Why you should donate to disaster prevention, not relief

When disaster strikes parts of the world that aren’t our own, it is often a natural reaction to reach for our wallets in order to help those who have been affected. However, this might not be the best way to make a difference.

William MacAskill is a University of Oxford philosopher, who questions the effectiveness of seemingly altruistic actions, particularly in his book Doing Good Better. In this case, he argues against donating to disaster relief programs.

A controversial opinion, but according to MacAskill, the dramatic nature of recent disasters make us complacent about ongoing, everyday disasters such as poverty and disease.

Disasters are associated with emergencies that must be addressed instantly. This, of course, is true, but issues like poverty-related deaths and disease should receive the same treatment. Currently, they aren’t getting the same “emergency” response from donors.

For example, for every death that occurred due to Japan’s Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, aid organizations received $330,000 in donations. Foreign aid and philanthropy, on the other hand, receives $15,000 for every person who dies from poverty-related causes worldwide, according to MacAskill's calculations. 

Mainichi Shimbun / Reuters

So the question is, whilst donating to emergency disaster relief is surely helping people, is it the best way to do so?

In Doing Good Better, McAskill applies the law of diminishing returns to the charitable sector and argues that the more people that donate to a charitable cause, the less of an impact your personal donation will have. With this law in mind, it makes much more sense to donate to charities that fight everyday disasters like extreme poverty rather than emergency relief, since many other people are probably already donating to the latter.

This law is a difficult one because it tells you that when you're pulled in by an emotional story and want to help by donating, you should resist the urge to do so. Your money is needed more for charitable causes that address the constant threats to human life that are no longer classified as “emergency.” 

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Still, you may have a particular urge to donate to the disaster field. You still can, but optimally not to relief, but to prevention. While we can’t prevent an earthquake, we can build earthquake resistant buildings and aim to never build structures where tectonic plates meet. It is possible to prevent hundreds of people dying and the destruction of cities. Disaster-prone areas should have mitigation measures in place to eliminate or reduce the impacts and risks of hazards before the disaster occurs, which of course need funding.

As climate change brings harsher and more frequent natural disasters to all corners of the planet, we better be prepared for when they hit, not in desperately saving lives, but containing the damage. Developing countries with poor infrastructure struggle much more than the developed world and they need funding, not after the disaster strikes, but before.

So if you like the idea of making the most effective impact with your money, perhaps save the donations for perennial problems such as disease, or starvation and disaster prevention in developing countries, which can benefit much more people for a much lower cost.

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