Ineffective Altruism - The Disaster After The Disaster


In the aftermath of disasters, such as the Grenfell Tower fire in London this week or any number of earthquakes and tsunamis, the global community rallies together. As soon as news and images of the devastation wrought by the freak incident hits our screens, we dig into our pockets. And this is, of course, a wonderful human trait. We want to help those in need. We want to do something to ease the suffering of people whose entire lives have been turned upside down in the blink of an eye. And yet, in many cases, the ways in which we try to help is actually very ineffective. Relief workers have dubbed our altruism ‘the disaster after the disaster’ and it had happened in London less than 24 hours after the fire broke out. But what is ineffective altruism and how can you donate in an effective way?


Firstly, let’s explain what this disaster after a disaster is. Often in the wake of these events, people are left homeless and without access to food, clothing and other basic amenities. The good people of the world spring into action and many gather together items which they believe will be helpful for the disaster victims. From flashlights to clothes to toys and games for children and canned food, donations arrive by the truck at these disaster sites. While this is an incredible display of human kindness, it also creates a previously non-existent job for relief workers to do. These items cannot simply be handed out and must be diligently sorted through and distributed accordingly. The chore of doing this pulls trained workers away from tasks which may provide a more important form of assistance. The organisations who work in disaster relief, such as the Red Cross, have their own established infrastructure for getting food and clothing to the victims, one which is far more effective than ad hoc donations. The overwhelming message from disaster relief organisations is for people to donate money, rather than things.


There are many examples of the donations from well-meaning people never reaching their intended recipients. In 1992, for example, Hurricane Andrew hit Florida. Truckloads of clothes arrived but no organisation was willing to take them and spare anyone from their busy teams to sort through the clothes. The trucks eventually dumped all the clothes in the street. And then it rained. The clothes were all ruined as they sat, steaming in the Florida sun and steadily rotting on the side of the road. A well-meaning waste. Rather than sending your clothes hundreds or even thousands of miles away, why not have a yard sale and donate the money to the relief effort? Not only will you be able to clear out your wardrobe but the clothes will still go to a good new home and you’ll be raising money which can be donated on top of the cost of posting donations.


Some people donate medical supplies. The advice from all disaster relief agencies is not to do this. Sending prescription drugs, opened or even new medication is a waste of the donor’s time and the person who sorts through it and throws them away. They simply cannot hand out this kind of donation because of the potential high risk factors. If medical assistance is needed, the relief groups will work with drug companies directly. Examples of medical donations gone wrong are the 5,000 tonnes of medicine which arrived in Armenia in 1988 and created 6 months’ worth of cataloguing work for the staff. In 1989, Eritrea received seven trucks of expired aspirin. Every pill was burned. 


When it comes to food, this is another example of a donation which requires extensive sorting. Bottled water and canned goods are often sent to disaster sites where workers must open each box, inspect each tin and repackage them for distribution. It’s a nice thought but the best way to offer nutrition to victims is to donate money to food banks. If you’re local, take food directly to the food banks who are much more efficient when it comes to sorting through edible donations. This also saves the huge cost of shipping heavy items such as cans abroad. The money saved on postage could be used as a donation or to buy more food.


When it came to the rallying support of Londoners this week, the acts of kindness were far reaching. People offered their homes, donated clothes and food. Jamie Oliver opened up his restaurant, free of charge. Simon Cowell announced a charity single was in the works to raise money for families. And Fulham Football Club offered to accept and sort through the donations; proof that an incredibly large space was going to be needed to sort through everything. And of course there was the Just Giving sites: this one is just shy of £1,000,000 at the time of writing. From my research, it will be this money which will most effectively help those many families whose lives were destroyed on Wednesday night. As early as 9pm on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the fire and 12 hours after Londoners woke up to the news, the Kensington and Chelsea Council tweeted asking people to stop donating because they had ‘been inundated’ and simply couldn’t sort through the generously donated items fast enough. More physical donations would not be any help.


Disasters such as hurricanes, tsunamis and even the fire in London are rare, freak incidents but many countries and prepared for them. When the hurricane hit Haiti in 2010, World Vision were on hand to use their stockpiled food, blankets, clothes and myriad other supplies which had been gathered as part of the humanitarian relief preparation for the upcoming hurricane season. I know the images we see in the wake of these events are heart-breaking and compel the good to act but the best way to do so is not to send supplies. Instead, support the teams already on the ground by donating money to fund their established, tried-and-tested and efficient programs. These incredible organisations and the men and women who work for them leap into action as soon as these catastrophic events take place and supporting their work is the most effective way to help. And the best way for these charities to help is to have supplies and staff in place or on hand before anything even occurs. That’s why regular monthly donations are better than a one-off lump sum given in reaction to whatever is dominating our media this week.


Let’s end on a positive note. It’s amazing that so many people want to help others in times of need. And yes, when people’s homes have been destroyed and their lives become unrecognisable in the blink of an eye, items such as food, water, clothes, blankets and medicine are vital, life-saving supplies. But you as an individual are probably not the best person to send them directly. It is far more effective in the grand scheme of things to donate to an organisation already working on the ground to provide these things. Your money can help them buy more supplies, train more personnel and prepare more countries in ways which will mitigate the impact of the disasters when they do occur. We can still do good; we just have to think about how to make our actions as effective as they can be.


Give, do, experience. More Good Deeds.