The GiveWell Blog

Does Haiti earthquake relief have room for more funding?

Donors have given more than $560 million to charities “to help earthquake relief efforts in Haiti.”

How much of that money has funded/will fund earthquake relief efforts in Haiti? How much should?

Money isn’t the only thing needed to deliver relief

Reports from the relief effort have stressed logistical challenges, such as blocked roads and limited access for planes and boats. See, for example, this interview on Reuters AlertNet from the 18th:

” The capacity of the Port-au-Prince airport is about to be increased but it is still a small airport. It’s very congested … The seaport is not operational and needs to be fixed in the coming days … It’s a big traffic jam of vehicles carrying humanitarian assistance and carrying people who want to leave Port-au-Prince … A massive effort is needed for Haiti but it needs to be done in a coordinated way. We need more realism about how long it takes to get an operation of this magnitude in such an intensely complicated environment running. A feeding operation for 2 million people is the goal. We know that in every case it takes time in the beginning and more time when every structure on which we can rely has been so appallingly hit.”

We’re not sure of the extent to which these issues have improved since. But we think it’s important to note that they do not sound like the kind of issues that can be solved directly by more supplies or even more money.

In fact, it is easy to see how deliveries of supplies and arrivals of volunteers could make things worse, if they are not carried out in full consideration of conditions within the country. We speculate that charities that are desperate to help, but without a strong on-the-ground presence, could be dropping off supplies without a clear plan for their distribution, and thus worsening congestion. This dynamic is described (for the case of the 2004 tsunami) in a Global Post article (H/T Good Intentions Are Not Enough):

although officials didn’t request any medicine, they received 4,000 metric tons of it, or more than 4 pounds for each person in the tsunami-affected area. There were multiple-year supplies of antibiotics, and palette loads of drugs unknown to health care providers. Seventy percent of it was labeled in a language that locals did not understand … In the end, most of the drugs had to be incinerated — you can’t simply send such a stock to the dump, where it would seep into the ground water and create another health hazard. That cost donors and the Indonesian government millions.

Other charities may be reluctant to overspend on the relief effort, for exactly these reasons. Doctors without Borders, which has a major prior presence in Haiti (over $15 million spent there in 2008, according to its activity report), is explicit that it is no longer seeking to use additional donations for the relief effort:

We are incredibly grateful for the generous support from our donors for the emergency in Haiti … We are now asking our donors to give to our Emergency Relief Fund. These types of funds ensure that our medical teams can react to the Haiti emergency and humanitarian crises all over the world, particularly neglected crises that remain outside the media spotlight. Your gift via this website will be earmarked for our Emergency Relief Fund.

Just because charities are soliciting doesn’t mean they need more funding for Haiti earthquake relief

Heifer International, is explicit about the possibility that its Haiti appeal will be overfunded, leading to funds’ going to its other activities:

Funds raised in this appeal will be used in the recovery and rebuilding effort in Haiti in the wake of the earthquake. Any funds that exceed the level needed to provide relief in this rebuilding effort will go toward the disaster relief fund and for the entire mission of Heifer International.

Other charities may be less explicit. (We have argued before that even if donations are formally earmarked for a project, they may effectively end up funding the charities’ general activities.) Worse, some charities may in fact be soliciting for Haiti and intend to spend the money in Haiti, even if they can’t do so productively.

In an ideal world, charities that had no strong and underfunded presence in the relief effort would not be soliciting donations in the context of the relief effort. But it seems to us that this crisis (and the media coverage around it) arouses people’s emotions in a way everyday suffering can’t. That gives charities reasons to “capitalize on the opportunity” – reasons that may be

  • Straightforwardly selfish: fundraisers are evaluated by how much money they bring in.
  • Based on morality: donors want to give more to a relief effort that can be usefully spent, but they give less to other humanitarian initiatives than can be usefully spent.

This dynamic could explain why so many different charities are clamoring for donations under the heading of “Haiti earthquake relief” (details forthcoming in a future post).

Can you make sure your money is going to the Haiti relief effort? Should you?

There are strong arguments that the gift you make for Haiti, in the heat of the moment, would be better applied to (for example) a bednet distribution program in Africa.

However, in our view, the fact that there are many other worthwhile activities doesn’t absolve charities of responsibility for being clear about how funds are spent, and if anything it increases the responsibility of donors to understand what they’re paying for and how it compares to their other options for accomplishing good.

We believe that “room for more funding” questions do not get enough attention. In future posts, we’ll be discussing how those questions might be answered in the context of the Haiti relief effort.


  • Julian Brelsford on February 2, 2010 at 2:07 pm said:

    Holden – Thanks for all of the work you do to highlight the question of “bang for buck” in non-profit relief. So many donors want to help, but don’t know a lot about what happens to the money they give.

    I was in Haiti when the earthquake struck and would like to share something that I’ve observed.

    There are a lot of Haitian community organizations and individuals who do highly effective community work, but have very little connection to big foreign non-profits.

    The major non-profits often, like you say, have a lot of cash but lack capacity to turn extra cash into useful results on the ground. This is not because there is a shortage of need. It ALSO doesn’t come from a shortage of trustworthy people capable of effectively distributing food aid and medical aid. But too often, the connection isn’t being made between local community workers and foreign aid organizations. Local community workers know their communities and can give you a very accurate assessment of whether bed-nets are going to be used over beds, or thrown in trash piles, or used for something else. They know about common diseases and they know how to make sure malaria medications are being given for malaria and not for diarrhea.

    Often foreign organizations think that their “experts” who have never lived among poor people know better, but barriers of language and social class often keep information from being shared effectively. You can’t trust all locals in a poor country and that is one of the major difficulties in aid. But organizations that are effective are the ones who create networks of people who are deeply connected to each other that span the distance from aid recipients, to aid organization employees, to donors. My first-hand experience with this is with several interconnected groups, all connected to Haiti Partners in the USA. Haiti Partners supports the Darbonne community school, the Cabois community school, and other organizations in Haiti. All of those organizations have people on the ground in Haiti who could keep their education work going even if all foreign funding dried up.

  • Julian Brelsford on February 2, 2010 at 2:41 pm said:

    To put a more personal twist on it:
    Gerald Lumarque is administrator for the Cabois community school. His function is to connect the school and other community projects to donor organizations (such as Haiti Partners [], government programs funding reforestation, a church in Baltimore, etc. He is a veterinarian and I’ve observed him helping people get medications for diarrhea, diabetes, and other conditions.

    Jemcy, a medical doctor, works in Cabois, using the community school there as one of his clinic locations. He has plenty of expertise to distribute medications effectively, but has been working for free in Cabois because the need is great and no organization has yet stepped up to pay his salary. He does get the opportunity to help a lot of people because Gerald has obtained medical supplies for Jemcy.

    Jemcy and Gerald work with a team that includes elementary school teachers Job, Mirak, and Ormelien. They are motivated to continue their work at the elementary school because it is in their own community. They worked without pay in this community for four years, giving up the chance to spend their teaching-time doing paid work instead. School hours are only 9AM to noon, but even so I saw the third grade students successfully multiplying two digit numbers by four digit numbers. And, significantly, I saw a whole school full of students who were focused and interested in learning, and spoke of their gratefulness for the opportunity to go to school.

    They want to see a generation of children in their area who have the opportunity to work for a living, and education (which includes math and financial literacy) is critical to prevent the children from being dependent on aid handouts in the future. It’s hard to quantify how aid work might create a situation where aid is no longer needed versus when aid will create dependence on more aid. But I hope you’ll learn as much as you can (and share, of course) about how that distinction works.

  • variableannuity on February 2, 2010 at 10:50 pm said:

    Funds wiil always be there. And non-monetary services are very much needed in Haiti.

  • Brendon on February 3, 2010 at 1:42 pm said:

    The Haitian tragedy has had a great impact on the rest of the world, regardless of whether you know someone of Haitian descent. I work with an organization based in Portland called CafeGive. We help raise money for non-profits such as Mercy Corps, who greatly need assistance. The money is raised by individual shoppers who shop through our merchants’ websites. There is no extra cost to the shopper, because CafeGive donates a percentage of the profits to the designated non-profit organization. Visit to help support Mercy Corps’ efforts in Haiti.

  • Church Fund Raising Revival on February 4, 2010 at 11:14 am said:

    Yes there is still a room for more funds. Haiti needs more attention as compared before, I have seen in the news how horrible their situation right now. Poverty is present and now they are worried about the pandemic that might happen due to the corpse being thrown every where due to lack of spaces. Let’s have pity on them and continue helping them.

  • Alicia Weston on October 16, 2010 at 3:08 pm said:

    Hi, when referring to MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres) as “Doctors without Borders”, could you also add MSF or the proper name there? I have never heard it referred to as “Doctors without borders” although this is a literal translation of their French name, and I see it is on their US website, I think this is just a name they use in the US but in Europe and the UK no-on recognises that name…. thanks
    P.S. would be interesting if you could publish more opinion on them since they did win the Nobel Peace Prize

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