Donating to Disaster Relief
Brian Gongol

To quote Robert Barro, "Nothing is Sacred." Everything about politics, society, economics, and every other field of human endeavor should be open to inquiry and debate. Open, reasoned inquiry should tend to reinforce meritable pursuits and reveal which ones are simply not as good.

Thus, it is a fair question to ask whether it is a good idea to send contributions to aid in disaster-relief efforts like the ones working to comfort the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It may sound cruel to even question whether donating is the right thing to do, but if we're honestly open to making the right decisions, we should be able to make the case for charitable donations rationally and openly.

Let it be noted: The author has contributed directly to the tsunami relief effort, having concluded that, on balance, the good done by humanitarian relief outweighs the bad. However, the conclusion is not itself a foregone one, and like all things merits open, critical debate.

Herewith, an open critique of whether it's rational to donate to causes providing disaster relief:

Briefly Rationale
Bad result May Enrich Corrupt Officials Rather than Helping the Afflicted Perhaps the largest single challenge of any relief effort is ensuring that contributions go to the needy rather than to the corrupt and well-connected. It isn't just coincidental that the poorest nations are the ones usually worst-hit by disasters; poverty makes recovery difficult if not impossible. Relatively rich nations have choices, while poor ones do not. In the modern day, there are few nations which remain poor except by the active choice of their leaders, who use cronyism, corruption, and ideology to enrich themselves at the expense of their people. If South Korea can be rich, why not North Korea? If Hong Kong is wealthy, why not the rest of China? The entirety of the difference is in the institutions those nations maintain. If humanitarian relief is not carefully dispensed, it may serve only to impoverish the people further while enriching the corrupt -- as has been made painfully clear by the UN Oil-for-Food scandal.
Good result Goodwill Value The goodwill value created by nations helping other nations in need is similar to that created when individuals help other individuals. Especially for superpower nations like the United States, the value of international goodwill is significant and may be worth many times the monetary value of what is actually given. The long-run goodwill still experienced by the United States after helping nations like Kuwait (after the 1990/1991 Gulf War) and Japan (after its defeat by the US itself in World War II) is difficult to quantify, but is likely worth much more than the dollar value of what was spent.
Bad result May Substitute Urgency for Gravity and Displace Other Worthwhile Charities It's easy to mistake urgency for gravity -- the kitchen should be cleaned, but the game is on right now. The same holds true for charity; sometimes what is urgent is less substantial than other needs, but it's difficult to tell the difference in the heat of the moment.
Good result Satisfies Humanitarian Instincts Most human beings have an innate sense of obligation toward the well-being of other humans. This humanitarian instinct itself is worth something not only to those who benefit from charity, but also to those who actually peform the giving. There is something valuable to be said for encouraging a humanitarian instinct in humans, on whatever level.
Bad result May Build Impossible Expectations in the Long Run The very fact that the entire world was aware of the South Asian tsunami disaster within minutes of its occurrence is testimony to modern conditions of communications, transportation, and exchange that simply did not exist in previous generations. As the entire world becomes increasingly aware of need, it may also become increasingly unable to respond to the entirety of that need. It is quite possible that as more disastrous events occur in ways that can be easily communicated -- as by television pictures beamed into every living room in the developed world -- there may be so many disasters competing for awareness and attention that one enormous outpouring of support (as with the massive contributions sent to the South Asian tsunami victims) may become increasingly impossible to duplicate, just as the victims of other events become aware that such massive aid efforts are possible. Thus a perceived gap between need and offering which would not have existed in previous times may grow quite large, with all of the resulting effects that may cause.
Good result May Help Control Extremist Impulses Extremism has an easier time taking root in times and places where extraordinary need is felt than amid economic security and stability. Nazism arose in post-World War I Germany in part due to hyperinflation. Extremist sentiments are fomented in the Palestinian territories in part because unemployment is high and economic prospects are bleak. When similar circumstances emerge, as in the case of enormous natural disasters, other nations may consider humanitarian relief to be a sort of imperfect insurance policy against extremism taking root in those affected areas. US aid to Indonesia reaped an immediate increase in Indonesians' favorability toward the US, which was sustained even a year later.
Bad result May Lead to Donor Exhaustion As humans, even when we have the means to do good things, we tend to reach a point of critical exhaustion at which we feel as if there is nothing more we can do. This can create an unnecessary sense of powerlessness and weakness. Suppose a teacher has thirty students, each of whom the teacher wants to give full, personal attention. Because the teacher's resources of classroom time are limited, the teacher may be able to achieve only a fraction of that full, personal attention to all thirty students, or alternatively may be able to devote himself or herself fully to a fraction of the thirty students by devoting less to the rest. If that teacher's expectations remain persistently high (full attention to every student) even when circumstances make the expectations impossible, the result may be early exhaustion -- burnout -- and a sense of defeat, rather than satisfaction in being able to achieve even a limited portion of the intended goal. The same sense of exhaustion may be possible if those who are relatively wealthy sense an obligation to "give 'til it hurts" to every possible worthwhile goal.
Good result Forms a Universal, On-Demand Catastrophic Insurance Policy Just as insurance carriers use reinsurance to effectively insure themselves, there is a need for catastrophic insurance on a global scale to insure against truly catastrophic disasters. Rather than tying up millions or even billions of dollars as insurance against once-in-a-century disasters, large-scale humanitarian relief efforts allow those dollars to instead be put to active, efficient use in the private sector until they are urgently needed. The time those dollars otherwise spend in productive use can help to create the sorts of economic activity and progress that can help alleviate the impact of those disasters later on.
Bad result May Incentivize Wrong Behavior If a community persistently gives aid to the town drunk, will he not learn to continue behaving in the same way? The difference between helping those in need and ennabling others to persist in self-destructive behavior is difficult to discern.
Good result May Help Advance Strategic Goals It's not accidental that charities bear names like Catholic Relief Services or Lutheran World Relief. Good works done in the name of a nation, religion, or movement can also be excellent means of advancing toward strategic goals (whether it be religious conversion or nation-building), while in no way detracting from the goodness of the act.
Bad result May Be Used to Rebuild the Same Infrastructure and Systems that Caused the Original Disaster If aid funds are used to rebuild large population centers close to the shore on low-lying beaches in Southern Asia, then nothing will have been learned from the tsunami disaster in 2004. Relief efforts must include at least some component devoted to changing the circumstances that either caused or worsened the effects of the initial disaster. North Korea has suffered famine due to the disastrous economic policies of its Communist government; if the relief efforts devoted to alleviating the results of that famine do nothing to change the government's policies, then they only increase the probability that famine will recur. Estimates range as high as three million deaths due to famine in North Korea, and the disaster persists without signs of changing.
Good result Efficient Delivery of Immediate Relief of Suffering If a person is hungry, is there any more efficient way of solving that problem immediately than to buy him some food? If someone is thirsty, is there any more efficient way of solving that problem than giving her water? Certain basic needs can be swiftly addressed by humanitarian contributions that reject or bypass all of the clutter that ordinarily gets in the way of someone "over here" doing something good for someone "over there."
Bad result May Discourage Insurance and Investment In the intermediate to long run, a nation hit by a major disaster of natural or other causes needs to become independent of charity and aid in order to get back on its metaphorical feet. While immediate humanitarian relief can be very helpful in the short run, it can in the long run make a basket case of a nation's economy if it keeps that nation living from hand to mouth, rather than causing it to invest in the future. The longer it takes for a nation or region to become self-sufficient, the more it may come to depend upon aid rather than undertaking the necessary investment needed to emerge from the disaster and acquiring the necessary insurance to keep the same thing from happening again.