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The Haiti EarthquakeInside HumanitarianismInside the Documentary

Best Practices

Donation disasters over the years have taught many in the international community that “good intentions are not enough”* when donating to a crisis zone.

While clothing, blankets, medicine and electronics are often sent with the best of intentions, survivors of natural disasters have specific needs that can’t necessarily be met by the goods in your garage. Poorly-conceived donations can also do more harm than good; useless items can clog up airports and landing docks, while essentials wait to get through.

Crisis survivors have specific needs that must be met promptly while their dignity is preserved. Here are some tips to help ensure that your donations have the helpful effect that you intended.

* Note: Many of the ideas in this section are adapted from Saundra Schimmelpfennig’s excellent aid blog, Good Intentions Are Not Enough.

Do No Harm

Good aid organizations are always conscious of the “do no harm” principle in their work with affected populations. That means being aware of how local political, economic and social environments might be negatively affected by aid efforts.

Before donating to a crisis zone, ask yourself: could my donation do more harm than good? For example, are you sending goods that are already available locally? Can you assure the quality and safety of your donations of medicine and medical equipment? Will the goods you are donating be a burden for agencies on the ground to store, protect, distribute or dispose of? If you answer yes to any of these questions, consider researching other options.

Send Money

“Don’t send shoes, send money. Don’t send baby formula, send money. Don’t send old coats, send money.”

—Stephanie Strom,

New York Times, 20 January 2010

In almost every emergency situation, cash donations are more effective than sending goods. Money is easily convertible to meet specific and local needs, and can be used to buy goods closer, cheaper and faster than it would be to ship them from far away. Experienced humanitarian agencies can quickly convert cash donations to specific supplies that affected populations need, and sometimes pass the funds directly on to beneficiaries through cash-for-work programs. As former President George Bush told Americans after the Haiti earthquake: “I know a lot of people want to send blankets or water. Just send your cash.”

Do Your Research

When making a financial contribution to an aid organization, be a smart donor. Look for organizations that have a history of working in the affected region or country, and employ and empower local staff. Favour organizations that are transparent about their projects, goals, and budgets, and have accountability mechanisms in place in the communities that they work in.

Be wary of organizations that spring up right after a disaster, claim to have no overhead budget, or seem to want to solve all the problems of the world. If they sound too good to be true; they probably are.

Check government listings (like this one in Canada) for registered charities, or use online evaluation guides like Charity Navigator before you donate.

Consider Climate, Culture and Local Conditions

“Only the people on the ground know what’s actually necessary; those of us in the rest of the world can only guess.”

—Alanna Shaikh, “Nobody wants your old shoes: How not to help in Haiti”

If you’re sure you want to send goods to a disaster area, here are some questions to ask yourself first:

  1. Are the goods I’m donating culturally appropriate? Be wary of clothing or goods with messages that could cause offense to local cultures, or even endanger those who might use them.
  2. Will they be useful in the climate I’m sending them to? Has there been a specific request from a trusted source for the goods you’re sending — or are you just cleaning out your garage?
  3. Can the goods you are sending be used, fixed or replaced in the country they are being donated to? Do they require maintenance, special parts, or specific voltage to work?
  4. Can the goods you’re sending be bought locally? Your food and clothing donations may be putting local entrepreneurs out of work.

Considering these questions before you donate will help you make sure your contribution has the impact you’re hoping for on the ground.

Stay Home/ Get Engaged

“There are many that come that are ill-prepared to cope with the reality on the ground.”

—Hossam Elsharkawi, IFRC

Emergency and disaster response efforts often require specific skill sets that practitioners with previous experience in the field bring. Often, the local population is better equipped to identify their own needs and participate in the relief efforts than you might be. An influx of inexperienced or unneeded volunteers can cause confusion and may divert resources and time away from relief efforts; for example, when new arrivals fall ill or show up without their own supplies.

If you want to get involved, consider civic engagement in your own community: join a society, political group, club or volunteer roster in support of the organization or issue that you are passionate about. There are dozens of ways to participate locally and meet like-minded people; sometimes the best place to look is right around the corner.

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