give a summary of what we’ve learned. Read on to hear why ending diarrhoea might save as many lives as world peace, why artificial intelligence might be an even bigger deal, and what to do in your own career to make the most urgent changes happen.
In short, the most pressing problems are those where people can have the greatest impact by working on them. As we explained in the previous article, this means problems that are not only big, but also neglected and solvable. The more neglected and solvable, the further extra effort will go. And this means they’re not the problems that first come to mind.
If you just want to see what we think the answer is, go to our list of the world’s most pressing problems.
Reading time: 25 minutes.
Table of Contents
- 1 Why issues facing rich countries aren’t always the most important — and why charity shouldn’t always begin at home
- 2 Global health: a problem where you could really make progress
- 3 Why focusing on future generations might be even more effective than tackling global health
- 4 One way to help future generations: avert neglected existential risks
- 5 Dealing with uncertainty and “going meta”
- 6 How to work out which problems you should focus on
- 7 Apply this to your own career
- 8 Want to come back later?: Get the guide as a free book
Why issues facing rich countries aren’t always the most important — and why charity shouldn’t always begin at home
Most people who want to do good focus on issues in their home country. In rich countries, this often means issues like homelessness, inner-city education, and unemployment. But are these the most urgent issues?
In the US, only 5% of charitable donations are spent on international causes.1 The most popular careers for talented graduates who want to do good are teaching and health, which together receive around 40% of graduates, and mainly involve helping people in the US.2
There are some good reasons to focus on helping your own country — you know more about the issues, and you might feel you have special obligations to it. However, back in 2009, we encountered the following series of facts. They led us to think that the most urgent problems are not local, but rather related to poverty in the world’s poorest countries — especially efforts within health, such as fighting malaria and parasitic worms. (And as we’ll come onto later, we now think there are even more pressing issues than global poverty — in particular, catastrophic risks that could affect the whole world and future.)
Why do we say the most urgent problems aren’t local? Well, here’s a pretty staggering chart we came across in our research.
It’s the distribution of world income that we saw in an earlier article.
Even someone living on the US poverty line of $14,580 per year (as of 2023) is richer than about 85% of the world’s population, and about 20 times wealthier than the world’s poorest 700 million, who mostly live in Central America, Africa, and South Asia on under $800 per year. These figures are already adjusted for the fact that money goes further in poor countries (purchasing power parity).4
As we also saw earlier, the poorer you are, the bigger difference extra money makes to your welfare. Based on this research, because poorer people in Africa are 20 times poorer, we’d expect resources to go about 20 times further in helping them.
There are also only about 40 million people living in relative poverty in the US, about 6% as many as the 650 million in extreme global poverty.5
There are also far more resources dedicated to helping this smaller number of people. Overseas development aid from the world’s developed countries is, in total, only about $200 billion per year, compared to $1.7 trillion spent on welfare in the US alone.6
Finally, as we saw earlier, a significant fraction of US social interventions probably don’t work. This is because problems facing the poor in rich countries are complex and hard to solve. Moreover, even the most evidence-backed interventions are expensive and have modest effects.
The same comparison holds for other rich countries, such as the UK, Australia, Canada, and the EU. (Though if you live in a low-income country, then it may well be best to focus on issues there.)
All this isn’t to deny that the poor in rich countries have very tough lives, perhaps even worse in some respects than those in the developing world. Rather, the issue is that there are far fewer of them, and they’re harder to help.
So if you’re not focusing on issues in your home country, what should you focus on?
Global health: a problem where you could really make progress
Earlier we told the story of Dr Nalin, who helped to develop oral rehydration therapy as a treatment for diarrhoea.
What if we were to tell you that, over the second half of the 20th century, efforts by Dr Nalin and others did as much to save lives as achieving world peace over the same period would have done?
The number of deaths each year due to diarrhoea have fallen by 3 million over the last five decades due to advances like oral rehydration therapy.
Meanwhile, all wars and political famines killed about 2 million people per year over the second half of the 20th century.7
And we’ve had similar victories over other infectious diseases.
The global fight against disease is one of humanity’s greatest achievements, but it’s also an ongoing battle that you can contribute to with your career.
A large fraction of these gains were driven by humanitarian aid, such as the campaign to eradicate smallpox.7 In fact, although many experts in economics think much international aid hasn’t been effective, even the most sceptical agree there’s an exception: global health.
For instance, William Easterly, author of The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, wrote:
Put the focus back where it belongs: get the poorest people in the world such obvious goods as the vaccines, the antibiotics, the food supplements, the improved seeds, the fertilizer, the roads…. This is not making the poor dependent on handouts; it is giving the poorest people the health, nutrition, education, and other inputs that raise the payoff to their own efforts to better their lives.
Within health, where to focus? An economist at the World Bank sent us this data, which also amazed us.
This is a list of health treatments, such as providing tuberculosis medicine or surgeries, ranked by how much health they produce per dollar, as measured in rigorous randomised controlled trials. Health is measured in a standard unit used by health economists, called the “quality-adjusted life year.”
The first point is that all these treatments are effective. Essentially all of them would be funded in countries like the US and UK. People in poor countries, however, routinely die from diseases that would certainly have been treated if they’d happened to have been born somewhere else.
Even more surprising, however, is that the top interventions are far better than the average, as shown by the spike on the right. The top interventions, like vaccines, have been shown to have significant benefits, but are also extremely cheap. The top intervention is over 10 times more cost-effective than the average, and 15,000 times more than the worst.8 This means if you were working at a health charity focused on one of the top interventions, you’d expect to have 10 times as much impact compared to a randomly selected one.
This study isn’t perfect — there were mistakes in the analysis affecting the top results (and that’s what you’d expect due to regression to the mean) — but the main point is solid: the best health interventions are many times more effective than the average.
So how much more impact might you make with your career by switching your focus to global health?
Then, if we focus on health, there are cheap, effective interventions that everyone agrees are worth doing. We can use the research in the second chart to pick the very best interventions, letting us have perhaps five times as much impact again.10 In total, this makes for a 100-fold difference in impact.11
Does this check out? The UK’s National Health Service and many US government agencies are willing to spend over $30,000 to give someone an extra year of healthy life.12 This is a fantastic use of resources by ordinary standards.
However, research by GiveWell has found that it’s possible to give an infant a year of healthy life by donating around $100 to one of the most cost-effective global health charities, such as Against Malaria Foundation. This is about 0.33% as much.13 This suggests that, at least in terms of improving health, one career working somewhere like AMF might achieve as much as 300 careers focused on one typical way of doing good in a rich country. (Though our best guess is that a more rigorous and comprehensive comparison would find a somewhat smaller difference.14)
It’s hard for us to grasp such big differences in scale, but that would mean that one year of (equally skilled) effort towards the best treatments within global health could have as much impact as what would have taken others 100 years working on typical rich country issues.
These discoveries caused many of us at 80,000 Hours to start giving at least 10% of our incomes to effective global health charities. No matter which job we ended up in, these donations would enable us to make a significant difference. In fact, if the 100-fold figure is correct, a 10% donation would be equivalent to donating 1,000% of our income to charities focused on poverty in rich countries.
See more detail on how to contribute to global health in our full profile.
However, everything we learned about global health raised many more questions. If it’s possible to have 10 or 100 times more impact with just a little research, maybe there are even better areas to discover?
To go in a very different direction, we also seriously considered working to end factory farming. The idea — in brief — is that the interests of animals get very little protection by our current economic and political systems, but there are huge numbers of them: around 100 billion animals die every year in factory farms. For example, we helped to found Animal Charity Evaluators, which does research into how to most effectively improve animal welfare. We still think factory farming is an urgent problem, as we explain in our full profile. But in the end, we decided to focus on something else.
Why focusing on future generations might be even more effective than tackling global health
Which would you choose from these two options?
- Prevent one person from suffering next year.
- Prevent 100 people from suffering (the same amount) 100 years from now.
Most people choose the second option. It’s a crude example, but it suggests that they value future generations.
If people didn’t want to leave a legacy to future generations, it would be hard to understand why we invest so much in science, create art, and preserve the wilderness.
We would certainly choose the second option. And if you value future generations, then there are powerful arguments that helping them should be your focus. We were first exposed to these by researchers at the University of Oxford’s (modestly named) Future of Humanity Institute.
So, what’s the reasoning?
First, future generations matter, but they can’t vote, they can’t buy things, and they can’t stand up for their interests. This means our system neglects them. You can see this in the global failure to come to an international agreement to tackle climate change that actually works.
Second, their plight is abstract. We’re reminded of issues like global poverty and factory farming far more often. But we can’t so easily visualise suffering that will happen in the future. Future generations rely more on our goodwill, and even that is hard to muster.
Third, there will probably be many more people alive in the future than there are today. The Earth will remain habitable for at least hundreds of millions of years.15 We may die out long before that point, but if there’s a chance of making it, then many more people will live in the future than are alive today.
To use some hypothetical figures: if each generation lasts for 100 years, then over 100 million years there could be one million future generations.16
This is such a big number that any problem that affects future generations potentially has a far greater scale than one that only affects the present — it could affect one million times more people, and all the art, science, culture, and wellbeing that will entail. So problems that affect future generations are potentially the largest in scale and the most neglected.
What’s more, because the future could be long and the universe is so vast, almost no matter what you value, there could be far more of what matters in the future.
This suggests that we have much greater reason than people usually realise to help the future — and not just the near future but also the very long-run future — go well. (We cover these ideas in more depth in a separate article.)
But can we actually help future generations, or improve the long term? Perhaps the problems that affect the future are big and neglected, but not solvable?
One way to help future generations: avert neglected existential risks
In the summer of 2013, Barack Obama referred to climate change as “the global threat of our time.” He’s not alone in this opinion. When many people think of the biggest problems facing future generations, climate change is often the first to come to mind.
One reason for that is that many fear that climate change could lead to a catastrophic civilisational collapse — and could even lead to the end of the human species.17
We think this thought is, to some extent, on the right track. The most powerful way we can help future generations is, we think, to prevent a catastrophe that could end advanced civilisation, or even prevent any future generations from existing. If civilisation survives, we’ll have a chance to later solve problems like poverty and disease; while anything that poses a truly existential threat will prevent any such progress. (We argue for the importance of reducing existential risks elsewhere.)
However, climate change is also widely acknowledged as a major problem (conspiracy theorists aside), and receives tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars of investment. Our guess is also that there are issues that pose much greater risks of ending civilisation.
So while we think tackling climate change is an important way to help future generations, we think it’s likely even higher impact for many to focus on more neglected and more existentially dangerous issues.
Biorisk: the threat from future disease
In 2006, The Guardian ordered segments of smallpox DNA via mail. If assembled into a complete strand and transmitted to 10 people, a study estimated it could infect up to 2.2 million people in 180 days — potentially killing 660,000 — if authorities did not respond quickly with vaccinations and quarantines.18
We first wrote about the risks posed by catastrophic pandemics back in 2016. Seven years later, and three years after the emergence of COVID-19, we’re still concerned.
COVID-19 disrupted the world and has, so far, killed over 10 million people. But it’s easy to imagine scenarios far worse.
In the future, we might face diseases even deadlier than COVID-19 or smallpox — whether through natural evolution, or created through bioengineering (the technology for which is becoming cheaper and more accessible every year).
In our eyes, the chance of a pandemic that kills over 100 million people over the next century seems similar to and likely greater than the risk of nuclear war or runaway climate change. So it poses a threat that’s at least similar in magnitude to both the present generation and future generations.
But risks from pandemics are, even now, far more neglected than either of these. We estimate that over $600 billion is spent annually on efforts to fight climate change, compared to $1–$10 billion towards biosecurity aimed at addressing the worst-case pandemics.
Moreover, there are some ways the risks from pandemics could be even greater. It’s very difficult to see how nuclear war or climate change could kill literally everyone, and permanently end civilisation — but bioweapons with this power seem very much within the realm of possibility, if given enough time.
At the same time, there’s plenty of relatively straightforward things that could be done to improve biosecurity, such as improving regulation of labs, building bigger stockpiles of personal protective equipment (PPE), and developing cheap diagnostics to detect new diseases quickly. Overall, we think biosecurity is likely more pressing than climate change. We currently think that biosecurity is one of the world’s most pressing problems.
Read more about how to contribute to biosecurity in our full profile.
But there are issues that might be even more important, and seem to be even more neglected.
Preventing an AI-related catastrophe
Around 1800, civilisation underwent one of the most profound shifts in human history: the Industrial Revolution.19
Looking forward, what might be the next transition of this scale — the next pivotal event in history that shapes what happens to all future generations? If we could identify such a transition, that may well be the most important area in which to work.
One candidate is bioengineering — the ability to fundamentally redesign human beings — as discussed, for example, by Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens.
But we think there’s an issue that’s even more neglected, and is developing far more rapidly: artificial intelligence.
Billions of dollars are spent trying to make artificial intelligence more powerful, but hardly any effort is devoted to making sure that those added capabilities are implemented safely and for the benefit of humanity.
This matters for two main reasons.
First, powerful AI systems have the potential to be misused. For instance, they might be used to develop dangerous new technology, such as new and more powerful weapons.
Second, there is a risk of accidents when powerful new AI systems are deployed. This is especially pressing due to the “alignment problem.” This is a complex topic, so if you want to explore it properly, we recommend reading our full problem profile on artificial intelligence. But here’s a quick introduction.
In the 1980s, chess was held up as an example of something a machine could never do. But in 1997, world chess champion Garry Kasparov was defeated by the computer program Deep Blue. Since then, computers have become far better at chess than humans.
In 2004, two experts in artificial intelligence used truck driving as an example of a job that would be really hard to automate. But today, self-driving cars are already on the road.20
In August 2021, a team of expert forecasters predicted that it would take five years for a computer to be able to solve high school competition–level maths problems. Less than a year later, Google built an AI that could do just that.
At the end of 2022, ChatGPT became the fastest growing web platform ever.
The most recent of these advances are possible due to progress in machine learning. In the past, we mostly had to give computers detailed instructions for every task. Today, we have programs that teach themselves. The same algorithm that can play Space Invaders has also learned to play about 50 other arcade games, caption images, chat with humans, and manipulate a real robot arm.
Machine learning has been around for decades, but improved algorithms (especially around deep learning techniques), faster processors, bigger datasets, and huge investments by companies like Google and Microsoft have led to amazing advances far faster than expected.
Google DeepMind Plays Space Invaders at a superhuman level
Due to this, many experts think human-level artificial intelligence could easily happen in our lifetimes. Here are the results of a 2022 survey of hundreds of top AI researchers:21
|10% chance of human-level machine intelligence
|50% chance of human-level machine intelligence
|90% chance of human-level machine intelligence
You can see half the experts give a 50% (or higher) chance of human-level AI happening by 2050, just 30 years in the future. Admittedly, they are very uncertain — but high uncertainty also means it could arrive sooner rather than later. You can read much more about when human-level AI might happen in our full problem profile on AI.
Why is this important? Gorillas are faster than us, stronger than us, and have a more powerful bite. But there are only 100,000 gorillas in the wild, compared to 7 billion humans, and their fate is up to us.22 A major reason for this is a difference in intelligence.
Right now, computers are only smarter than us in limited ways (e.g. playing StarCraft), and this is already changing the economy. But what happens when computers become smarter than us in almost all ways, like how we’re smarter than gorillas?
This transition could be hugely positive, or hugely negative. On the one hand, just as the Industrial Revolution automated manual labour, the AI revolution could automate intellectual labour, unleashing unprecedented prosperity and access to material resources.
But we also couldn’t guarantee staying in control of a system that’s smarter than us — it might be more strategic than us, more persuasive, and better at solving problems. So we need to make sure the AI system shares our goals.
This, however, is not easy. No one knows how to program moral behaviour into a computer. Within computer science, this is known as the alignment problem.
Solving the alignment problem might be hugely important, but today very few people are working on it.
We estimate the number of full-time researchers working directly on the alignment problem is around 300, making it over 10 times more neglected than biosecurity.
At the same time, there is momentum behind this work. In the last 10 years, the field has gained academic and industry support,23 such as Stephen Hawking, Stuart Russell (who wrote the most popular textbook in the field of AI), and Geoffrey Hinton (who pioneered the field of AI). If you’re not a good fit for technical research yourself, you can contribute in other ways — for example, by working as a research manager or assistant, or donating and raising funds for this research.
This will also be a huge issue for governments. AI policy is fast becoming an important area, but policymakers are focused on short-term issues like how to regulate self-driving cars and job loss, rather than the key long-term issues (i.e. the future of civilisation).
You can find out how to contribute in our full profile.
Of all the issues we’ve covered so far, reducing the risks posed by AI is among the most important, but also the most neglected. Despite also being harder to solve, we think it’s likely to be among the most high-impact problems of the coming decades.
This was a surprise to us when we first considered it, but we think it’s where the arguments lead. These days we spend more time researching machine learning than malaria nets.
Read more about why we think reducing extinction risks should be humanity’s key priority.
Dealing with uncertainty and “going meta”
Our views have changed a great deal over the last 12 years, and they could easily change again. We could commit to working on AI or biosecurity, but might we discover something even better in the coming years? And what might this uncertainty imply about where to focus now?
Global priorities research
If you’re uncertain which global problem is most pressing, here’s one answer: “more research is needed.” Only a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars spent each year trying to make the world a better place goes towards research to identify how to spend those resources most effectively — what we call “global priorities research.”
As we’ve seen, some approaches are far more effective than others. So this research is hugely valuable.
A career in this area could mean working at organisations like Open Philanthropy, the Global Priorities Institute, and Rethink Priorities; or in economics academia, think tanks, and elsewhere. Read more about how to contribute in the full profile on global priorities research.
Broad interventions, such as improved politics
The second strategy is to work on problems that will help us solve lots of other problems. We call these “broad interventions.”
For instance, if we had more enlightened governments, that would help us solve lots of other problems facing future generations. The US government in particular will play a pivotal role in issues like climate policy, AI policy, biosecurity, and new challenges we don’t even know about yet. So US governance is highly important (if maybe not neglected or tractable).
Political action in your local community might have an effect on decision-makers in Washington. We did an analysis of the simplest kind of political action — voting — and found that it could be really valuable.
On the other hand, issues like US governance already receive a huge amount of attention, which makes them hard to improve.
We generally favour more neglected issues with more targeted effects on future generations. For instance, fascinating research by Philip Tetlock shows that some teams and methods are far better at predicting geopolitical events than others. If the decision-makers in society were informed by much more accurate predictions, it would help them navigate future crises, whatever those turn out to be.
Read more about how to contribute to improving decision-making in the full profile. However, the category of “broad interventions” is one of the areas we’re most uncertain about, so we’re keen to see more research on it.
Capacity building and promoting effective altruism
If you’re uncertain which problems will be most pressing in the future, a third strategy is to simply save money or invest in your career capital, so you’re in a better position to do good when you have more information.
However, rather than make personal investments, it can be even better to invest in a community of people working to do good.
In an earlier article we looked at Giving What We Can (GWWC), a charity building a community of people who donate 10% of their income to whichever charities are most cost effective.24 Every $1 invested in growing GWWC has led to over $9 already donated to its top recommended charities, and a total of over $3 billion pledged.
By building a community, GWWC has been able to raise much more money than their founders could have donated individually — they’ve achieved a multiplier on their impact.
But what’s more, the members donate to whichever charities are most effective at the time. If the situation changes, then (at least to some extent) the donations will change too.
This flexibility makes the impact over time much higher.
Giving What We Can is one example of several projects in the effective altruism community, a community of people who aim to identify the best ways to help others and take action based on their findings. (See our full profile on promoting effective altruism.)
80,000 Hours itself is another of these projects.
Better career advice doesn’t sound like one of the most pressing problems imaginable. But many of the world’s most talented young people want to do good with their lives, and lack good advice on how to do so. This means that every year, thousands of them have far less impact than they could have.
We could have gone to work on issues like AI ourselves. But instead, by providing better advice, we can help thousands of other people find high-impact careers. And so (if we do a good job), we might hope to have thousands of times as much impact ourselves.
What’s more, if we discover new, better career options than the ones we already know about, we can switch to promoting them. Just like Giving What We Can, this flexibility gives us greater impact over time.
We call the indirect strategies we’ve covered — global priorities research, broad interventions, and promoting effective altruism — “going meta,” because they work one level removed from the concrete problems that seem most urgent.
The downside of going meta is that it’s harder to know if your efforts are effective. The advantage is they’re usually more neglected, since people prefer concrete opportunities over more abstract ones, and they allow you to have greater impact in the face of uncertainty.
How to work out which problems you should focus on
You can see our list of the world’s most pressing problems, including many we haven’t mentioned on this page, here:
But this is just our list. What matters for your career is your personal list.
The assessment of problems greatly depends on value judgements and debatable empirical questions, and you might not share our answers. We discuss some ways we might be wrong in the FAQ section on our problem profiles page.
Personal fit is also vital, and so are the particular opportunities you can find. We don’t think everyone should work on the number-one problem. If you’re a great fit for an area, you might have over 10 times as much impact working there as you would in one that doesn’t motivate you. So this could easily change your personal ranking.
Just remember there are many ways to help solve each problem, so it’s often easier than it first seems to find work you enjoy that helps with problems you might not have yet considered working on. Moreover, it’s easier to develop new passions than most people expect.
Despite all the uncertainties, your choice of problem might be the single biggest factor determining your impact.
If we rated global problems in terms of how pressing they are, we might intuitively expect them to look like this:
Some problems are more pressing than others, but most are pretty good.
But instead, we’ve found that it looks more like this.
Some problems are far higher impact than others, because they can differ by 10 or 100 times in terms of how big, neglected, and solvable they are, as well as your degree of personal fit.25 So getting this decision right could mean you achieve over 100 times as much with your career.
If there’s one lesson we draw from all we’ve covered, it’s this: if you want to do good in the world, it’s worth at some point really taking the time to learn about different global problems, and how you might contribute to them. It takes time, and there’s a lot to learn, but it’s hard to imagine anything more interesting, or more important.
Apply this to your own career
You don’t need to figure out which global problems you want to focus on right at the start of your career. Early on, the top priority is to explore to figure out what you’re good at, and to build valuable skills. It’s common to not directly tackle the problems you think are most pressing for many years.
However, it is useful to at least have a rough idea of which problems you’d like to work on in the future, since this can greatly affect which kinds of skills seem most useful to build. For instance, if you guess that reducing risks from AI is in your shortlist, that could suggest gaining some pretty different skills and experience than you would for global health (though some skills are useful in both, such as management). So, even if you’re right at the start of your career, we’d suggest spending at least a couple of days thinking about this question.
Here’s an exercise:
- Using the resources above, write down the three global problems that you think most need additional people working on them. These will depend on your values and empirical assumptions.
- What are you most uncertain about with respect to your list? How might you learn more about those questions? (For example: Is there something you could read? Someone you could talk to?)
Don’t worry too much about your personal fit — while it’s an important consideration, your fit for a role can be difficult to assess, so we’ve got a whole article on it later in the guide. For now, just focus on getting the best picture of what the world needs.
As a reminder, you can see a list of all the problem areas we’ve reviewed here. Click through to the individual profiles to learn more about each issue. You can also view our topics list to see everything we’ve produced about a certain issue.
If you’d like to dive much more deeply into comparing global problems, see the relevant articles in our advanced series.
This list of problems is just a starting point. The next step is to find concrete career options that will make a difference within the area (which we cover in the next article), then to find an option with excellent personal fit (which we also cover later).