Sunday, March 27, 2011

Everyone their own charity?

It has long been a truism in development assistance that aid coordination could go a long ways towards making aid more effective (and less of an administrative nightmare for recipients to manage). Unfortunately, most donors — governments and individuals alike — tend to support aid coordination only as long as others coordinate with them. This means that governments coordinate much less than you'd expect, and that individuals continually start new non-governmental aid organizations.

A similar pattern is evident in disaster relief. It appears that the IRS has, over the past few weeks, received 4500 applications for new non-profit organizations set up to respond to the disaster in Japan. Nor is Japan's case unique: lots of new relief organizations were created in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as well. Although there may be some fraud involved, the vast majority of such organizations are undoubtedly well-intentioned. That does not mean, however, that they are needed.

Even many well-established disaster relief organizations are currently simply standing by, waiting to see whether there is something they can do to help in Japan. The chance that a brand-new organization would be able to accomplish something they cannot is vanishingly small. And the chance that it's presence will be counterproductive is actually quite high (for example, by further taxing an already heavily overstretched local infrastructure).

A recent article in the Guardian by Conor Foley, titled "good intentions are not enough," discusses the case of fifteen British volunteers who had flown to Japan with relief supplies, but who had been refused permission to work in the quake region. In the end, they handed over their supplies to the Salvation Army and were forced to leave. It would have been better for everyone involved if they had contributed those supplies to the Salvation Army directly. They could have then increased their donation by the cost of the fifteen tickets to Japan that they would not have needed to buy.

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