The fire that broke out beneath the roof of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on April, 15 and the cyclone that made landfall near Beira, in Mozambique, in March were two different, incomparable events. However, in distinctive ways, each highlighted that philanthropy has yet to find an effective way to deal with what we may call “the problem of disaster relief donations.”
As explained in the book Doing Good Better by British philosopher William MacAskill, one of the key figures of the Effective Altruism movement, donations to disaster relief programs can be less effective than, for example, donations to highly-impactful organizations that are fighting extreme poverty. This is due to a fundamental principle of economics called “the law of diminishing returns.”
The law states that “in all productive processes, adding more of one factor of production, while holding all others constant, will at some point yield lower incremental per-unit returns.” The principle applies also to everyday life. Just think of that new sweater you received last Christmas. How valuable is that sweater for you depends on how many sweaters you have already. If you’re homeless and have no warm clothes, it can be a life-saver, if you have a place to live but are at the moment a bit low on sweaters it can be a welcomed addition to your wardrobe but if you already have plenty of sweaters, the gift might actually be just a nuisance, another thing you need Marie Kondo’s help for.
The same goes for philanthropy. Your charitable bucks are much more valuable and have a bigger impact if they’re donated to an under-funded cause area rather than to an organization that is already receiving substantial funds. And disaster relief programs tend to belong to the latter category.
This is because when we do good we’re often driven by our emotions and by the urgency of the situation. Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale, has concluded through his research that empathy is one of the main motivators for moral action. Therefore, people are more prone to donate money to emergency, dramatic situations rather than to ongoing, structural problems.
Seeing the Cathedral of Notre Dame on fire is likely to trigger a strong emotional reaction in most of Western citizens. Many of us have visited it and cherish fond memories of that day. Moreover, millions of young people watched the Disney movie The Hunchback of Notre-Dame when they were kids and they are likely to experience some kind of nostalgia effect. Therefore it shouldn’t be surprising that, despite the hefty checks signed by French billionaires, donations to rebuild the cathedral’s roof and spire poured in, so much so that there are some fears that too much money has been raised.
In the case of cyclone Idai, Western donors are likely to feel a weaker emotional connection with the areas affected: very few of us have traveled to Africa and most of us never watched a movie set in Mozambique or bordering countries. At the same time, the impactful, albeit not so extensive, media coverage of the event moved many of us to donate to organizations running disaster programs in the area affected by the cyclone. But in the 24/7 news economy, journalists need to keep spinning new stories constantly and Idai quickly disappeared from the frontpages.
The cyclone has been so devastating partly because people affected by it were very ill-prepared to face a natural disaster. In a context of structural extreme poverty, it’s evident that people lack the resources to build storm-resistant houses or in general to prevent future disasters. There are already so many problems in the now...
In other words, both cases show, in different ways, the limitations of disaster relief donations. That’s why in his book Against Empathy, Paul Bloom argues for a switch from “emotional” to “rational” compassion. A switch that is invoked by MacAskill in Doing Good Better, too.
However, as much as I can agree with Bloom and MacAskill, I think that emotionally-driven donations will always be prominent in philanthropy. And, after all, it’s also good to see that society is able to promptly react to emerging, dramatic situations.
We should probably just try to mitigate the effects of the law of diminishing returns. Ruminating over this issue, I thought that one way of doing so could be represented by the widespread adoption of a sort of “Netflix model” for philanthropy.
When disasters happen and people become eager to donate, charitable organizations could put a bigger emphasis on subscription-based options over one-shot donations.
This way, the positive energy that follows disasters would be more easily channeled into long-lasting programs that in turn could help prevent future disasters.