Before I start, let me say that the earthquake in Haiti was a tragedy, and the public response to it has been laudable. Nothing I say here is intended to undermine the generosity of those who stepped forward to donate. But I feel the aftermath exposes a worrying pattern.
A natural disaster befalls a certain part of the world, and people wring their hands over it. Soon this settles down and people devote their energies to providing aid: governments and NGOs swing into action, and the general public mobilise their best efforts to provide funds from T-shirts, concerts, bake sales and good old-fashioned donations. The sense of hopelessness is temporarily assuaged until news gets back that aid can’t get through: Haiti’s lack of infrastructure combined with the crippling effects of the quake mean that aid is blocked by sheer logistical difficulties—and we’re back to hand-wringing again.
Nobody likes to feel powerless. But if you want to prevent unnecessary deaths, then I have good news for you: it’s easier than you think. Around one million people die from malaria each year, and nearly two million from tuberculosis (TB). An incredible 36 million die each year from causes related to malnutrition (this number very likely overlaps with the numbers for malaria and TB). The vast majority of these deaths are preventable, and at surprisingly low cost, since the limiting factor isn’t the Herculean logistical task of getting emergency aid in through narrow transport channels already at maximum capacity—it’s simply lack of funds.
Haiti may not be getting all the help it needs right now, but it’s quite possibly getting all the help it can handle for the moment. Meanwhile, poverty hasn’t let up elsewhere in the world, and by the third day of the Haiti relief effort an equivalent number of preventable deaths had happened elsewhere in the world.
I don’t pretend to have any answers to global poverty, but I’d like to suggest two questions that could usefully guide our human desire to make the world a better place. Firstly, how can I target my giving to optimise the amount of suffering saved in the world? Secondly, how can I target my giving to be sustainable and continue to pay dividends over time? If we can satisfy these, then I don’t see what more can be asked of us.