Monday, March 28, 2011

How to contribute to disaster relief

Yesterday I posted some critical comments regarding disaster relief aid. These should under no circumstances be taken to imply that I think disaster relief aid is not valuable, or that it is not important to contribute to such aid. The key point is that it is worth thinking very carefully about making sure each contribution actually makes a difference.

Saundra Schimmelpfennig has a very good list of "Dos and don'ts of disaster donations" on her blog; these were written for the 2004 tsunami and updated for last year's Haiti earthquake, but they are no less valuable today, applied to Japan's earthquake/tsunami. I highly recommend reading through these before making any donation.

One important point that comes through in Saundra's list is that disaster aid is most likely to arrive when it is comparatively less needed. Organizations that are already active on the ground are best positioned to provide aid in the immediate aftermath. By the time donations from around the world arrive in the bank accounts of these organizations, they have already incurred most of their startup costs.

At the other end of the timescale, much of the crucial rebuilding work happens after the world media has moved on (when did you last hear or read something about the ongoing rebuilding effort in Haiti?), and thus also after new donations stop flowing in.

This has two implications: it means that it is less important to give as soon as possible than people sometimes believe, and it means that some of the most important donations take place before a disaster takes place. For this reason, I highly recommend not earmarking donations for a specific crisis. If you do wish to earmark a donation for a specific crisis, donate to an organization focused on the rebuilding process, rather than on emergency disaster relief operations.

On the other hand, if you want to support emergency disaster relief, consider contributing to an organization for which disaster relief is part of the ongoing mission, regardless of where disasters may occur. One excellent example in this category is Doctors without Borders/Médécins sans Frontières (MSF). MSF is acutely aware of potential pitfalls associated with disaster relief aid, and deliberately is not accepting donations specifically earmarked for Japan. Read their statement here.

In the case of Japan, I also want to reiterate the importance of asking what the added value of a contribution to disaster relief there is likely to be, given that:
1. Japan is a rich country which, moreover, can print its own money. This means that shortage of funds is unlikely to be the determining factor in limiting relief operations.
2. Japan is also an open, well-functioning democracy, with a government that cares about the well-being of its citizens. This means that situations in which the government deliberately neglects particular affected groups or areas (and in which relief organizations could play a key role) are unlikely to arise.

In contrast, there are numerous conflict- and disaster areas around the world where neither of these two conditions holds. MSF is active in most of them. So is the Red Cross. Consider giving to these organizations so they can make a difference where they are needed most.

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