The GiveWell Blog

Cyclone relief: Recommendation and questions

I had a typical reaction to the disaster in Myanmar: wanting to do something. I have spent very little time looking into the area of disaster relief, so after a bit of Googling and discussion with Elie, I gave to Population Services International for two reasons:

  • PSI was the winner of our “saving lives” cause for 2007; we are extremely impressed with the organization as a whole, particularly its commitment to thorough self-monitoring. We don’t know much about their relief operations, but I would bet on PSI over any other international relief organization I know of just in terms of the extent to which it “runs a tight ship” with solid monitoring and oversight that allows accountability from the field to the top.
  • PSI has a major and long-established presence in Myanmar; I believe (based mostly on this article) that having a pre-existing presence is important, particularly in a situation like this where the idiosyncracies of the area and particularly government seem important. I’m most comfortable with an organization that is used to getting work done in this political and cultural environment.

This is an informal, personal recommendation; it is backed not by an in-depth research project, but by the quick heuristics above.

This also got me thinking, though, about the more general cause of “disaster relief.” We looked into this cause back in 2006 (when we were still a part-time group of volunteers) and found very little. We aren’t aware of any organizations that are exclusively committed to disaster relief; rather, it seems to us that most relief efforts come from large humanitarian organizations, such as PSI, the Red Cross, World Vision, CARE, Direct Relief International, etc. that spend most of their time and money on direct, day-to-day (not disaster-related) aid. This makes sense, since it means emergency aid efforts can be aided by already-on-the-ground presences.

However, it isn’t necessarily the case that the best “day-to-day” relief organization is the best disaster relief organization. The former may be best accomplished through meticulously planned long-term projects that rely on proven techniques to get the maximal dollar-for-dollar impact; by contrast, I would guess that a disaster presents problems that are unusually simple to solve (people who need basic supplies, but who don’t necessarily suffer from a host of interrelated physical, economic, and cultural obstacles), and that speed and efficiency are more important. I’d be very interested in a compiled summary of disaster relief efforts over the last 10 or so years – which organizations were first, and most instrumental, in each relief effort. It seems feasible that such a summary could be created by polling affected governments and citizens, but I’ve never seen one.

I also wonder whether there are cost-effective “disaster preparedness” measures that can aid particularly vulnerable areas in advance. I was shocked at the death toll from this particular disaster, and I wonder whether a similar storm in the U.S. could have been nearly as devastating. It’s possible that disaster preparedness comes mostly from widespread economic prosperity, and that nonprofits are ill-equipped to bring about the kinds of drastic changes that would be needed to improve preparedness (and/or that the areas least equipped for disasters also have other, more important problems). But it also seems possible to me that constructing some extra shelters – or equipping communication infrastructure to provide effective early warnings – could save lives far more effectively than focusing only on after-the-fact interventions.

Looking into these questions, as with just about any area of philanthropy I can think of, would take significant time and resources. I’m not sure whether we’ll get to do it anytime in the near future. But it seems likely to me that the costs of such investigation would be more than justified. When disaster strikes, a lot of people reach straight for their wallets, and give without having time to think about their different options. But the thinking could be done, centrally, in advance – imagine what a difference that would make.


  • F Lawed on May 7, 2008 at 8:10 pm said:

    Gosh, Holden, you have given a lot of thought to this issue. There is, as usual, a flaw in your reasoning. PSI in Myanmar does not implement disaster relief programs. Its water purifier product would be helpful if it was rapidly donated free to people without safe drinking water but PSI commonly uses social marketing and behavior communication to sell it. I’m sure they will use your money in a responsible way for their other activities.

    F Lawed

  • Holden on May 7, 2008 at 9:21 pm said:

    I’ve admitted that this was a very quick search, but I don’t think the objection you’re raising is valid. PSI explicitly says, in its news release regarding the cyclone, that it will be giving out its safe water treatment for free in the disaster relief effort, exactly as you suggest (and clean water is a focus of the other organizations I’ve looked at for this purpose as well).

    Do you have a recommendation on where to give?

  • R Day Able on May 7, 2008 at 11:23 pm said:

    The news from the press release is welcome and I note that PSI did not ask for funds in it. Save the Children and World Vision both have experienced national staff on the ground ready to work on the emergency response and will be there for longer term rehabilitation as well. I need to point out that I have no personal connection with either of these institutions.

    R Dey Able

  • beth in Greensboro on May 9, 2008 at 6:34 pm said:

    Great idea if it wasn’t for their corrupt controlling government.

  • David J. Olson on May 9, 2008 at 7:13 pm said:

    Disclaimer: I have worked for PSI for 16 years (10 of those years overseas). It is true that PSI is not a disaster or relief organization (and does not claim to be). Rather, we use private sector infrastructure to deliver health products and services to poor and vulnerable people who need them. In Myanmar, we have an extensive retail distribution network throughout the country and as well as a nationwide Sun Quality Health franchised network of doctors, including 300 doctors in the affected region. We produce and distribute a product called WaterGuard, a safe water treatment originally developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fortunately, this is our one health product that is produced entirely in country and our factory is now working at capacity to produce as much of this as we can so we can give it out free to organizations who, in turn, are distributing it to the survivors. In addition to ensuring access to safe water, PSI/Myanmar is procuring essential medicines and health supplies for distribution through its Sun Quality Health network. Our relationship with these 300 private sector doctors have allowed us to be one of the first organizations to get health care out to the affected areas and we’ll be supporting the doctors so they, too, can offer services for free during the crisis. We have provided safe water treatment in this way in both the Asian tsumani and the Pakistan earthquake. F. Lawed is correct that we normally sell products at highly subsidized prices in order to access commercial markets but in this disaster, as in others, we absolutely do not sell but, in fact, are giving away as much water treatment as we can as quickly as possible. Finally, although we have not asked for funds up until now – rather, we were financing these efforts out of our long-term development programs – but we have now put up a donation link on our website for those who wish to support these efforts.
    David J. Olson

  • Sam Lee on June 5, 2008 at 12:20 pm said:

    I was just brought into attention of an organization called Partners World ( ) .

    From what it said (and what I heard indirectly), they exclusively focus on the South-East Asia, including refugee and relief work.

    It is not a big organization like PSI, World Vision, etc., but seems to be have local know-how capability to find their ways around.
    They also post what they’re doing on the ground so there is some (arguably greater) level of transparency.

    In comparison, for the bigger organization with a better relationship with the government (in general) I would be a bit concerned on the amount of backroom deal they need to do / sacrifice in other to get things through.

    Certainly, on the flip side, smaller organization does not have the scale.

  • Rainsoft on January 8, 2009 at 12:25 pm said:

    Water treatment is very important during disasters like this. Home water treatment systems are a great idea for this type of application.

  • D. (Culligan Houston) on May 20, 2009 at 12:58 pm said:

    Interesting point about day-to-day operations v. more nimble, responsive operations. I’d say that with the latter, you’re going to naturally lose some oversight/accountability because you’re reacting quickly to a disaster situation – so you don’t have the time to cross all your t’s and dot all the i’s, and make sure that each dollar is accounted for.

    I’d also agree with Sam Lee that a local organization probably understands the people and the problem better than a larger one and [assuming it is ‘clean’] can better address problems. I also believe that in cases like this, the better local organizations also tend to receive help or work with some of the larger international organizations.


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