When Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti, 60,000 people were still living in tents because of the 2010 earthquake, despite the billions donated for disaster relief after the earthquake struck.
Watching the heartbreaking images from Haiti now—with houses in ruins, streets flooded, and hundreds of thousands of people in need of help—the first instinct most Americans have is to give. But what's the best place to donate?
It might not necessarily be the Red Cross. As much as people need emergency relief now, there's an even greater need for funding for long-term solutions, such as hurricane-proof houses, or programs that fight the deeper issues of poverty—which kill people every day, and make disasters like Matthew even worse.
Because so many people tend to give money to emergency aid after a disaster, your money might be more useful if it's given to something else. (Also, a lot of post-disaster dollars get used for less-than-optimal solutions.) In the book Doing Good Better, philosopher and "effective altruist" William MacAskill explains that natural disasters get far more funding than preventable and treatable diseases, for example.
When a disaster strikes, the emotional centers of our brain flare up: we think—emergency! We forget there is an emergency happening all the time, because we’ve grown accustomed to everyday emergencies like disease and poverty and oppression.Because disasters are new and dramatic events, they inspire deeper and more urgent emotions, causing our subconscious to mistakenly assess them as more important or worthy of attention.
Ironically, the law of diminishing returns suggests that, if you feel a strong emotional reaction to a story and want to help, you should probably resist this inclination because there are probably many others like you who are also donating.
MacAskill argues that we should take the urge to help and donate to a proven poverty-fighting nonprofit—like those recommended by GiveWell—if we want to help the most people.
There's also a case to be made for donating to nonprofits that help directly protect against future disasters. New Story, for example, builds low-cost, fast, hurricane-proof houses in countries such as Haiti; of the 211 houses the startup built over the last year or so, all survived Hurricane Matthew's 145-mile per hour winds and torrential rains. Habitat for Humanity is another example of a nonprofit that builds permanent housing in Haiti, not just temporary shelters, to help save people from future disasters.
"There will be another earthquake or hurricane—it's just nature," says Michael Arrieta, one of the co-founders of New Story. "So more than short-term solutions, we need to protect families for the future."
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