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Why I am not donating to the most effective charity

GiveDirectly has the strongest case of any organization for a donation. It works and has the evidence to back up the claim.

Knowing this, I did not give to them this year.

I, like many other Americans, wait until the end of the year to do my charitable giving. As a person who covers the humanitarian sector I read a lot of organization’s reports, pitches and research studies.

Armed with this knowledge, it would seem that choosing where and how to give is easy. It is not. I tend to worry too much that it will be wasted. I debated sharing where I am giving this year and justifying my decision.

Ultimately I decided to write this because of my belief in the importance of transparency. I should disclose any possible conflicts of interest with my reporting. I do not think that my decision constitutes any conflict going forward, but erring on the side of transparency makes the most sense to me.

This happens to be a moment where major humanitarian emergencies (Philippines, Syria, Central African Republic) require a lot of money and when better information on impacts of programs make it easier to know what is the most effective way to give.

It is useful to explain what I think is the most pressing humanitarian need at the moment. Further, I do not believe that my giving in any way impacts my ability to fairly report on a given organization or topic, but I believe firmly in transparency. Readers should know any potential information that impacts my reporting.

Syrian refugees collect water, in Lebanon.
Syrian refugees collect water, in Lebanon.

Recent studies point towards the efficacy of donating to GiveDirectly. Most of the money donated goes directly to someone living in poverty and it has a significant impact on each family. The study from Kenya, published this fall, showed that people used the money for food, education, business expenses and durable assets (not booze and cigarettes).

Giving people money is not a silver bullet to eliminate poverty, but it goes a long way to helping. If thinking purely about impact for the little that I can give this year, it makes a lot of sense to give money to a place that will have the greatest possible benefit.

A matching grant from the foundation Good Ventures means that my donation would be doubled, thus increasing the impact of every dollar I donate even more.

But, I decided to give elsewhere.

Aside from minor giving in support of friends running races and my brother doing Movember, I am giving to the UN’s Central Emergency Relief Fund.

The ongoing civil war in Syria, the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, a simmering civil war in South Sudan and a violent political crisis in the Central African Republic are urgent problems that deserve more attention and funds.

They are also all woefully underfunded.

Nearly 9 million people have been displaced from their homes in and around Syria. More than two million have fled the country and the flow of refugees continues at a time when aid resources are severely lacking and the cold of winter has arrived.

Organizations working to respond to the humanitarian needs caused by the civil war continue to warn that people face extreme hardship and the money is not there.

“With polio on the loose, and a subzero winter already here, the people of Syria now face months of more death and despair. We are witnessing a humanitarian catastrophe that is receiving far too little attention and funding around the world,” said David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee, last week.

A total of $6.5 billion is needed for the UN to respond to the crisis in Syria next year. That is half of the $13 billion in total needed for humanitarian operations in 2014.

UN responds to South Sudanese displaced by fighting in Juba.
UN responds to South Sudanese displaced by fighting in Juba.

Only 60% of what was needed for Syria was funded in 2013. The record humanitarian need and the state of humanitarian funding make for a challenging year ahead.

“It’s clear that the appeals that are being made cannot be met only by the traditional donors,” said António Guterres, the high commissioner for refugees.

Then there is the $8.5 billion that the Philippines estimates it will cost to recover from the typhoon. The UN plans on contributing  $791 million in aid for the appeal. Unfortunately, the UN has underperformed in the CAR and South Sudan, thus far. The rapidly changing problems in the two countries have caught the UN flatfooted.

A lot will change in the two countries over the next few weeks. France is in the Central African Republic and US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power also just made a visit to the country. South Sudan may or may not be heading towards a civil war. Contradictory reports still stream out of the country as the people on the ground are still not exactly sure what is happening.

MSF staff provide treatment for injured people in Central African Republic.
MSF staff provide treatment for injured people in Central African Republic.

The upcoming problems and the UN’s failures give reason to pause when making my decision, but changes are under way. MSF calling out the UN regarding its poor response in the CAR helped to galvanize some changes. Hopefully more are on the way.

I also believe that a lack of resources is one of the obstacles faced by the UN in the two countries. At the very least, a better funded UN makes it much harder for it to hide behind failing to act appropriately. Saying that there is not enough money is too easy of an out from accountability.

Small donors, like myself, will not even make a dent in the total need for 2014. Given the scale and variety of problems, it is hard to ignore the massive need. There are good reasons to question the way that the UN works and whether it is the most effective humanitarian organization.

However, the fact is that it’s a major player that helps coordinate and work with many excellent relief organizations. Donating into a central pot will ensure that my money is used to support whatever needs arise over the next year. The impact of each dollar will not be the same as giving to GiveDirectly, but I am OK with that.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]