Who’s hindering the help in Haiti: “Disaster do-gooders” or NGOs?

JoNel Aleccia, health writer at msnbc.com, pens a piece cataloging the well-intentioned but foolish efforts of those who would seek to do anything other than send a check to a reputable international NGO in response to the earthquake in Haiti.

It’s a recurring theme in many posts these days–the idea that writing a check to a highly-rated international disaster relief agency is the only logical course of the hour, and to try to attempt anything else could actually be harmful.

A different but equally pressing problem is the flood of ill-advised donations that aid agencies already are facing, organizers said. A handful of “Help Haiti” food and clothing drives across the country are inspiring cringes among some workers, said Diana Rothe-Smith, executive director of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, a coalition of agencies….

“I guarantee you someone is going to send a winter coat or high-heeled shoes,” Brooks said.

Let me grant willingly and without hesitation the following points:

  1. Disasters like this one bring scammers out of the woodwork; giving to telemarketers raising money for charities you’ve never heard of is obviously not the best way to help those in Haiti.
  2. Collecting supplies to send to Haiti makes no sense if no one in Haiti has requested your supplies.
  3. Someone is probably going to send a winter coat or high-heeled shoes.

Still, I categorically and emphatically resist two of the implied premises of the article, namely:

  1. The idea that highly-rated disaster relief charities constitute an unmitigated good who know what they’re doing because, after all, they’re highly-rated disaster relief charities.
  2. The idea that any kind of donor involvement outside of a cash donation to a highly-rated disaster relief charity constitutes an inferior form of help.

As to the first point, Tracy Kidder notes:

In the arena of international aid, a great many efforts, past and present, appear to have been doomed from the start. There are the many projects that seem designed to serve not impoverished Haitians but the interests of the people administering the projects. Most important, a lot of organizations seem to be unable — and some appear to be unwilling — to create partnerships with each other or, and this is crucial, with the public sector of the society they’re supposed to serve.

The usual excuse, that a government like Haiti’s is weak and suffers from corruption, doesn’t hold — all the more reason, indeed, to work with the government. The ultimate goal of all aid to Haiti ought to be the strengthening of Haitian institutions, infrastructure and expertise.

Hearkening back to the lessons we could have and should have learned from the tsunami (but didn’t), David Frum adds:

Initially, aid organizations had to base their relief distributions on informed guesses — overwhelmed by logistics, they lacked the time to undertake detailed assessments or consultations with affected people. The situation on the hardest-hit west coast [of the Indonesian island of Aceh] remained the big unknown. ‘We were taking steps in the dark,’ said one aid worker.

Although international agencies were right in guessing that water, food and shelter would be survivors’ initial needs, they were wrong to assume these needs would not be covered, at least partially, by Indonesians themselves. Agencies did little to suppress the myth of disaster victims dependent on external aid to survive. …

As dramatic stories of suffering hit the headlines, more agencies poured in, expecting the worst. But aid workers arriving at Meulaboh, dubbed ‘ground zero’ of the western coast, on 4 January were surprised to find survivors being well cared for by the Indonesian army and authorities. A scramble for beneficiaries began. Some agencies jealously guarded their information to ensure their ‘niche.’ Within weeks, the ‘humanitarian space’ had become too small for all these actors.

Coordination became difficult. Out of 200 agencies present in late January, only 46 submitted reports to U.N. coordinators. Joint needs assessments were rare. Language proved problematic, with U.N. meetings held in English and government meetings in Indonesian. Without knowing who was doing what and where, some communities were overwhelmed with aid while others were neglected.

At the root of coordination problems was one key factor: too much money. Nearly everyone could hire a helicopter or boat, make their own needs assessments and distributions, and ‘fly the flag’…

Frum contends that “[d]isaster relief is first and foremost a military relief operation. No one else has the reach and the lift”:

In the first half week after the quake, the U.S. military distributed 600,000 packaged meals and installed water purification systems that can pump 100,000 liters per day. Army helicopters deliver food inland, bypassing the miserable Haitian roads; the Navy has already converted the little port of Cap Haitien to receive modern containers.

The notion of NGOs as disaster relief experts beyond reproach dies hard. But what dies even harder is the idea that a donor can be anything but a dunderhead when he or she gives something other than cash to a highly-rated disaster relief NGO.

I’d love to do a list of reputable charities who are receiving non-cash relief supplies for distribution to Haiti, and/or who have opportunities for concerned individuals to volunteer in meaningful capacities. This is not to disparage the giving of cash but rather to recognize that being shaped in the image of Christ sometimes means responding to disasters by doing more than writing a check.

My own list would start with UMCOR, which not only has a long history of respectful partnership with Haitian churches and agencies but which also lost its Executive Director Samuel Dixon in the quake. Note that Dixon was there during the earthquake, which says something about UMCOR’s ongoing commitment to Haiti that goes beyond simply responding to a disaster.

UMCOR (which, incidentally, is acknowledged as a four-star charity by Charity Navigator) has robust programs for Haiti relief supply donation and volunteering.

Why does UMCOR do this? Do they not know that it is far more efficient for people to write checks so highly-rated disaster relief agencies can buy wholesale instead of donors wastefully dropping by the grocery store on the way to work and paying retail for relief supplies?

  • Just perhaps UMCOR is training its champions how to respond to disasters wherever and whenever they occur, whether in Haiti, halfway around the world, or in a house down the block.
  • Perhaps they want to help their champions understand why winter coats and high-heeled shoes aren’t helpful so that the next time a disaster happens, those champions will know how to respond more thoughtfully.
  • Perhaps becoming personally involved–by, say, dropping by the grocery store to pay retail–changes the kind of people we are, makes us spend more than five minutes thinking about the situation and the people who are impacted, helps us to involve our children in such a way that the generation that follows us will not only be more compassionate than we are but more able to respond personally and knowledgeably in the face of disaster.

Rest in peace, Samuel Dixon. Thank you for believing that Christians could–and should–always be more than human ATM machines, and that aid that connects our hand, heart, and head has an impact not only on the immediate disaster at hand but upon the way we think about and pray about and respond to all of the disasters that follow.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is also the International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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3 Responses to Who’s hindering the help in Haiti: “Disaster do-gooders” or NGOs?

  1. Pingback: Are donors diverting their money from your nonprofit/cause to Haiti? « Causecast Nonprofit

  2. Pingback: When donors want to get personally involved in challenging causes, don’t rebuke or patronize them. Train them! « Transformational Giving

  3. Pingback: Haiti update: $627 million of donations spent, $1 billion of “urgently needed” donations remain in NGO bank accounts « Transformational Giving

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