Chechnya and Trusting Charities

A few weeks ago Avaaz psychologically manipulated me into caring about the plight of gays in Chechnya, who are reportedly under attack by their government. (Maybe you would prefer another news source, and isn’t that an interesting phenomenon in itself?)

First Avaaz sent a petition, and when that was successful they followed up (as they frequently do) with a plea for funds.

I will attempt to avoid a long screed against Avaaz here. Suffice to say that I mistrust the organization, even as I recognise that it is sometimes effective and sometimes useful. It already tracks which of its many petitions I sign. I would have no interest in giving it access to my credit card information even if I owned a credit card.

Furthermore Avaaz conveniently obscures details about how these funds will be use. In their appeal (which I am deliberately not linking to), they write:

This is how we save lives: funding for safe houses, transportation, and legal representation, plus media coverage and campaigns against horrific laws.

Sounds good, no? Too bad they do not specify with whom they are partnering for these safe houses, transportation, and legal representation. Are they handling these things themselves? Are they partnering with Russian LGBT Network, which appears to be the primary source for these allegations? This is what Avaaz wants you to think, but of course they tack on the clause “plus media coverage and campaigns against horrific laws” which is coded language for “your donation will fund Avaaz campaigns”. What fraction of my donation will go to gays in Chechnya? What fraction will go to Avaaz psychops campaigns?

If I do not trust Avaaz with my money, and if for whatever reason I would like to throw money at this situation, then where should I send those funds?

  • The Russian LGBT Network would appear to be the natural recipient, but it is not clear to me how to give them money, and in their news release they state that “people and organizations all over the world are collecting money”, which suggests that they are not collecting money themselves? (EDIT: No, wait. I’m an idiot. So much for this entry.)
  • There is a group in Poland called Campaign Against Homophobia which claims to be raising money for the cause on behalf of ILGA Europe, which is collecting money itself.
  • In Canada there is a group called Rainbow Railroad which sent out a news release calling for donations (and seems to have a lot of presence on social media otherwise). They have a branch plant in the USA which exists solely to funnel them money, which I guess is convenient. But they have a staff of three, and as of this point they claim to have helped two people emigrate, and somebody (maybe not them) have gotten 37 people into safe houses.

There are a bunch of problems here. Firstly, I do not know who is legit and who isn’t. When these kinds of tragedies make the news, unscrupulous organizations spring up to funnel our well-intentioned dollars into their own pockets. So I am left to evaluate individual charities by myself. There are some sniff tests (looking for established histories, seeing what other campaigns they have engaged in, seeing whether they are associated with brands I trust more) but I am not smart enough to avoid getting suckered.

Secondly, there are large chains of indirections happening here. The Polish group claims to be affiliated with IGLA Europe, which claims to be working with the Russian LGBT Network, which claims to be helping people on the ground. How many middlemen are there? How many of them are taking their cut? Is this necessary?

Thirdly, it is not clear that any of these organizations is particularly effective. Is the best response to this crisis getting people out of the country? It is certainly expensive, and I do not want people being tortured so that we can save a few dollars (I am decidedly not an effective altruist) but given that there is a crisis, what is the best strategy for keeping people safe? Maybe local safe houses are a better strategies than emigration?

It’s a confusing mess. But real life is always a confusing mess, and that is not a good excuse for paralysis. I have the luxury of deciding whether to donate money or not, and to whom. But choosing not to donate does not make the situation disappear.

I guess a lot of my anger has to do with the nature of the nonprofit sector. We all think that nonprofit organizations exist to solve problems in the world that the market is bad at solving. But because nonprofits work in unprofitable areas they are obsessed with survival, which means being obsessed with obtaining and retaining donors. When they pull at the right heartstrings and find a cause that gets traction, they have a lot of incentive to grab as many donors as they can (I believe the technical term is “marks”) and bleed them dry. Furthermore, funding takes precedence over the causes these nonprofits supposedly exist to alleviate. The end result is that nonprofits engage in a lot of irritating and unethical behaviours as they attempt to “do good”. Sketchy recruitment practices are just the beginning. Let’s not even get into the perverse incentives that are involved. (I used to work in this sector. I could go on and on about this.)

But these nonprofits are claiming to help gays in Chechnya, so they have my attention. At this point I am leaning towards giving money to the Rainbow Railroad people, but mostly because it is most convenient for me to funnel funds to them. Will this help? I have my doubts.

Sidebar: Tugging at Heartstrings

I know this entry is already too long, but may I talk about motivations for a moment?

I live in a bubble where my choice to be LBGTQ does not make much difference one way or the other. But the gays make for a convenient political target, and LGBTQ people all over the world face personal and societal prosecution, largely because other people are using them to further their own political agendas. The ways that social norms are changing is causing its own turmoil, but this pales next to the political manipulation.

But let’s be clear: I care about the Chechnya situation primarily because Avaaz sent me an email. There is a lot of persecution going on in other areas of the world that do not make the news. There are people from Ghana, Cameroon, Iraq, and many other places who face persecution too, but I do not write them cheques. Thank goodness governments have some mandate to grant refugee status to people who are not making the news.

The demons of apathy vs emotional connection vs effective altruism are at constant war within me. The effective altruist side chastises me for not buying bednets. Then the emotional connection side takes over and reminds me that quantitative metrics are prone to gaming. Then the apathetic side reminds me that I am a nihilist, and all of this research is a waste of time. Around and around and around it goes. Even if I donate I end up feeling dissatisfied.

The primary accomplishments of throwing a little money at the Chechnya situation are to make me feel better, and to signal my virtue by bragging to you. Neither of these helps people in Chechnya much.

Avaaz carefully crafted its appeal to psychologically manipulate me into having an emotional reaction, and in doing so it is diverting my attention from other LGBTQ causes that would benefit from my attention more. The crackdown in Chechnya sounds awful, but it also seems as if there is precious little I can do about it, regardless of Avaaz’s claims to the contrary.