Using World Health Organization definitions of visual loss and a standardised methodology, 905 children were examined in Chile, West Africa and South India. Of these 806 (89%) suffered from blindness (BL) or severe visual impairment (SVI). Causes of SVI and BL were classified anatomically and aetiologically, and avoidable causes identified. In W. Africa (n = 284) the major anatomical cause of SVI/BL was corneal scar/phthisis bulbi (35.9%). Retinal disease accounted for 20.4%, cataract 15.5% and glaucoma 13.0%. Aetiologically 33.8% of SVI/BL was due to childhood factors and 21.1% to hereditary disease. In S. India (n = 305) the major anatomical cause of SVI/BL was corneal scar/phthisis bulbi (38.4%). Retinal disease accounted for 22.6%, cataract 7.4% and glaucoma 3%. Aetiologically 37.0% of SVI/BL was due to childhood factors and 29.8% to hereditary disease. In Chile (n = 217) the major anatomical cause of SVI/BL was retinal disease (47.0%). Cataract accounted for 9.2%, glaucoma 8.3% and 6.9% was due to corneal pathology. Aetiologically 30.4% of SVI/BL was due to hereditary factors, and 20.8% to perinatal factors of which four-fifths (16.6%) was due to retinopathy of prematurity. Avoidable conditions accounted for 70%, 47% and 54% of cases in W. Africa, S. India and Chile respectively.