The brilliant Deborah Siegel over at Girl with Pen wrote a post today about the Bloggers Unite for Human Rights challenge today, in which bloggers are encouraged to write about a particular human rights issue on their sites. I’ve seen the Web site and have read through some of their articles but have yet to really delve into it. Still, I love the idea and am hoping that others will step forward and promote the cause. The immediacy of blogging, the global reach of the Internet and the passion with which so many bloggers write can only help to shine the spotlight on some of the more egregious violations of human rights around the world.
My own “pet” causes revolve primarily around the human rights of women, whether we’re talking about violence against women (in peacetime, in the home and during wartime), poverty, human trafficking, female genital mutilation, and a myriad of other injustices waged against 50% of the world’s population every single day. For today’s post, though, I’m going to focus on responsible philanthropy. I wrote a comment on just this topic on Deborah’s post but will reiterate and elaborate on it here.
The devastation wrought by Mother Nature on China and Myanmar the last two weeks have galvanized millions around the world to send donations to the region and to charities involved in the relief efforts. It reminds me of the outpouring of support and grief that followed the Asian tsunami in December of 2004. Even B. and I tried to get involved at that time. We immediately donated money to Doctors Without Borders but also wanted to do much, much more. As someone who’s worked in nonprofits for most of her professional career, I knew that what charities needed most of all was money, so rather than piling bags of rice and food into shipping containers and spending hundreds of dollars and expending tons of fuel to transport them across the oceans to Southeast Asia, we instead decided to organize an art show, with all proceeds to be donated to the International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. After two months of frustrating red tape with B.’s church (the pastor of which had originally agreed to host the event), we ended up having to abandon the idea because of fears by the church elders of liability, logistics, blah blah blah. Their council ultimately rejected our proposal, and by then it was months after the event. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to stage the event as well as we would have liked had we chosen to hold it elsewhere, given that months had already passed since the tsunami and people’s attention would be focused elsewhere. The sense of urgency had passed, even if the need was still great — if not more so — and we didn’t have the confidence that we could still “sell” the event to artists and the community.
What the church did instead, however, was organize a food drive that included tons of bottled water, among other things. Now, if you’ll remember correctly, the Red Cross and other aid agencies had managed to restore safe sources of potable water supplies within weeks after the tsunami hit. Still, that didn’t stop well-meaning but misguided donors from continuing to throw millions of water bottles to the region. Much of it ended up cluttering the warehouses.
The church wasn’t the only one to practice irresponsible philanthropy. Reports evaluation donor response after the tsunami revealed countless other examples of useless donations by donors from outside the region who bypassed the aid agencies intimately familiar with the disaster and instead directly sent whatever they “felt” the victims needed. Some sent used clothes and expired medicines. Others sent teddy bears, ostensibly for the children affected by the tsunami, but there was little thought or consideration of whether or not the items would actually be welcomed by a culture not familiar with the toy, much less whether they were appropriate, given the more pressing needs for permanent shelter, medical assistance and psychological evaluation.
When you consider the amount of money required to transport these goods — whether via air or sea — from great distances, you’re looking at potentially millions of dollars that could have been used to provide the victims with the assistance they really needed. Months, even years after the fact, many tsunami victims still have not been able to build permanent homes for themselves. The devastation tore families and communities apart — the post-traumatic stress of such a disaster required considerable psychological counseling, but not everyone was able to receive it. Aid agencies well-versed in the logistical, social and economic needs of the communities affected by the disaster would have been excellent sources of information on what the people really needed. Unfortunately, many donors chose not to use them and instead sent whatever they felt the victims needed based on their own flawed, ill-informed judgment.
This isn’t to knock America’s well-known and well-deserved reputation for philanthropy. We’re the most generous nation on earth, and for that we should be commended. But I urge donors to any disaster to consider the impact of their donation, and whether or not it is truly needed. If you’re not personally familiar with the situation on the ground, please don’t succumb to the knee-jerk reaction to just do something for the sake of doing it. What aid agencies need the most is money. Their experience dealing with disasters has provided them with the knowledge on how to best handle relief and recovery efforts. (A friend of mine who once volunteered with the American Red Cross had to undergo weeks of training in order to be familiar with the process of disaster relief.) Relief isn’t just a matter of throwing things at a catastrophe and hoping they’ll find a good home. It involves intricate coordination among dozens, if not thousands of other charities, government agencies, the military, and yes, the affected communities in order to ensure that much-needed supplies and assistance reach those who require them the most.
So before you gather up your used clothes, Star Wars action figures, water bottles, half-empty aspirin bottles, chocolate bars, and winter jackets to pack up and send to remote China or Myanmar, pick up the phone and call any of the established agencies already working in the region and coordinating relief efforts. Ask them what they need. If they need dried beans, rice or Viagra, they’ll tell you. If they need compact fluorescent bulbs, high-heeled shoes or battered old suitcases, they’ll tell you.
What they will always tell you is that they need money. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that “donating money” is a lower form of philanthropy. (How that idea took hold, I’ll never know.) Unless you’re an engineer or medical professional or someone else with the skills critical for rebuilding the region, the best thing you can contribute to the relief effort is money. The aid agencies can best determine where the funds will go and how to maximize its impact. No amount of teddy bears and canned fish can replace that.
Three well-known, well-established and experienced organizations you might consider donating to are: