Over the last few days we’ve seen lots of calls for giving to organizations that will help the tsunami victims. After you do that (I’m giving to the American Red Cross), step back and think about other forms of giving.
Disasters like the South Asian earthquake/tsunami get a lot of attention because they are easily identified events. Longer term, slower problems like famine and poverty aren’t as easy to identify with, and need help too. Car crashes kill a lot more people than airplane crashes, but there are lots of car crashes, and each one is small, whereas there are just a few big airplane crashes. Airplane crashes make the news, so airplane crashes are what people remember. This is also why special interests get laws passed in their favor. It’s easier to identify with the thousands of milk producers who will benefit from higher prices than with the millions of families who will benefit from lower prices (either directly, at the store, or indirectly, with lower taxes).
We’re going to see a lot of people asking why there wasn’t a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean. There will be a host of reasons, like the infrequency of tsunamis, the lack of funding, the poverty in the area, stinginess of Americans, etc. But I think the real question is why is there a tsunami warning network in the Pacific? Solving individual problems like a tsunami detection network will make us feel good. They are something you can point to easily and say something was done. But they’re not necessarily the best use of money, and may even be taking attention, effort, and resources away from other projects that could help more. If the economies around the Indian Ocean were as strong as those around the Pacific Ocean, I think we would have had those tsunami detection networks. We need social, economic, and political development to help solve millions of problems instead of solving only those that have gotten widespread press.
So after you’ve helped the short term relief efforts, think about investing for the long term. What organizations are helping the social, economic, and political development in these impoverished nations? I think money spent there will be a better investment than money spent on the relief efforts. I want people not to have to worry about their next meal, not because I’ve sent food their way, but because they can support themselves. I want people not to have to worry about their health, not because I’ve sent them vaccines, but because they can take care of themselves. I want people everywhere to have the luxury of being friendly to the environment, being prepared for disasters, and being able to help others in need. But I don’t know how to get to that world.