It matters who you give to, since charities vary markedly in what they focus on and how good they are. The Nepalese people on the ground need us to choose wisely. Having worked analysing charities and advising donors for over a decade, here are my thoughts.
1.Question the offers to match your donations
When the public are told (truthfully) that somebody will match their donation, they give more*. Presumably on that basis, Facebook said that it would match donations to International Medical Corps up to $2m, and the UK government said it would match donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee (a co-ordinating body of 13 UK aid agencies) up to £5m.
That sounds great, but I regarded these both as red herrings. Facebook didn’t explain why or how they’d chosen International Medical Corps – who I’d never heard of – and didn’t respond when I asked. I strongly suspect that it’ll end up giving that $2m anyway (as reference, its founder, Mark Zuckerberg’s worth is some $34bn). The UK government’s £5m seems to be coming from its Department for International Development, whose entire budget is already allocated for international development anyway – and DFID tends to be pretty thoughtful.
If you find a good charity and there’s a match on offer, then use it for sure, but a match of itself isn’t a good reason to choose one organisation over another.
2.Support Medicines Sans Frontieres right now
Everything I’ve ever seen from MSF/Doctors Without Borders has been really impressive. For instance, it was MSF who raised the flag about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, some three crucial months before the UN’s World Health Organisation geared up for action. They also produced an impressive report called Where Is Everybody? about the apparent abandonment of war-torn areas and emergency situations by most aid agencies, which seem to follow funders’ wishes to operate in safer countries.
Furthermore the independent charity analysts GiveWell (whose criteria don’t now include humanitarian assistance after disasters and emergencies) say that they “have a positive view of MSF and have recommended them for disaster-relief donations in the past… We perceive them to be unusually transparent.” Of course, a great help to donors choosing charities would be to have the view of their 'beneficiaries' (terrible word), for example,some kind of TripAdvisor to hold their feedback, but no such thing yet exists.
3.Support preparedness and systems ahead of time
A few months after the Asian tsunami of 2004, a girl turned up in a clinic in Indonesia apparently with measles. This was a surprise because many agencies had worked to prevent measles after the tsunami. It transpired that she had been vaccinated: not once, as required, but three times by three different organisations.
This kind of mal-co-ordination happens all the time. In 2004, there was no common standard through which the various charities and government agencies in Indonesia could report publicly about their activities, so it was all but impossible to get data on what other agencies were doing. That little girl’s story was one of many from which grew the International Aid Transparency Initiative, a system to make it easier to find out what other agencies are doing, and thereby improve co-ordination, outcomes and costs. IATI is an open data standard: agencies publish their data in a machine-readable format, which avoids the need for physical meetings to share information of who’s doing what where. Clearly considerable development work is needed before any emergency develop such a thing and get it agreed and adopted. The UK’s Department for International Development was the first entity to publish details of its work in IATI’s format and that was only in 2011: a further 280 others have done so such.
Equally, health-workers often find that after a disaster or emergency, they can’t use the normal evidence-based guidance which they know. Maybe they know about doing surgery in normal circumstances, but after an earthquake like that in Nepal will have hundreds of fracture patients so have to work much faster. The normal guidance about washing wounds may be no use if there’s no clean water. Evidence Aid was founded the day after the 2004 Asian tsunami and provides high quality evidence-based guidance for health-workers about what works and what doesn’t. Part of The Cochrane Collaboration, the leading source of evidence in health and medicine globally, it has, among other things, prevented Brief Debriefing, a form of counselling for people with post-traumatic stress disorder, having found that it is worse than doing nothing. It has provided evidence, on request, to Nepal, to Japan after the tsunami on dealing with mass radiation effects, to Haiti, to the WHO about Ebola and so on. [I feel sufficiently strongly about Evidence Aid that I am an unpaid advisor.]
This system-building work obviously happens away from the spotlight and the immediacy of a specific disaster. So I suggest allocating some amount of what you’re moved to give to Nepal and putting it into this system-type work: they enable us to respond better this time, and to all future occasions.
*Strictly speaking, this has been shown once, in one place. It may not be true in all times and all places.
Caroline Fiennes is the director of Giving Evidence, and author of It Ain't What You Give, It's The Way That You Give It, a guide to effective charitable donations. Buy it discounted from www.giving-evidence.com/book