Responding to Humanitarian Crises

Reading time: 3 minutes

According to the UN “The world faces the largest humanitarian crisis since 1945” as famine sweeps across East Africa.

What can we do? What should we do? Should we give money to help? If so where should we give?

Below we discuss the pros and cons of donating to crisis appeals, compared to other options, and highlight some of the most useful resources we have come across on this topic . . .



The effective altruism community believes that there are global poverty interventions where even small donations can have a huge impact on the recipients. (See: Donating to crisis appeals is a wonderful thing to do, however there is a question whether it is better to give in a crisis than to give to one of the top rated charities such as the Against Malaria Foundation.

Here are two of the most useful articles we’ve read looking at the drawbacks with donating to disaster relief:

Givewell: The case against disaster relief

Giving What We Can: Emergency Aid

The Giving What We Can article explains: Emergency aid is often rushed and improvised, reducing its effectiveness. The majority of suffering  attributable to disasters occur when the disaster happens,  often before aid organisations arrive. The most cost-effective suffering to avert is in the mid to long-term after an event, but aid organisations tend to focus only on the acute consequences of an event.

There may also be other ways we can have an impact that are not donating. See:

Crisis appeals cost us political action

This article is a good overview of how crises desensitise the population to the effects of long-term poverty. We have an aid system where less than 5% of humanitarian aid goes to preparedness and preventing crises. The article finishes with a call to push politicians, aid agencies and donors to focus on ending conflicts and avoiding humanitarian crises in the first place.



The reasons given against donating are largely based on a lack of research about what works, and written in response to other emergency crises appeals, so may not be applicable in this case. There are also particularly effective famine prevention techniques such as Ready-to-use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) which may make donating in this case more valuable.

Or maybe we don’t just want to turn a blind eye.

If you do think there is a case for giving in this situation then you will want to do so effectively.

Givewell: 6 tips on disaster relief giving gives some advice

  1. Give cash not clothes
  2. Support an organisation that will help or get out of the way
  3. Give proactively not reactively
  4. Allow your funds to be used where they’re most needed
  5. Give to transparent and accountable organisations
    • Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)
    • International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
  6. Think about less publicised suffering

If you are looking for specific charities to give to:
• You may also be interested in the recommendations made in Givewell’s 2011 research into famine in Somalia.
• The previously linked Giving What We Can article also recommends Médecins Sans Frontières.

However it is hard to know how generalisable these recommendations are to the current situation.



Unfortunately the effective altruism community does not have all the answers about what is best in this situation. We are keen for more research to be done and for discussion and debate to happen, if anyone has the time for further research then please let us know.

Personally I still continue to give to the Against Malaria Foundation.