The challenge of effective giving for disaster relief

Bram Schaper | 15-02-2023

The challenge of effective giving for disaster relief

A man holding the hand of his infant daughter, buried in rubble, for hours. Who hasn’t seen this infamous image. The symbol of a disaster so great it is beyond my imagination. At our help desk, someone asks the important question: what emergency aid can I provide for the victims in Turkey and Syria? How can I donate effectively? They are not alone in their query. Many want to help as much as they can.

I find the reasons underlying their desire to donate fascinating. What I hear is: ‘I want to contribute something’, ‘speed up rescue work’, ‘arrange shelter, warmth, sleep and food’, in short: save lives and – if that is no longer possible – reduce suffering. But, how do you do giving well? And, is it effective?

The effectiveness of donations to disaster relief is often disappointing. This is because of the combination of two laws. The first law: anything that gets attention grows. Lots of attention, lots of donations. So far, no problem. The second law: the law of diminishing returns. This means that at some point there is so much money that it can no longer be decently converted into action and aid. An example is the terrible earthquake in Haiti (2010). Due to the overwhelming global aid response, billions in aid had to be spent in Haiti even when the money could no longer be put to meaningful use. Sinful.

There are also silent disasters. These are disasters that happen every day, but that you hear very little about. Consider, for example, the thousands of young children who die every day from preventable diseases. Malaria alone kills more than 1,300 children every day, which can be prevented by simple measures such as mosquito nets. Again, a law applies: hearing the same news over and over has no value. The result: less attention, less donations. That’s a real shame in another way, because for €5,000 you can save the life of one child.

Back to the conversation with our help desk. What to do next? Don’t make it too complicated. Do you feel the need to donate when seeing a national fundraiser? Then by all means do so. If your underlying desire is to do good more often and more effectively, then try not to neglect the silent disasters as well.

Orange cross