Aid and relief agencies are rushing to assist the people of Haiti after yesterday's devastating earthquake. But they can't do it without you or, more accurately, without your money. Although it's really easy to donate your dollars, it is unimaginably difficult to actually help people. The best fund raisers in the business are not the best relief workers in the business.
If I learned one thing during nearly 18 years as an aid worker and journalist in Africa it is this: Nothing is simple. Helping people is much more complicated than just delivering food and medical supplies. To accomplish these tasks with even moderate success requires tact, skills, knowledge, and political savvy that can't be learned from books and newspapers.
So take a minute. And take some responsibility. As a donor, you are responsible for what is done with your money. And the wide range of organizations who need your money aren't going to do the same things with it. And how do you know what your favorite charity is planning to do in Haiti? Ask them. Demand that they put the information on their websites and in their PR material. It's not enough that they slap pictures of suffering Haitians online.
What do you need to know? First and foremost, is your favorite charity already working in Haiti? Have they had personnel there for years, with contacts in affected areas? Do the really know the country and the local leaders who will help deliver aid quickly and equitably to those who need it most?
If an organization isn't already set up and ready to go in Haiti, your donations are going to go to help them build an infrastructure, set up offices, and hire staff. It makes more sense to donate to an organization that already has these elements in place. This might seem obvious, but in the aftermath of the destruction caused by the tsunami of 2004, organizations who had never worked on the ground in affected areas raised hundreds of millions of dollars, much of which never reached its intended recipients and succeeded only in bolstering the stature of the organizations.
I realized that some of this is vague, and I've yet to mention a single organization, but that is deliberate for two reasons. First, in a world prone to disasters and famine, we all need to be skeptical consumers. We need to put at least as much time into choosing a a relief agency as we do into choosing a breakfast cereal. And second, the organization best able to deliver aid to Haiti is not necessarily the one that would be best to respond to a famine in Zimbabwe. Each situation carries with it unique challenges, and we need to support the group best able to cope. It stands to reason that no single organization is the best in every place and circumstance.
So where did I send my money in the case? Oxfam America. But you should do your own homework.
Michael Maren's book, The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity, was published in 1997. Go to netnomad.com for more information.