As the world watches in horror at Russia’s war of conquest in Ukraine, there’s one question that keeps surfacing over and over: How do we help?
It’s a good question — and one that is very difficult to answer well.
After massive natural disasters, there’s almost always an outpouring of compassion and help. The 2004 Asian tsunami inspired more than $6 billion in donations to a central UN relief fund, while the 2008 Haiti earthquake stimulated an extraordinary $13.5 billion in estimated donations and aid. Almost half of Americans reported donating to Hurricane Katrina relief, and nearly three-quarters gave to 9/11 response aid.
Human beings are compassionate on the whole, and when they see awful things happening they want to help. But it can be incredibly hard to make sure that donations get results. Too often, much of it is wasted.
In a situation like the war in Ukraine, all of those difficulties are compounded. There are the classic problems of emergency relief: How do you identify the organizations that are getting work done on the ground? And how do you know which ones are cynically using the crisis for fundraising?
On top of those unknowns there are additional questions that we don’t usually have to consider when evaluating charitable giving: Would certain forms of foreign intervention raise the risk of a catastrophic miscalculation and nuclear war. (I’ve seen advice to urge your US congressional representatives to impose a no-fly zone, for instance, but that’s a terrible idea.) How accurate is the information we’re getting, much of it filtered through social media? If Ukraine is conquered by Russia in the next week — which is very much a real possibility — what will happen to funds raised for the war effort?
I spend a lot of time thinking about charitable donations and how to do good with limited resources, but these are tough questions that no one is especially equipped to navigate.
Ukraine’s heroic fight for democracy should make us all proud, and no one should ignore the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians made refugees by the war. But one very honest answer to the question “how can we help” is that the most effective ways to do good with limited resources are still the same ones that existed before Russian forces crossed the border.
That means addressing long-running challenges that are neglected and ignored, like the fight against child mortality in poor places — and necessarily not in the hotspot that has temporarily transfixed the whole world.
It’s not hard to avoid the observation that Europe and much of the rest of the world is treating Ukrainian refugees very differently than other refugees and migrants who have also had to flee their homes at the point of a gun, after a natural disaster, or simply to find a better life for their family. This doesn’t at all mean that the Ukrainians don’t deserve the aid they’re being given, only that at any moment around the world, the scope of need is vast — and shouldn’t be forgotten.
Still, let’s say you’ve already set your budget for trying to improve the world as effectively as possible, but still feel a duty as a member of the free world to do something for Ukraine specifically. What should it be?
There are effective ways to help. From reading advice on this question from policy journalists and effective altruists, and talking to citizens of nations affected by the crisis from Poland to Russia, here are my best guesses.
Helping refugees fleeing war in Ukraine
Ukraine’s neighbors have opened their borders to civilians fleeing the conflict, and have quickly found themselves caring for hundreds of thousands of desperate people, many of them mothers and young children. As the conflict goes on, that number could swell to the millions.
Hosting countries can absorb much more in donations than they are getting, but the key is identifying organizations that’ll effectively put the money to work feeding, housing, and assisting refugees. Recommended organizations include Polish Humanitarian Action, the Polish Association for Legal Intervention for refugee rights, the Polish Center for International Aid, HIAS, and their Ukrainian partner R2P.
Opposition press in Russia
Another option is to donate to media organizations in Russia that are not controlled by Putin’s regime. They can tell Russian citizens the truth about the war and help support the burgeoning protests underway there. Meduza (Russian online newspaper and news aggregator) and OVD-Info (a Russian human rights service) have both been recommended by effective altruists interested in media freedom in Russia.
Supporting political action
A few days ago, when I first began working on this story, a big emphasis was political action — talking to your congressional representatives and making it clear to them that their constituents are willing to bear higher gas prices to stand behind Ukrainians dying for their freedom.
At this point, there’s apparently less need for that kind of political cover. The US and EU have been surprisingly united in rolling out a devastating package of financial sanctions that are triggering economic catastrophe in Russia. No one knows whether this will get Putin to back down, and the costs to ordinary Russian people, who are largely innocents in this tragic mess, are horrifying. But it’s clear that all the stops are being pulled out.
It will be important, though, to keep Ukraine on your representatives’ minds once the 24-hour news coverage has ceased. The most valuable thing you can do might be to set a reminder to call a month from now. Hopefully, that will be to urge them to fund reconstruction in a victorious Ukraine, but if necessary, they’ll need to fund resettlement and aid for millions of people displaced by an ongoing Russian occupation.
Aid inside Ukraine
Welcome to war in the GoFundMe age: the Ukrainian military has invited citizens worldwide to donate directly to the Ukrainian military, including with cryptocurrency, and millions in donations have flooded in to groups like the Ukrainian NGO Come Back Alive. Such donations occupy a tricky ethical and even legal area, however. A safer choice would be to direct money to groups that are providing medical assistance on the ground in Ukraine, like Médecins Sans Frontières or the Ukrainian Red Cross.
Don’t ignore the urge to help
The human impulse for compassion underlies much of the work I do to figure out how to make the world a better place. One lesson I’ve learned is this: Most people want others to be alright. They want the world to be safe and free. And they are willing to sacrifice their money and when necessary, even their lives to bring that about.
But if the future is to become better than the past, that compassion must be paired with a serious commitment to fully understanding what’s going on and a relentless willingness to prioritize in a world that has no shortage of pressing problems.
Sometimes that means ending up as a frustrating killjoy, tallying up the drawbacks to different courses of action at a moment when most people simply want to do something, anything. Sometimes it means bearing witness to the horrors in Ukraine — and then donating to malaria eradication because it’s a much more efficient and tractable way to save the lives of children, including those whose plight will never be shown on a cable news program.
The good news is that evidence suggests that donating in response to a newsworthy catastrophe doesn’t seem to cut into giving more generally — and sometimes even leads to more charity overall. Hard rationality doesn’t have to be at odds with compassion, or with anger, or with a deep appreciation for the heroes risking their lives in Ukraine for ideals that we all believe in. And to the rest of us: do your best, whatever that is.
A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!