Sadly, cost-effectiveness isn’t always a priority when it comes to humanitarian aid. In the same way that in the environmental sector it is common knowledge that cute endangered animals will receive more help than ugly ones, ease of marketing is also a big factor when it comes to helping our fellow humans. But if the people who manage aid funds (either voluntary charitable donations or tax money) looked for the biggest bang for the buck, salt iodization would become a priority and the world would be a better place.
From a Nicholas D. Kristof op-ed:
Almost one-third of the world’s people don’t get enough iodine from food and water. The result in extreme cases is large goiters that swell their necks, or other obvious impairments such as dwarfism or cretinism. But far more common is mental slowness.
When a pregnant woman doesn’t have enough iodine in her body, her child may suffer irreversible brain damage and could have an I.Q. that is 10 to 15 points lower than it would otherwise be. An educated guess is that iodine deficiency results in a needless loss of more than 1 billion I.Q. points around the world.
A campaign to iodize salt would cost about 2-3 cents per person reached per year, and it could probably be less since once awareness has be raised salt makers would add iodine to their products because it would become a competitive advantage that would pay for itself.
There is another New York Times article from 2006 on this subject: In Raising the World’s I.Q., the Secret’s in the Salt.
If you want to help (and not just with iodine, but also with vitamin A, folic acid, iron, and zinc), check out the The MicroNutrient Initiative, a Canadian non-profit “dedicated to ensuring that the world’s most vulnerable-especially women and children in developing countries-get the vitamins and minerals they need to survive and thrive.”
Addendum: Of course here “I.Q.” is used as shorthand for “intelligence” (whatever that means), and whatever happens, I.Q. will still be periodically normalized to average 100. That’s beside the point that making poor people healthier and smarter is a good thing in itself, and would indirectly lead to more good things.