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How to Be an Effective Altruist (and What Not to Donate to Disaster Relief)

In the wake of disasters like Hurricane Harvey, many of us are compelled to help those who are suffering. We want to use our resources to help others, frequently by donating to those harmed by a disaster. This is a noble desire, but noble desires don’t always translate into noble actions. Just because you donate something doesn’t mean you are having a positive effect. In fact, donating the wrong thing can actually make disaster relief efforts worse. Even if you just donate money, donating to the wrong charity can waste your money. So how do you make sure that you are doing the most good that you can do?

The answer to this is “effective altruism”, which uses high-quality evidence and deliberate reasoning to determine how to help others as much as we can with the resources we have. Being an effective altruist means using science and reason to determine how you can help people in ways that are guaranteed to be effective.


The Problem of Non-Effective Altruism

Many people attempt to do good and help others, however, many of these people fail and actually just make the situation worse. This is because they have not sufficiently considered how their attempts at helping will impact people. An illustrative example is the PlayPump.

The PlayPump was a merry-go-round that would pump water up from deep underground reservoirs as children played with it. It was intended to be installed in rural villages in developing nations. The idea was that children would get a new toy to play with, and villagers would be able to get the clean water they needed. While it was much lauded by the media, and was the recipient of several awards, in reality it was a failure.

There were many problems with the PlayPump. One of the issues was that unlike normal merry-go-rounds which spin under their own weight once they have attained a sufficient momentum, the PlayPump required constant force to turn. This meant that children would have to constantly push on the thing, and so they would get tired out that rather quickly.

However, the village still needed clean water, so the village’s women would often be required to go out and push on the pump to get water.

Another issue was that the PlayPump just wasn’t a very good pump. It was inefficient at pumping water compared to the regular hand pumps that many villages used. However, some villages had not been consulted as to whether or not they wanted the PlayPump installed, and they now had to use it instead of the more efficient hand pump.

The PlayPump is an excellent example of how attempts at charity or altruistic action without research can end up doing more harm than good. A similar problem is based in what people choose to donate after natural disasters.


What Not to Donate to Hurricane Relief Efforts and Other Disasters

Relief workers often refer to the wave of donations after a disaster as “the disaster after the disaster”. Why would they refer to such an outpouring of sympathy and the arrival of needed materials as a negative thing? It’s because people are not practicing effective altruism, and have not researched the impacts their donations will have.

If you’re hoping to donate and help in disaster relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Harvey or other disasters, there are a few things you shouldn’t donate. Clothes are often poor objects to donate, as FEMA says that clothing is rarely useful, and that the boxes of clothing they receive typically just sit around hindering the recovery effort. These boxes of mixed clothing will typically need to be torn open then sorted, repackaged, and redeployed to those who can use it. It’s often cheaper and less time-consuming for a disaster relief agency is to simply buy clothes and distribute them to those impacted. There’s a similar problem with donating shoes and blankets.

Donating medicine is also bad idea. It’s a bad idea to donate medicine from your personal supply, particularly prescription drugs. It’s impossible to verify the safety of these items, and they can pose a danger to those people who are handling the drugs. You also probably shouldn’t send food. Food can be expired, damaged, or contaminated, at which point it will only become a health risk to the people it is intended to help. Even if the food is not damaged, it will need to be organized, repackaged, and redistributed. This is again, costly and time intensive. Leave the supply of food to professionals who have the infrastructure, resources, and training necessary to distribute food safely and effectively to those who need it.


Donating to the Right Organizations

One thing that is pretty much guaranteed to be of use to disaster relief efforts is money. Money can be used by expert relief organizations to purchase needed supplies that they can give to professionals who will know how to use it to do the most good. Of course, this assumes that you are donating to the right organizations.

If you donate to a fraud or scam, it’s evident that your donations aren’t going to be helping people in need. Be wary about responding to emails soliciting donations that claim to be on behalf of victims of natural disasters. Research them thoroughly and make sure that you are donating to a reputable organization.

Even donating to established organizations can have problems. Not every charity is as effective in their use of money as others, and some charities can waste money unnecessarily paying for unneeded items or by using more money than they need to for administrative overhead.

Fortunately, there are resources to make sure that you are donating to organizations that will get the most use out of your money and do the most good with it. You can check the websites of charity-review organizations, like GiveWell or Charity Navigator to see how effective a charity is. These websites report useful information like what percentage of donations go directly to those in need, and what percentage goes to administrative costs.

Wanting to do good is an important first step, but it’s not enough. Through intelligent reasoning, and an investigation of the evidence, we can all make smart decisions and truly do good in the world.

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