Striking a Balance

Giving Differently
by Anna Flam -- December 23rd, 2013

As soon as classes end, I start reading again. Since hitting submit on my last paper I’ve caught up with fiction ranging from Divergent and The Giver to And the Mountains Echoed, so I can converse with normal (non-grad student) humans. I like to mix in a little non-fiction, and lately the book I can’t stop recommending is Chasing Chaos, a memoir covering years of humanitarian aid work.

While covering expat quirks, wine smuggling, and life in a fragile state, Chasing Chaos also delivers a non-preachy critique on aid. (For a more preachy screed on aid issues see Dark Star Safari. However, as grating as Theroux initially comes across, he still makes a valid point, but I believe alienates most readers in the first chapter with his superiority.)

Whether you are looking for a last-minute gift or a tax write-off, or are even just a good person, December is the busiest time of year for charitable giving. Some of that giving will probably go to NGOs supporting the type of humanitarian missions covered in Chasing Chaos (maybe you’ve already given to Typhoon Haiyan relief?).

Lets try and echo this sentiment this holiday season.

Lets try and echo this sentiment during the holidays.

Unfortunately a lot of aid creates more problems than benefit. Chasing Chaos author Jessica Alexander already has great a article out on why giving your old clothes to disaster relief missions is a mistake. Yet, too many people only care about the warm feeling they get from giving, and unfortunately money doesn’t give that same feeling.

Working in Thailand I also encountered issues with giving things (even larger things). After the 2004 Tsunami people needed houses. So the Lion’s Club raised money and built houses. They build houses for anyone who asked, and ignored local housing styles. In they end they got a 150 house village that only ever had 75 occupied houses. In 2013 fewer than 10 of the houses are occupied by humans. Locals told me cobras occupied the other houses.

More effort verifying who actually needed a house (about half the free houses were claimed by people with houses in a town outside the tsunami’s range), might have created enough trust to give cash. Allowing locals to design, build, and space their own houses might have created something more sustainable than this ghost town. Increasingly, direct cash transfers are seen as a legitimate and preferred relief method.

Direct cash transfers are not a panacea, though, especially when considering environmental issues, but to take your holiday giving to the next level here are a few recommendations.


GiveDirectly is the current all-star of direct cash transfers to impoverished households. Right now they’re just in Kenya, but are looking to expand.

On a more personal level, Andaman Discoveries, the social enterprise where I interned last summer, needs funding for their school for Burmese children.  As Burma becomes more open funding is drying up for Burmese who already fled. Burmese are a marginalized population in Thailand, and these children still need help — give here.

Don’t be afraid of overhead.

Although I’ve just lauded the beauty of direct cash transfers, and part of this beauty is low overhead, I still believe (and I’m not alone) people are too focused on overhead. Charities need offices and staff to survive. 

Make your own choice.

Don’t trust me? That’s fine. Here is another guide to giving. Or do your own research with:

Don’t be in the 65% of Americans who don’t research their charitable giving.


Happy holidays, and let me know if you’ve got any other great organizations to suggest.



1 Comment

  1. Sarah Loftus
    Sarah Loftus
    Dec 27, 2013

    Thanks for providing advice and some sobering lessons on which donations are most useful. I’ll definitely refer back to this post when deciding how to donate in the future!

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