Blog post

Action on the refugee crisis and action on global poverty: thoughts, facts and ways to do good better.

5 min read
28 Sept 2015

The Syrian refugee crisis has recently dominated news and social media. Away from the horror and devastation (not to mention the shocking apathy from some parties), I have been deeply struck by the compassion and support from ordinary people.

I know somebody who organised a donation drop for clothes and essential items for refugees in Calais that was inundated with contributions. My newsfeed keeps me constantly updated on news items about the refugee situation, shared and shared again with overwhelmingly sympathetic commentary and multiple calls for action. I’ve been asked to sign petitions and write to my MP by people I’ve never considered remotely political, and tens of thousands of people marched to Downing Street to show their solidarity with refugees, giving up their time for an act of anonymous compassion.


My first thought on this is that I am tremendously proud, and somewhat awed, at our capacity for empathy. We are moved so deeply by the human desire to reduce suffering that we campaign tirelessly on issues that do not impact our own lives, and give generously to those we have never met and are never likely to meet. Our willingness to help others who are suffering acts as the measure of our humanity. We must keep up our efforts.

This chain of events has also led me to consider how we respond to the suffering of others in different contexts. As an effective altruist, I am concerned with how we can alleviate the most suffering, for the most people, in the best ways. While doubtless a humanitarian catastrophe we should all concern ourselves with, the current refugee crisis is an extremely complex problem to solve on both logistical and political levels. In contrast, we have a body of research that gives us comparatively straightforward guidance on what we can do to ease suffering and prevent deaths in the developing world.

For example, the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative protects children from diseases that cause malnutrition, stunted growth, cognitive defects and increased risk of infection from HIV/AIDS. The immediate reduction in human suffering is immense, and long term these benefits to health support people to build better lives for themselves. The cost? Around 81p per treatment. It is with good reason that SCI is considered one of the best charities in the world.

But if that is the case, why has almost nobody heard of SCI? Given that the problem is so much easier to solve, and the level of human suffering broadly comparable (bereavement, poverty, physical pain and lack of opportunity are arguably just as bad whether caused by war or disease), why do we not see the same level of engagement the refugee crisis has sparked? Here are two reasons:

  1. The refugee crisis is all over our media. Obviously, people are engaged with the suffering caused by the refugee crisis because it is constantly in the news. Also, because the situation throws up controversial issues (relating to immigration, for example), more people are inclined to voice their opinion. People feel they must argue for compassion as not everyone shares their views. This leads to more general discussion, but also an ‘us and them’ mentality which prompts people to validate the beliefs of others who share the same views on the crisis as themselves, encouraging action to be taken.

With issues like extreme poverty in the developing world, the take-home point is this: just because an issue isn’t in the news, it doesn’t mean it isn’t newsworthy. Compared to the relatively sudden Syrian crisis, extreme poverty is a constant, and therefore is rarely commented on in the news. Yet it is because poverty is a constant fact of life for millions of people that we should be acting.

We know from the success of highly publicised events like Children in Need and Comic Relief that media coverage of extreme poverty creates empathy and a surge of generosity from the general public. We need to keep talking about poverty and how best to alleviate it by using relatable, human stories to promote effective charities as much as possible.

As with the refugee crisis, sparking a debate could increase engagement. Giving Games are a brilliant way to get people thinking about which charities alleviate suffering most effectively, and how and where we should be donating to make the biggest impact.

  1. This refugee crisis is a relatively recent turn of events. In contrast, because of the notion that poverty is a ‘constant’, we think of it as being somehow ‘without end’; something which has always been present and always will be. Clearly, this is untrue: between 1981 and 2013, the number of people in the developing world living in extreme poverty has fallen from 50% to 21%, despite a 59% increase in population size.

To incentivise people to take action on extreme poverty, we need them to know what has been achieved as well as what still needs to be done. We should be promoting success stories and celebrating achievement, constantly working to discredit the idea that extreme poverty is a problem which can never be eliminated.

This leads me to two conclusions:

  1. Public interest in the refugee crisis will fall and face the same difficulties - like apathy and lack of publicity - that reduce action on extreme poverty. Actions will lag long before they cease to be needed. Continuing to talk about issues, changes and, importantly, successes in the struggle is key to keeping up engagement with the refugee crisis and reducing the apathy that comes when a problem cannot be solved simply. I personally will continue to take action on the current crisis, and on global poverty as a whole. Which brings me to....
  2. Emergencies like the Syrian crisis and ongoing problems like global poverty MUST be acted on, but possibly in different ways. In terms of global poverty, we know that giving to effective charities (such as those recommended by Giving What We Can) is one of the most effective ways to impact the problem, but the same can't be said for emergency relief. According to the GiveWell blog, emergency aid is one of the worst uses of donations in terms of effectively eliminating suffering.

Indeed, Will MacAskill (author of Doing Good Better) suggests that while donations to support refugees are unsustainable, grassroots political campaigning and lobbying may be the most effective way for ordinary individuals to limit the suffering of refugees. We need to consider each of the issues we care about rationally, examining the evidence for what the best thing is to do in each situation.

We should be acting on both emergency situations and the ongoing battle to end extreme poverty, but also recognising that these situations are different and require distinct tactics to affect the most good. While our heart should call us to action, our head should tell us what needs to be done. Let's work on emergencies and ongoing poverty using the best tools we can, for as long as it takes.