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Appeals for humanitarian aid are all too familiar. Relief organisations, responding to drought, famine, natural disaster and war will frequently seek international assistance, but emergency donations, however generous are often not enough.

Faced with scarce supplies, relief organisations are often forced to ration donations and standard policy is to spread the food aid as widely as possible, so that almost all children for example receive some food.

Now, new research has suggested that a different approach to humanitarian aid might be preferable and in fact creatively applying mathematical tools to humanitarian relief could end up saving more lives.

Academics from Stanford and the University of Bergen have suggested that an “all or nothing” approach would save more people. They suggest that relief workers should concentrate all available aid on children who are closest to death.

The researchers, Lawrence Wein, a professor of management science at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Yan Yang, a former graduate student at the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering at Stanford and Jan Van den Broeck at Bergen analysed date on thousands of undernourished children aged five or less in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Niger. They suggested that an all or nothing approach, in tandem with a more comprehensive measure of under-nourishment could reduce death and disabilities by as much as 9 per cent. Relief groups they add could get the same health results as today, but reduce costs by 61 per cent.

“If you believe our results, which appear to be reasonably robust, one would say that blanket distribution poses a bigger ethical problem than an all-or-nothing approach,” says Prof Wein.

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