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Effective Help in a Humanitarian Crisis

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Katherine Davies

When we hear of a serious humanitarian crisis in the world and wish to help effectively it can be near impossible to determine which charity to support.

After the Nepal earthquake, there were more than 300 charities online, many with similar claims.

The prolonged and complex crisis in Syria has become impenetrable for most people with little time to conduct in-depth research.

At iguacu (igwah-soo), which empowers the public to give effectively in serious crises, we have learned a few tips that may be helpful to bear in mind.

Every crisis is different

Every serious humanitarian crisis in the world occurs in a unique context with its own geographical, historical, cultural, economic and political factors and often a history of humanitarian response. There are many considerations but effective charities on the ground will usually have a history of operating in the country, with strong local links, an in-depth understanding of local conditions, and employ and train a significant proportion of local people.

Charities that do not understand local customs, language, historical, political and ethnic tensions, indigenous adaptations, supply chains, market distortions, or who are ill-equipped for the climate or terrain, will struggle to make an effective difference on the ground.

Look closely at the detail of a charity’s history in a country. Beware if it doesn’t exist.

A crisis appeal does not always mean a crisis appeal

Many global humanitarian NGOs operate in countries that barely make the news but still have huge humanitarian need. The specific “crisis appeal” you are donating to on their website may in reality send your donation to the charity’s global pot, and not specifically to the crisis in question.

This may be an important operating imperative for the charity (and for the many people they help in places that don’t make the news), but some of these global actors may not be uniformly effective across all their operations.

At iguacu, we do not recommend a global charity in a crisis that cannot establish for our community a restricted appeal for the crisis in question. A restricted appeal means the money you give goes to the crisis in question, and not elsewhere in their operations.

For each crisis we cover at iguacu, we build a large expert network that informs our recommendation to the public. If our network recommends a charity that operates globally, and they often do, it is this country’s operation that has been recommended by our expert network, not the global operation, which is why we always link to restricted appeals.

We also cover crises that are not in the news to help ensure underfunded crises get the attention they sorely need.

Have a look at the fine print, is the appeal restricted? If not, do you trust that the charity’s overall operations are uniformly effective?

There is no bang for your buck in South Sudan

Children collect water at an ICRC distribution point, organised in cooperation with the South Sudan Red Cross.

If you feel fortunate to have been born in Dallas, Brooklyn, London or San Francisco, rather than Juba or Bangui, you may feel like many in our community, who include effective donating overseas as part of their overall giving.

It is important to understand that trying to measure the biggest bang for your buck has less meaning in the context of a country the size of Texas, with almost no roads to speak of, and reaching desperate people in rural areas requires the charter of a plane.

In a warzone like Syria, trying to keep staff from being killed makes the delivery of humanitarian supplies more expensive.

It is however extremely important to the great many people in the world who through no fault of their own are caught up in a war, or can’t feed their dying children, that people who can afford to give do continue to contribute despite the sometimes higher costs of doing so.

There are heroes and they work in Aleppo and rural Central African Republic

One of the many joys of effective giving in serious humanitarian crises is you are standing up for the amazing professionals who leave the security and comforts of home, in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and many other developed countries, to travel for extended periods to some of the most dangerous places on Earth to help save some of the most desperate people in our world. They are special people, often unknown, and quietly, they go about doing what they do, and we are honored to be able to do what we can to support their work.

There are many exceptional charities that are making an impact in serious humanitarian crises. By supporting the charities that are truly effective on the ground you can make a meaningful contribution in the relief of extreme suffering.


Katherine Davies is the founder and CEO of iguacu, a nonprofit, independent advisory and giving service for the public, focused on serious humanitarian crises in regions such as Syria and South Sudan. She has more than 25 years’ experience working in charities and INGOs, international banking, policy and parliamentary research, strategic communications and development.

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