It’s NOT the Thought That Counts

A few months ago I caught a programme reviewing the situation in Haiti, twelve months after the earthquake of January 2010. I found one of the statistics they quoted very startling.

The earthquake had a magnitude of 7.0, with an epicentre 16 miles from the capital Port-au-Prince. Haiti is a poor country, and unlike Japan, most buildings were not built to withstand earthquakes. Massive damage was caused, over 250,000 homes destroyed along with over 30,000 other buildings, including the main sea-port, hospitals, workplaces, shops, police and government buildings, as well as the offices of the United Nations and World Bank. Roads were blocked with rubble for days, fuel quickly ran out, sewage systems stopped working and water, electricity and phones were cut-off. Law and order quickly broke down and sporadic looting and violence occurred.

The Haitian government estimates 315,000 people were killed in the initial earthquake and aftershocks, or died of their injuries shortly afterward. A further 300,000 are estimated to have been injured. Between 1.5 and 1.8 million people were made homeless. Health systems were unable to cope, and a cholera epidemic swept the refugee camps during the autumn.

As tragic and shocking as these statistics are they are not the one I found startling.

In the days immediately following the earthquake an amazing estimated 10,000 plus separate relief agencies and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) arrived in Haiti to help. Although this reflected the fantastic outpouring of sympathy and desire to assist, many of these organisations arrived unannounced and with little preparation. There are usually established systems to co-ordinate emergency aid response following disasters, but Haiti’s systems of governance were so badly damaged following the earthquake, that very little control and coordination existed.

Many NGOs are large and experienced international organisations with skilled staff, but many others had very limited experience and resources. A considerable number were comprised of only a handful of individuals who had quickly gone collecting donations following the earthquake, and had simply turned-up expecting they would be able to be of some use. Many of these organisations failed to achieve very much. For some most of the money they collected was spent on travel, accommodation and subsistence costs for their own staff, and, according to the programme, in some cases  actually needed help and support from other relief agencies, when they got lost, ran out of supplies, or simply were unable to cope. In some places several organisations were offering identical help in the same area, while a few miles away no help was being provided at all.

Obviously all these organisations and individuals meant well, but some were far more effective than others.

Do we think about this when we donate to charity ?

Our initial reaction to a request to give is often based on how we feel about the cause, rather than any kind of understanding of how efficiently our donation will be spent, of what good it will actually achieve.

This seems strange, in most other walks of life, especially where money is concerned, we tend to judge by results, not intentions. Evidence based decision making is now standard practice in many organisations, but perhaps we’re simply more inclined to trust charities and believe they will do the very best they can with our money.

There is another less favourable possibility though – perhaps we simply don’t care that much. Having donated we feel we’ve discharged our obligation and having paid to get ourselves off the hook we can get on with our life and leave the rest up to someone else.

If we are serious about wanting to make a difference when donating our hard earned cash then we need to take more of an interest in how it’s spent and examine how effective it is in achieving what we want. One way to think about it might be to see ourselves as investors or clients, with charities working on our behalf to tackle the issues we are concerned about – considered that way it seems unthinkable we wouldn’t ask for progress-reports now and then!

In the UK the Charity Commission regulates the operation of registered charities, checking they are properly run etc. They also offer them advice on enhancing accountability and improving effectiveness. Typing in the name of a charity on their website will show a range of information concerning that charity, including details of their last filed accounts.

Well run is one thing, but does the money make a difference? Several organisations now scrutinise charity performance, and compare effectiveness, including the US site Give Well, New Philanthropy Capital, and Giving What We Can. The new UK website Alive and Giving, also aims to deliver better analysis of charity performance.

In fact it’s not easy to quantify the benefit of a lot of charitable activities, such as awareness raising and campaigning, or providing education, counselling or emotional support. For others though, especially those engaged in global poverty relief, the powerful and disturbing statistic of cost-per-life-saved can be calculated.

Some aid interventions are widely considered to be more effective a saving lives in the developing world than others. Immunisation programmes, maternal health care provision and provision of clean water appear to be the most beneficial areas to focus aid for the purpose of saving lives. Bill Gates, focuses the majority of his humanitarian efforts into vaccination programmes because “we know they work”.

The next time someone rattles a tin at you or pushes a sponsor form under your nose in the office, think carefully if that is really the most benefit you can put your money to.

Do give, but make it count !

Similar articles – Saving Lives, Meet Toby Ord,

Photo by Blatantworld, via Flickr


  1. Chris Moreby says:

    Great blog, and Gareth makes a good point in his comment. It’s interesting to think about the emotional content of our giving: do we see it as a responsability to discharge? Or are we giving to feel good about our selves? Or is it because we care about the issue (perhaps more than the people)? Of course, if it gets the job done, does it matter?

    Also, if we give only to proven/effective charities does that mean we shouldn’t give to newer organisations who haven’t got the experience/structure that large NGOs have?

    Lots of food for thought here – keep the blogs coming! :)

  2. Should cost per life saved be the only consideration? If you give to a charity which distributes family planning advice, that may not save any lives, but will create a situation where there are less lives which may need saving a future situation. I think Jared Diamond ideas on Haitian history are interesting in explaining how the Hatian half of the island came to be.

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