Charles Duhigg has a piece today which asks why you don’t donate to Syrian refugees, while you do donate to Charity: Water. The headline: “Why Don’t You Donate for Syrian Refugees? Blame Bad Marketing”.

The first thing worth noting, here, is that the premise of the article is simply factually false. Charity: Water has not yet got around to releasing its 2016 annual report, but in 2015 it raised $25.1 million in charitable donations from the public at large, and received another $10 million to support its own operations, so its total revenues were $35.1 million.

Let’s compare those numbers to the International Rescue Committee, one of many charities where people can donate for Syrian refugees. In 2015, the IRC raised $77.3 million in charitable donations from the public at large, a number which grew to $101.4 million in 2016. (The IRC’s 2016 annual report is already online.) The IRC had multiple other revenue sources too, including foundations and government contracts, which means that the IRC’s total revenues were $739.9 million in 2016, up from $691.2 million in 2015. And the IRC isn’t even the biggest charity working to help refugees: That would probably be Oxfam, which receives some $1.5 billion in donations each year.


So while Duhigg might be right that it’s statistically unlikely that you’ll write a check to help Syrian refugees, you’re statistically much less likely to write a check to Charity: Water.

More broadly, when Duhigg talks about how “one of the most important and heart-wrenching issues has so much trouble attracting donations,” he’s completely ignoring the fact that organizations like Oxfam and the IRC, for all that they are very happy to receive donations from fickle individuals, do not necessarily rely on them. Duhigg says that “people were three times as likely to donate to victims of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal or the 2011 Japanese tsunami as to those fleeing the war in Syria,” but those kind of donations are one-off things: no one is giving to victims of the 2011 Japanese tsunami in 2017. The IRC, by contrast, has found itself a predictable revenue stream of well over half a billion dollars a year, which it can spend year in and year out. That’s not my idea of an organization which has “trouble attracting donations”.

Duhigg also simply assumes that, in the words of his conclusion, “what matters most” is persuading more people to donate to Syrian refugees. But that, too, is false. The global refugee crisis is a political crisis, which requires political solutions. That’s one reason why the CEO of the IRC, David Miliband, is a politician. 


Political decisions by lawmakers in Europe and America are vastly more important to Syria’s refugees than any amount of donations from the likes of Charles Duhigg. Yes, money is needed – and it is needed in multi-billion-dollar amounts which only governments can provide. But governmental refugee policies in the EU, the US, and elsewhere are more important still. A single meeting where Miliband persuades a European country to increase the number of refugees that it’s willing to admit could well matter much, much more than any number of individual donations.

Consider this: the EU has pledged $770 million to help Syrian refugees through 2018. You want to add a few more dollars to that bucket? Go ahead: they’re sorely needed. But ultimately the size of the bucket is going to be determined by political decisions in Europe’s capitals, and not by the amount that you choose to give. And of course the amount needed to help the refugees is caused in large part by the inability of refugees to find a country willing to let them in. If those policies were relaxed, the amounts needed would go down quite sharply.

Duhigg’s article is, ultimately, predicated on the idea that when there is a major problem in the world, that problem can effectively be addressed through individual charitable donations. That’s not generally true, and it’s certainly not true in the specific case of Syrian refugees. Sometimes, a problem is so big that only governments can really address it. And this is one of those problems.