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

Does the World Really Need Another Blog ?

There are more than 160 million blogs on the internet. Another 50,000 new blogs begin every day.

Does the world really need another one ?

What more can there possibly be to say ?

Something to ponder when starting a new blog, but I finally decided on the ‘build it and they will come’ approach. There are over two billion people connected to the internet after all, with another quarter of a million joining daily. That’s a lot of people wanting something to read – so long as it’s relevant, interesting and different !

This is a blog about changing the world.

We live in a time of staggering contrast between the worlds’s rich and poor. According to UNICEF 22,000 children die every day due to poverty. There is sufficient wealth in the world to change this, but 75% of the world’s income goes to the 20% of the global population who are already the richest. If like me you live in the Western world then that probably includes you.

We are also living unsustainably. Our rising appetite for energy, water, food and raw materials is already causing problems and risks outstripping our current supply. If we want to lift billions of people out of poverty across the world we will need to use even more. Yet we are already struggling with environmental damage, climate change and conflict.

Is this ‘just the way things are’ ?

How much should we care about people we don’t know, who live far away ?

What changes should we make in our own life for the benefit of the wider environment ?

I am personally challenged by these questions. My motivation for this blog is to encourage a shift of our attention, away from the seemingly impossible scale of these problems, and away from what we’re all not doing, and focus instead on what we can do.

It’s not about ‘saving the world’; it’s about doing things differently.

It’s not about guilt or fear; it’s about optimism and enjoyment.

I personally think many environmental and social justice messages are more than a little ‘preachy’, and sometimes lacking perspective, or don’t seem sufficiently grounded in reality. I hope this blog will be different. That’s not to deny the significance and urgency of the issues, the 22,000 children who will die from poverty today are not faceless, nameless abstracts, but real children who will leave grieving families behind, but I don’t believe we can change things just by adopting an attitude of guilt and personal sacrifice. That’s not how we motivate ourselves, either as individuals or societies, we need something else.

I believe we need to feel positive and enthusiastic if we’re going to make permanent significant changes in our lives, and make a meaningful contribution to the issues we care about.

Hope you keep reading.


Photo attribution