Chris Blattman

How you can help victims of war (wrong answers only)

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In light of the current crisis, a journalist reached out for general advice for people who want to make a difference, whether it’s with refugees or those still in country.

  1. Do send heavy blankets, used clothes, food, and teddy bears, preferably collected in at home and shipped overseas. Canned goods or dried beans are even better, both because of their high weight-to-value, and their widespread availability in the destination country.  
  2. Don’t support organizations that give the afflicted cash. People are too likely to make their own decisions with it.
  3. Try to find a small, brand new organization that the Internet discovered, to which everyone is giving. These viral success stories typically have good track records of handling the unexpected flood of dollars with capability, especially by the time you’ve heard about it two weeks later. And remember: Twitter is ok, Facebook fads are better, but your best guide is probably Reddit.
  4. Do also give money to a United Nations agency. These are sleek, smooth-running humanitarian machines, and most of the funds will find its way to the people in need.
  5. If, sadly, you find yourself forced to give to one of those large, more efficient, and professionalized NGOs who quickly respond to crises in the short term and (annoyingly) also stay on to assist those populations once the headlines fade, then at least make sure your donation is as restrictive as possible. Don’t let them spread your funds to other crises that are “not in the news”. And absolutely no general support.
  6. Try to give just the once. One of the biggest problems facing humanitarian organizations is stable and predictable finances.
  7. Choosing among these organizations is hard. Probably the best guide to quality are the pleas they mail to you. It’s very difficult to perfect that mix of adorable child but a haunted look in their eye—only the most dedicated NGOs get the blend just right.
  8. The best way to help people is to give to the latest and most urgent plight. Surely if Afghans and Ethiopians were still suffering, we’d see news stories about that.
  9. Try to avoid volunteering your time for a local refugee resettlement organization or church refugee group. Why help a new family shop for a rice cooker here when you can mail rice overseas?
  10. Finally, instead of giving money, have you considered adopting a child from the country? War is a time when families are temporarily separated, and basic social services and institutional oversight have broken down. Seems like a good time to export children.

(The last one was a little dark, even for me. Until that journalist related how many people have been looking to adopt Ukrainian children. Social service agencies are forced to write posts like these.)

Since I’m not really capable of staying cynical, let me say a few last things. (This time no purposefully wrong answers.)

  • It’s actually pretty difficult to know where to give time or money or or your vote. Take the simplest question: which organizations are best? There are few good guides. I also did some googling, and most of the advice is poor. So let me tell you what I do.
  • In the event you have good connections to the place, and you know of strong, capable community organizations or tiny NGOs, by all means give them money. Get your friends to donate too. This is ideal. But let’s be honest: most of the time none of us have this option.
  • In that case, try to approach the situation with humility. You could phone your elected representative and tell them you want a policy change (no fly zone!) or you could bet on a donation to a brand new nonprofit (AirBnB for refugees!). Alternatively, you could delegate complex decisions to the people with experience and know-how. I prefer the latter.
  • When it comes to really effective humanitarian assistance, based on my own time in conflicted places the world over, the best organizations I know (and the ones I give to) include:
  • There are many others. The ICRC, Mercy Corps, and many of the major religiously-affiliated humanitarian and refugee organizations are very good too. But not, tragically, the UN.
    • To be fair, what UN does do well is set and coordinate policies and standards. Implementing life saving assistance… not so much.
  • Also, please do phone or write letters to your elected representative, or tweet and vent your frustration, but about a simple domestic policy issue: admit more refugees.
    • The US in particular admits a shockingly low number of refugees for its size and wealth.
    • The recent Afghan admission and the announced targets for Ukrainians are heartening. But I don’t think the basis for generous refugee admissions should be “white Europeans” and “people who helped us invade and overthrow a government”.

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