Why I Won't Donate to Relief Efforts for Typhoon Haiyan

11/24/2013 11:07 am ET | Updated Jan 24, 2014

The damage from Typhoon Haiyan has been absolutely horrific. We've all seen the images of the disaster by now. The death count is still being tallied, but it is already over 5,000. Children have been orphaned, towns destroyed, and lives turned upside down.

Many charities are actively soliciting donations to fund relief efforts, tapping the public's willingness to help those who suffer due to large-scale natural disasters. This is a pattern of generosity that says a lot about the collective heart of our world.

Nevertheless, I will not be donating to the relief efforts. I also didn't donate to the relief efforts for the Haitian earthquake of 2010, Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011, or the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Before you write me off as a stingy, selfish scrooge, you might be interested to know that I give far more to charity than the national average--just not to disaster relief.

It's not that I'm concerned about charity scams (which are easily avoided with modest amounts of due diligence) or have doubts about the severity of the disaster (which is obvious from the media reports). My rationale is very simple: some charities that are involved in developmental aid can do more good, dollar-for-dollar, than those that handle disaster relief.

Every day, 18,000 children around the world die from preventable causes like malaria, tuberculosis, and unsafe drinking water. We have the knowledge and technology to prevent these deaths--in fact, they have been virtually eradicated in the United States before most of us were born. The bottleneck to preventing these deaths is the money for mosquito nets, clean water, and vaccines. Deaths from preventable causes don't get the same coverage as natural disasters, but they happen every day, adding up to a lot more suffering and deserving of our attention.

Unfortunately, I don't have enough money to pay for all the needs of victims of "event" disasters as well as "every day" disasters. Even Bill Gates isn't that rich. Donors face choices about how to allocate their giving. Many people find it offensive for donors to pit people who suffer from one horrible thing against those who suffer from another. I, too, find it offensive, but prioritization is reality in a world with limited resources.

Many donors avoid prioritizing by slicing their giving pie into many pieces, giving small amounts to lots of different causes and charities--putting some money in development and some in disaster relief. However, spreading donations thin is an evasive response to challenging questions about the best use of donor money. Your money will make more of an impact if you give larger amounts to fewer organizations that you have more conviction in, so if you care about impact, it's your responsibility to make these choices. Consider the following as you make your choice:

  • Charities working in global health and development prevent tragedies from happening, rather than respond afterward. While disaster relief can certainly prevent additional suffering and loss of life, it is much more compelling to address problems before they happen rather than clean up after them.
  • For charities working in global health and development, lack of money is often the most critical barrier to providing more aid. In contrast, well-publicized disasters can elicit billions in donations over a short period of time; the biggest obstacles for charities working in this area are logistical, not financial. Roads and other infrastructure are often destroyed, so charities can't get supplies to those in need. This points toward developmental charities being able to make better use of donations.
  • Charities that work in global health and development typically use extremely inexpensive, but proven solutions to save lives. Examples include mosquito nets (to prevent malaria), clean water, and vaccinations. Disaster relief, on the other hand, is often much more costly due to the logistical challenges associated with rushing aid to areas where the roads and other infrastructure have been destroyed. This inefficiency means that disaster relief can't get as much "bang for the buck."

These reasons for favoring "every day" aid over disaster relief are supported by research from experience. A report from the Disease Control Priorities Project (co-sponsored by the World Bank) echoes this view: "The emotional and sensationalized climate of disaster response has prevented the adoption of a cost-effectiveness approach in decision making. Emergency health interventions like temporary shelters and field hospitals are indisputably more costly and less effective than time-tested health activities."

Charities rarely acknowledge this, possibly because it might cause people to stop giving to disaster relief altogether, but it is implicit in their budgeting processes. As an example, when donors give unrestricted gifts to charities that do both disaster relief and development like Oxfam and UNICEF--letting them decide where it is needed most--more of it may go to development than disaster relief. (And if you do feel compelled to do something to help others in the wake of the typhoon, making an unrestricted donation to an organization like this would be more effective than earmarking your gift for their typhoon relief fund.)

The reason I don't give to disaster relief efforts is not due to callousness or obliviousness. The evidence is clear that there are charitable programs that are more effective than disaster relief, and I want my donations to do as much good as possible.