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Haiti and the Limits of Generosity

MELBOURNE – All over the world, people have responded generously to the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti. In just three days, more than a million Americans had donated $10 with the aid of text messages from their cellphones. People with very little themselves, like Maria Pacheco, an unemployed single mother from Chicago, donated food and clothes.

Others did whatever they could – from pedicures to washing cars – to raise money. On current indications, the amount Americans will give to relief efforts in Haiti could surpass the $1.9 billion they gave to assist victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami, which until now has stood as a record for donations to a disaster outside the United States. Given that the US is undergoing economic hard times, the size of the response has surprised many.

Haiti ’s proximity, plus the fact that close to a million Haitians live in the US, goes some way towards explaining why Americans have responded so generously. But the response has been worldwide. In Melbourne for the Australian Open, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, and other stars held an exhibition match that led to donations of $600,000. In Rwanda, a group of community health workers making less than $200 a month raised $7,000 for Haiti.

All of this raises many questions about how we respond – and how we should respond – to such tragedies. The earthquake killed up to 200,000 people. Terrible as that is, it is fewer than the number of children who, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, die every 10 days from avoidable, poverty-related causes. Moreover, as Elie Hassenfeld has argued on GiveWell.net, there are good grounds for thinking that disaster relief is less cost-effective than aid aimed at saving the lives of those who are risk from extreme poverty.