Who should handle disaster relief, private charities or governments? The answer is
probably both. Because of their different advantages and disadvantages, I think each
situation should be examined to work out the optimal mix. Another alternative, that I do
not discus here, is private insurance. It is primarily for small, random, personal
disasters. It often cannot cope when a large scale disaster creates a large number of
simultaneous claims. I am thinking primarily in terms of acute disasters such as large
floods, hurricanes, forest fires, earthquakes, volcanoes, famines, plagues, refugee
displacements… both domestic and foreign.
Advantages of Letting Charities Do It
- It is voluntary. Nobody forces you to contribute.
- There are many charities. If one fails, another may still succeed.
- Much of the work gets done by volunteer labour.
- You attack the problem many different ways.
- The bureaucracy is more streamlined.
- Even a tiny group of dedicated people can take on an independent project.
- Emotional appeals from charities can encourage some people to extreme generosity,
thus lowering the burden on other donors. For example, in 1985 I sold everything I owned including a fully paid for four-bedroom
house to help the Ethiopian famine.
- A small charity does not need much auditing. The workers and the donors are the
same people or know each other well and know whom it is safe to trust with money.
Advantages of Letting Governments Do It
- Everybody is forced to contribute, so any individual person has to contribute less
to get the job done.
- The total budget is allocated with the big picture in mind.
- The government can afford to hire specialists to plan an effective overall
- There is less need for a relief or disaster prevention measure to have emotional
appeal. Measures are more hard-headed and effective. e.g. protecting species at risk
does not require Panda-like cuddliness.
- There are potentially sufficient funds available to get the job done.
- There is no extra overhead for fundraising or auditing the fundraising. The funds
are raised as a side effect of taxation that would happen anyway, just at a higher
- The military needs to keep large amounts of manpower and equipment in reserve,
ready for some military emergency. So long as there is no military emergency, disaster
relief can be effective use of this resource. It can even be thought of as a type of
- Unlike a charity, a government can act immediately. It does not need to wait for
fundraising aimed specifically at a given high-profile disaster to bear fruit.
Disadvantages of Letting Charities Do It
- The majority of people of every economic strata scam the system.
They do not contribute their fair share, but happily accept aid when they are the
victim of a disaster, such as a flood or hurricane. They don’t think of
themselves as deadbeats. If they voluntarily contribute so much as a dime each year
they think of themselves as a full-fledged donors. This ability to sponge, without
being scorned, or feeling guilty, is primarily what motives Republicans to oppose
government disaster relief. Sponges consider this weakness an advantage.
- In most cases, the efforts are just a band-aid. The funding is nowhere near
- Multiple charities step in, yet refuse to coordinate their efforts. Back in
1985, a local celebrity Ann Mortifee founded the Phoenix
Foundation and asked me to design a computer system to help charities coordinate their
efforts. Charities all over the world were enthusiastic to participate. They were eager
to know what other charities were doing. However, none were willing to contribute
information on what they were planning or doing themselves. We had to abandon the
- Money is allocated based on emotional appeal and what will sucker the bleeding
hearts into donating more, not on practical need. Disasters affecting infants or baby
animals get a disproportionate share of the funding.
- It is quite easy for charities to solicit funds, then spend them on something
entirely different and the donors never know. The auditing is more loosey goosey.
- A very large proportion of the money raised goes to the costs of fundraising.
- Relief programs are driven mainly by what will raise more funds. This can lead to
suboptimal decisions, since donors, who know very little about disaster relief,
effectively call all the shots.
- Charities harass you with mailings, phone calls and ads.
- In tough economic times, funding almost completely dries up.
- Charities generally can only get into high gear fundraising once there is a
disaster dominating the news.
Disadvantages of Letting Governments Do It
- The large scale of the amounts of money involved invites large scale fraud.
- The allocations as to who gets helped are influenced by political decisions, e.g.
the degree to which the dictators who run the affected country are friendly to the
donor country’s business interests, not to human need.
- You, as an individual, have relatively little power to decide where the money
should be spent.
- Different political parties have quite different ideologies about disaster relief.
This means overnight a country’s strategies can massively change. You thus get a
more chaotic response to disaster. If a stingy government gets in power, even citizens
who want to help cannot contribute through the government.
- In tough economic times, funding tends to dry up dries up, but the need for
disaster relief tends to grow. e.g. global warming increase the disasters and depresses
- People stop protecting themselves from disasters, e.g. by making sensible choices
of where to place their homes and rely on the government to bail them out.
- You have to help everyone your government helps, even people you hate, like blacks,
gays, unmarried mothers, immigrants, homeless people, people of other religions, people
in the middle east, people of other political beliefs…
- Is it very easy for governments to lie to their citizens, fooling them into lauding
themselves as generous when they are not. For example Americans imagine they are the
most generous country in the world, yet they are in last place in the developed world
in terms of percentage of GNI (Gross National Income). Even the greedy Saudis are 50
times as generous. It is ironic two of the richest countries in the world are also the
stingiest. Canada is the second stingiest western country giving 2.8 times as generously as the USA as a percentage of
countries like Canada announce generous donations at international conferences, take a
bow for the TV news, but then never deliver.