Sunday, March 27, 2011

How babies are like natural disasters

A few years ago, when good friends of mine had just had their first child, I remember talking with them about how one set of grandparents was great to have visit, whereas the other was not. The difference was not that that the second set loved them or the grandchild any less, but that they were unfamiliar with where everything was in the house, with the neighbourhood where my friends lived, and they had their own ideas about what my friends needed to help them through the first weeks with a baby. Because of this, the second set of parents actually made for more stress and sleep deprivation, rather than less.

I think most people readily identify with this problem: just about everyone has friends or family who, however well-intentioned, seem unable to be of any real help — whether they try to help with a baby, with home repair jobs, with yard work, or anything at all, really. They simply require more time and attention to coordinate and point in the right direction than they save by taking some jobs off your hands.

This, I believe, is how one should think about disaster relief aid. No matter how much we want to help in the aftermath of a disaster, we should ask ourselves what our help would be like. Have the people we are thinking of helping asked for help? Do we know their circumstances and "neighbourhood"? Can we provide the kind of help they need? Or would we (or those we fund) simply be in the way and underfoot? If not, those we wish to help might prefer not to receive our assistance, even if they may also be too polite to say so.

In the specific case of Japan's earthquake/tsunami disaster, it is not obvious that Japan needs or wants money. Japan, after all has its own currency, and with current inflation levels very low, the government can simply print more money.

Nor is it obvious that many of the organizations that are now raising funds for disaster relief in Japan are familiar with the area and have the requisite local contacts. GlobalGiving, for example, which has raised more than $2 million so far, is an organization set up to promote projects in the developing world, not in one of the richest countries in the world. In fact, their website indicates that they have never previously been active in Japan. Moreover, they appear not to have quite figured out what they will do with the money they've raised, saying "We will post more details of the specific use of funds as soon as possible."

This seems sort of like hiring an actor who plays a parent on TV to help you out when you have a baby. It could turn out well, but chances seem pretty slim.

It is possible that this analogy appeals to me at the moment only because I am a brand new parent. If it fails to move you (or even if it does resonate), I highly recommend reading the discussion of the issue on the blog of, an organization whose sole purpose is to figure out the most cost-effective and useful ways to give aid intended to improve the lives of others. They argued about 10 days ago that there appears to be "no room for more funding" and followed this with a clarification last Thursday that further elaborated their position.


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