Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Felix Salmon catches me off guard

When I see a headline like this:

Don’t donate money to Japan

I expect it to come from a Rush Limbaugh or some other professional xenophobe. Seeing it on Felix Solmon's site caught me off guard until I realized he was talking about earmarking money for Japan when you give:
We went through this after the Haiti earthquake, and all of the arguments which applied there apply to Japan as well. Earmarking funds is a really good way of hobbling relief organizations and ensuring that they have to leave large piles of money unspent in one place while facing urgent needs in other places. And as Matthew Bishop and Michael Green said last year, we are all better at responding to human suffering caused by dramatic, telegenic emergencies than to the much greater loss of life from ongoing hunger, disease and conflict. That often results in a mess of uncoordinated NGOs parachuting in to emergency areas with lots of good intentions, where a strategic official sector response would be much more effective. Meanwhile, the smaller and less visible emergencies where NGOs can do the most good are left unfunded.

That said, it’s entirely possible that organizations like the Red Cross or Save the Children will find themselves with important and useful roles to play in Japan. It’s also certain that they have important and useful roles to play elsewhere. So do give money to them — and give generously! And give money to other NGOs, too, like Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which don’t jump on natural disasters and use them as opportunistic marketing devices. Just make sure it’s unrestricted. The official MSF position is exactly right:

The ability of MSF teams to provide rapid and targeted medical care to those most in need in more than 60 countries around the world – whether in the media spotlight or not – depends on the generous general contributions of our donors worldwide. For this reason, MSF does not issue appeals for support for specific emergencies and this is why we do not include an area to specify a donation purpose on our on-line donation form. MSF would not have been able to act so swiftly in response to the emergency in Haiti, as an example, if not for the ongoing general support from our donors. So we always ask our supporters to consider making an unrestricted contribution.

I’ve just donated $400 in unrestricted funds to MSF. Some of it might go to Japan; all of it will go to areas where it’s sorely needed. I’d urge you to do the same, rather than try to target money at whichever disaster might be in the news today.

At the risk of overselling, when it comes to questions involving money, whether investing it or giving it, Felix Solmon's blog should probably be the first place you click.


  1. I remember this issue from Haiti well. I think that the real lesson here is that donating earmarked money (to anything) is way less useful than unrestricted donations. You can't put a price on flexibility . . .

  2. A thoughtful counter-point: