Lately it feels like so much of the news has been filled with reports of natural disasters. In September 2009, there were ravaging typhoons, earthquakes, and tsunamis that hit parts of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, affecting countries like Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Burma, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Then early this year, a 7.0 earthquake completely devastated Haiti. One month later, an 8.8 earthquake shook Chile. These are just the high profile disasters. In January 2010 alone, extreme floods left 30,000 people in Kenya in dire need of relief assistance; the worst drought in living memory hit South Africa’s Eastern and the Southern Cape, destroying much of the agriculture and resulting in massive job loss; severely cold weather afflicted all of Central and Eastern Europe as well as parts of China claiming the lives of 256 Ukrainians among dozens more in surrounding countries; and the list keeps going. Statistically, the occurrences of natural disasters have tripled within the last twenty years. It’s overwhelming, and it’s scary. But these events also compel us. We are united by the common threat of nature’s wrath. More than trying to understand why these things happen, we are compelled to look at what we can do to help relieve the situations of those most affected. We feel the weight of these disasters because we know that by the same lack of rhyme or reason, we can be hit by something just as ugly with no warning.
Effective help requires informed decisions.
As compelled as we are to respond to these united calls for assistance, oftentimes we have no idea where to begin. Which organization is most reliable to send donations? What fundraisers can I participate in for this cause? Should I start collecting clothes and other common items? As well as the most important question underlying all of the others: How can I best help the situation? Steering our compassion into effective aid is tricky business. Most of us have not worked in disaster response but know that we want to do something. Effective help requires informed decisions. The following is a guide to help you sort and consider the best way you can help during disaster events.
An often appealing option is to make “in-kind” donations of clothing, first aid boxes, canned goods, blankets, and so on. Its popularity is not difficult to see. These donations allow people who don’t have much money to give what they can or to make benevolent use of items that are otherwise being unused. In addition, the prevalence of fraudulent charities, the misuse of donations by organizations, or even the corruption of governments, have left many wary to open their wallets, even for a good cause. From a coordinating standpoint, it’s just easier to inspire people to donate items they already have, rather than asking them to dole out money during tough economic times or in the face of “donor fatigue” (when people become reluctant to commit to charities because of repeated demands of crucial issues and crises that are competing for resources). But what is often said about in-kind donations is true—monetary donations are by far more effective.
It’s not that organizations are only after money. But the flurry of shipping, sorting, and distributing all the unsolicited goods takes responders away from meeting the immediate needs of disaster victims. The large wave of in-kind donations that pour into agencies after an event is often called the “second disaster.” The items may help and the donations are still appreciated. But the sad truth is that too often what we assume is needed in a disaster creates an oversupply of the same things. Items may be culturally inappropriate or even impractical for the circumstances. What can be used is used, and the rest turns into waste. According to the Center for International Disaster Control, monetary donations allow responders to purchase exactly what is needed most urgently. And since they are purchasing the supplies near disaster sites, the local economy is stimulated, maintaining jobs for populations as well as preventing communities from being dependent on aid.
The following is a list put together by the relief organization Mercy Corps, offering seven reasons why in-kind donations can be of more cost than their value:
1. The materials collected in drives are often not the supplies that are most urgently needed. For example, a priority in Haiti right after the quake was for specialized water/sanitation equipment.
2. The cost of shipping materials may exceed their actual value. Food can be bought at a smaller cost than it is to ship large amounts of canned goods overseas.
3. Someone will need to pay to transport the materials from the collection site to the disaster relief site.
4. Someone on the receiving end will need to clear customs (and possibly pay duties), and get the materials out of a port or airport at a time when these locations may not be functioning, or may be overwhelmed.
5. The materials collected in the drives may compete at ports and airports with more critical supplies (those pre-selected and shipped by governments, UN agencies and relief agencies) that need to get in. These goods clog these retrieval locations, delaying what is urgently needed.
6. If the materials do get in the country, someone on the receiving end needs to transport the goods to a warehouse, do inventory, store them, and distribute them in an appropriate and equitable manner.
7. If the above issues are NOT worked out ahead of time, materials may sit in retrieval locations and ultimately be destroyed. In the case of the tsunami of 2005, literally tons of materials collected by well-meaning people launching drives in the USA were ultimately destroyed at ports.
Collecting in-kind donations is an accessible and convenient way to help, but so often these good intentions do more harm than good. If in-kind donations are the only way to go for you—do the necessary legwork. Ask questions of NGOs and organizations with personnel on-site at the disaster who are creating a reliable partnership with a local agency positioned to handle and distribute the commodities. Do extensive research to properly coordinate what to collect, as well as when and how items should be sent to affected areas. Finding out the necessary information is crucial to making an impactful in-kind donation.
We’ve already discussed the benefits of giving monetary donations. The real question on most people’s mind is: Who should receive my donation? There are good reasons for being prudent about who receives your hard earned cash, which is why people often forgo making financial donations altogether. But there are measures you can do to ensure your donations are used well.
First off, researching a variety of agencies is absolutely necessary. It’s all about trusting the organization you donate to. Popular, high profile agencies are not the only ones to consider, nor are they necessarily the best. Start your search by looking to see if an organization has prior experience and expertise with disaster aid. There are going to be a lot of well-meaning organizations wanting to help, but who have no prior experience when it comes to meeting such immediate needs. Not that all new organizations are misguided, but the lack of expertise opens the door for a higher possibility of mistakes—costly mistakes—mistakes that often can’t be afforded. For example, during the disaster in Indonesia there were many groups and organizations who wanted to lend their help by creating popular projects, such as building orphanages. But according to one aid worker on the ground, there were so many organizations solely focused on building orphanages without properly assessing actual needs, that there was an excess of orphanages built. As a result, because orphanages were high in supply and fully equipped, families were often forced to leave children in orphanages because they would receive better care in these facilities. Instead of having money to construct these orphanages that, in the end, were literally straining to find children to house, the money could have gone towards community and family support in general. There is a caveat before writing-off newbie organizations altogether during disasters. Look at their project proposals. While the organization may not have disaster relief experience, they may be proposing a project that is within the realm of their experience and expertise.
Another key is finding organizations that already had operations set up in the country before the disaster. These are the initiatives that already have buildings, staff, and local networks set in place, not to mention intimate knowledge of the language, culture, the political and social dynamics, and the people. It is these organizations that will be able to provide the swiftest aid, because they are in a prime position to help. These local agencies may be tough to find online. Sometimes larger, more well-known organizations will partner with these lesser known ones. But to help with your search, here are some websites to check out:
InterAction for some US agencies
Reliefweb.int for agencies from many different countries
Aid worker and aid watchdog posts with links to specific organizations
Impact Your World CNN and Charity Navigator website that provides a list of vetted organizations working on the ground of a disaster
One last thing: ensure the organization you choose is legitimate. Unfortunately there are very skilled swindlers out there that are ready to take advantage of your generosity. Do an internet search of the exact name (some scams are done by using names similar to well-known charities) of the organization in question. Established agencies should have more than one website that refers to them.
The question of “who should receive my donation?” spells out other related concerns. Donors often earmark donations for specific purposes or groups, ensuring the money is used responsibly. Money may be specifically marked only for women and children, medical supplies, or construction. It goes back to the distrust people have in relief institutions. Donors take matters into their own hands to ensure their money is properly allocated. The only problem with this is that during a disaster, the needs are constantly changing. Earmarking donations can again present an overabundance of funding for something that is not particularly urgent, or even needed. If you trust the organization you are donating to, trust their decisions to allocate funds properly. Donors often take matters into their own hands also by passing up organizations with higher administrative costs. People see big numbers in administration and the reflex thought is that the organization must be pocketing donations rather than putting them to good use. But having the proper number of qualified staff members for a project to be effectively implemented is putting money to good use. Pressure to keep administrative costs low can lead to under-staffing projects, leaving only a few workers spread very thinly. If this is a real concern for you, it is better to check the previous financial audits and project evaluations of the agency to determine their quality.
And finally, my last words on monetary donations. One thing to consider is holding off before making a donation. Rebuilding a country after a major disaster can take years. Don’t get me wrong, there is a large amount of funds needed right after the point of disaster. But there is still a ton needed for rebuilding down the road. The situation on the ground becomes clearer after some time has passed, proper analysis of needs are done, and the projects are less frantic and more focused.
If you are not in the position to make a financial contribution, consider volunteering for initiatives that help the disaster through raising awareness, raising funds, holding benefits, and lobbying community leaders to take action. You can even try volunteering at a local office of a relief agency working in the country of disaster. If you’ve done some research on local initiatives and are still unable to find one that is of interest to you, try coordinating an event yourself. In raising funds, the same back-up research should be done to find a reliable charity to partner with and donate your collections. But the different types of creative initiatives are limitless. Talk to local restaurants and see if they’re willing to donate a percentage of their earnings for one day to your cause. If you have some talented connections, hold a benefit concert. After finding out what in-kind goods are valuable, coordinate a dance party where people need to bring some of the goods in order to get in. Another bonus is that it gives you a way to rally your community, school, work, social group or church towards the cause. Check out some self-volunteering ideas and assessment at www.idealist.org/volunteer/diy.
There are still others who are inspired to do more than just volunteer from their locations, wishing to work on the ground of the disaster site itself. It is a noble desire and the right person can do a lot of good. But take a deep breath. Your desire to help may be strong, but do take some serious thought to assess the situation. In general, helping in a disaster area without a specific skill, without speaking the language, or prior experience in a disaster will make it difficult for you to contribute, you might even become a liability. Oftentimes, these jobs can be done by locals who can benefit from a possible salary. There are also emotional and physical concerns to consider. Oftentimes people who want to volunteer have such a strong desire to help, but once they get on the ground, they find themselves in a situation they were not prepared to handle. And the learning curve is incredibly steep. If volunteering on-site is something you want to do, take some time to extensively reflect and check out www.idealist.org/volunteer/disaster for other considerations. If you are still itching to help after your reflection, but are discouraged by your lack of experience to be a disaster first responder, consider holding off your services for the rebuilding process. You are still able to help rebuild the lives of those abroad, but just not during the complete chaos that strikes in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
An option many do not consider when it comes to aiding in natural disasters is supporting programs that provide preventative measures before disasters occur within communities. Take the cases of Haiti and Chile. The earthquake in Haiti was 7.0 and killed more than 250,000 people. Chile had an 8.8 earthquake, 500 times stronger than the one in Haiti. The death toll in Chile was still high—more than 750 people were killed—but it is nowhere near the numbers in Haiti. How was that possible? The answer comes back to preparedness within communities for major possible disasters. Haiti, one of the poorest countries in its hemisphere, was simply ill-equipped to handle the quake. Instead of fundraising for the aftermath of the disaster, there is the option of fundraising to equip communities for future disasters—preventing floods by planting trees, supporting hurricane awareness programs, fortifying infrastructures for earthquakes, or training community members how to respond to disasters. Organizations such as the American Red Cross and Oxfam have programs that you can support. We can’t entirely predict nature, but we can be ready for it.
No matter what course of action you choose to help the situation, there is one thing we can always do: pray. People are often compelled to be proactive, but as followers of Christ, prayer is being proactive. We cannot take lightly the power of individual prayer or gathering others in our church, community, or friends and family to pray during dire situations. Sometimes we really aren’t in the position to help in the ways mentioned previously. But prayer is something we can always do, no matter where we are, or what we’re doing. Make God a part of your relief efforts.