Damned if You Give, Damned if You Don’t

I had written this post a while back but never published it. I came across it now again and decided that with the recent events in the Philippines that it would be a good time to share it. Actually about a week and a half ago would have been a good time to share it, but no one can really be surprised that I’m late at something. At the same time I want to be clear that I’m a bit hesitant at sharing this because I don’t want to be perceived to be making the dangerous assumption that the current situation in the Philippines is anything like the situation was in Haiti after the earthquake of 2010. Both are overwhelmingly tragic natural disasters causing widespread devastation and loss of life that have triggered the response of well-meaning people all over the world who want to help bring relief. However, the cultural, geographic, economic, and governmental differences between the two places make the situations and how the survivors will be affected by them completely unique to each location. Just as it is with any disaster that may ever strike in the world, and I think it is always important for us to acknowledge all of these varying factors that come into play.

Okay Green Mango Readers, time for a little quiz.

1. What’s the best thing you can do to try to help with the relief effort in a time of disaster?

A: Give money.

2. What’s the worst thing that you can do to try to help with the relief effort in a time of disaster?

A: Give money.

You may be thinking, “Seriously? Can we never do anything right for this guy? We mean well, we just want to help somehow.” I understand, and as a victim myself once of one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of all time and first-hand witness to many of the world’s relief efforts in such a situation, I want everyone to know that you can help, and it is greatly appreciated, but I want to encourage everyone to do it in a way that is as effective and dignified as possible. So let me explain.

When disaster strikes somewhere in the world and fellow human beings are victims, even though we may not be personally effected by it, we each are touched nonetheless and often want to help in some way. We see the images and the stories on the news of lives devastated, homes lost, and communities wiped out and our heartstrings are tugged when we realized that Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate and it could really happen to any of us. So when it didn’t happen to us and it did happen to another we are flooded with feelings of sympathy and even guilt and immediately start searching for ways to bring relief to those who inhabit this planet with us. But when those feelings are activated and we need to decide the next step in how to help, we need to take a moment to make sure that our resulting actions are not done based purely on emotions but are indeed thought out well enough that they will genuinely make a difference and not just assuage our pity.

There are a lot of possible ways that we might consider getting involved and there have even recently been lots of writers address this issue and I don’t need to spend a lot of time repeating what they’ve already said. For instance, it is commonly understood and frequently stated that victims of disaster do not need our stuff. I hope that we can all agree on this. They don’t need our used clothes, they don’t need our medical supplies, they don’t need our canned goods, and they don’t need our blankets, our tarps, or our tents. This doesn’t mean that they don’t need these things at a time when they’ve lost everything, they just don’t need you to go to Wal-Mart and buy every last can of green beans that they have on the shelf to try to send to them. I understand that members of our churches or social groups feel more physically involved if they can donate items rather than just write out a check, but these donations usually end up costing the organizations that are in place to distribute such things more money and time to facilitate such distributions that they’re worth. And, because it’s not just as simple as giving things out on the other end, many of these donations end up going to waste completely because the logistics of getting them to the victims is not near as easy as the donors think. Nor does the local timeline of needing such items line up with the timeline of the donors giving them. So, in this case it is always better to simply find an organization that already provides those sorts of things and making a financial donation to them. They can much better coordinate when to give, what to give, where to get it from, and how to give it if they just have the funds to do it rather than boxes full of stuff in storage or even worse, stuck in customs. At the same time, if you donate your can of green beans or your t-shirt, it takes multiple people hours in their work day to make sure a victim receives those items, but the green beans and t-shirt can’t pay the salary of those people that made that donation possible for you. All of this is to say, giving money is always better than giving things.

But what if we feel like we are supposed to go to help hands-on with the relief? This one’s a little trickier to respond and the way I would answer is not near as clear cut as some other writers have recently suggested in popular articles. Many experts would say that unless you have highly specialized skills that are in high need at the time, just stay home and raise funds to send. But I’m still a bit conflicted on this issue because many people might see a disaster happen and see the images on the news and want to go simply to help out with the clean-up effort. They might not be surgeons or engineers, but they could certainly help clean up the debris and rubble and garbage in the streets, couldn’t they? And the experts would say that it’s better to send money to hire locals to do this untrained labor instead, then it provides them income that can help them help their families recover in the long run. And this is a convincing argument but the truth is even this is not that black and white. When the earthquake struck Haiti and left the streets strewn with rubble from collapsed houses, it’s true that there were plenty of strong, seemingly capable Haitian survivors who could physically do that work and greatly benefit from money that might be able to pay them to do so, but doing that sort of work also required a certain level of mental health that not one single survivor in the country possessed at that time. There were plenty of Haitians that could have done the work to clean up all of the rubble and debris, but not one of them would agree to do it because no one was going to volunteer to do a job where they could potentially lift up a chunk of cement to find the crushed body of a cousin of theirs, a friend of theirs, or a neighbor of theirs.

Whereas, if a Canadian, for example, swooped in after the quake and did the clearing of the rubble, it was still understandably, emotionally traumatizing to that person to uncover the victims, but they’re not near as connected to the trauma as those who were there themselves when the earth actually shook and who may even potentially know the victims personally. So, in that sense, I appreciated having some foreigners there to do that sort of work. However, it still holds true, whether you would come in to just clean up or if you have very specialized skills, for the money you’d be spending to travel and stay in the location, a locally operating organization could probably hire someone with the same skills from a neighboring country to come do the same work for a longer period of time and even have money left over for other interventions. So, even in this situation, I would still say that giving money is better than going. But, speak with the organization you’re supporting first to see if they need volunteers at that time and what for. Then, if you do decide to go, please do so with a lot of humility and very low expectations. Going into such a situation to help, things will never be as simple or as well organized as one might have hoped and you will never be doing what you actually expected to. Communicate thoroughly with the locally operating organization ahead of time to make sure that you’ll actually be needed and that they wouldn’t rather just have a donation. And make sure that you have a clear idea of what you will actually be doing but then still expect to be disappointed.

So, giving money is better than giving things and it’s better than going. So why is it also the worst thing that you can do in such a situation? Because if you only give money during a disaster than your money is never actually going to go to relief of that disaster. No matter the organization, it is logistically almost impossible to use donations directly towards the actual work of helping after a disaster. The organizations that are always the first responders to a disaster have to be prepared to get involved immediately when it happens so they need a source of funds on reserve ready for the moment that it does happen. They don’t have time to wait for your heartstrings to be pulled or for your favorite celebrity to jump on the bandwagon and make a plea for your funds or for your pastor to appeal to your sense of religious duty. Even then, by the time that your donations are able to be processed and transferred and administered so that they may be used, that organization has already moved on to the next phase of helping the population recover. This means that your funds will probably more likely be used for a longer term program for development or put back in the pot so that the organization can be prepared for when the next disaster hits. Which isn’t the worst thing, it’s just not what you expected for your money. Disaster relief has a very specific, and very accelerated timeline that usually doesn’t match up with the timelines of donors, banks, or even the victims. Sometimes, because of the emotional and mental trauma victims endure after a disaster, they’re not even ready for the intense intervention being offered right away by relief agencies. Disasters are often exploited by organizations to boost funding that they know they’ll need for their other operations, and sometimes entire agencies are even formed in the wake of disasters exclusively because of that promise of funding. But by the time your funds actually get to them in a usable fashion, their priorities and the priorities of the victims have already changed. Even with the modern technology that has streamlined the efficiency of receiving donations, technology hasn’t been able to bypass bureaucracies and politics. This exploitation of disasters for funding is what makes money the worst, but that’s not on you, the donor, that’s on the nonprofits that are receiving the money. You, the donor, just need to fully understand that this is the reality of NGO operations and don’t get offended if your $5 donation that you texted or tweeted or put in the offering plate didn’t go straight to buying a blanket for a cold baby. In some, sometimes very indirect way, it is still going to help victims of Disaster.

So, if you’re damned if you give, damned if you don’t, what’s the solution to satisfying our human need to wanting to help one another? Give. Please, give. But give regularly and give with awareness. Instead of waiting for that celebrity or that pastor or that sorry looking photo in the news, do your research, starting right now, and find an organization that you fully believe in and can feel good supporting and then do it on a regular basis. Decide an amount that you can give to that organization every month, and set up an automatic payment to them through your bank or your Paypal account. It’s easier than you think. Make sure that you sign up for their newsletter so that you can always catch updates from them and then if a disaster does strike and that organization will be involved in the relief, you’ll be one of the first to know specific ways that they would like you to be involved. Maybe it will mean just giving extra on your regular donation for that month, but if you’ve been supporting them already, then you’ll know that they were prepared to respond when the disaster struck. And then you’ll know that your continued donation long afterwards will still assure that they’re able to help the victims recover in the long term which is just as important.

My friends, we have created a world in which we can guarantee natural disasters will always be happening and they will always be devastating in some form or another. There are no easy answers as to the best way to help, but one thing that is easy is not waiting until another one strikes to show we care. Let’s make giving part of our lifestyle so that we know in all times that the organizations that we do care for are prepared to take care of our brothers and sisters in this world whenever the need may arise.

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