Like anyone who’s following the news, I’ve been shocked and saddened by what has been coming out related to the effects of Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
Seeing that thousands dead and millions more affected by what some are calling the strongest landfalling tropical cyclone on record, and with personal connections to international aid and the central islands of the Philippines, I’m very motivated to help, as I’m sure many of you are.
If you’re in the same boat, I’d like to most humbly offer a word of advice.
Don’t send stuff
You’ll forgive me for starting with a story.
In winter 2010, following the catastrophic earthquake that hit just outside Haiti’s capital and largest city, Port-au-Prince, I found myself stuck stateside manning the phones — a consequence of my never putting nearly enough effort into learning French.
The long hours and the somber aura surrounding the calls quickly took their toll through the weeks.
Early one morning, I received a call from a firecracker of a woman whose energy cut through my glum mood. She had heard of the devastation, and sprang into action organizing her community. She had pooled donations from many dozens of people, and had commitments from even more; this many years on, I forget exact numbers, but recall it being comfortably into the tens of thousands of dollars. Excitedly, I began to suggest well-run organizations on the ground.
She was glad to hear that so many people were in Haiti helping out, she said, and wished them well. She could do no more than offer verbal support for aid workers because, you see, the money had already been spent and she was only calling for suggestions on shipping companies — shipping companies to transport the hundreds of high-end, brand new teddy bears she had purchased.
“There are a lot of kids among those refugees, and I know the difference that hugging a teddy bear close can make as these kids drift off to sleep,” is the gist of how she explained it.
Sure, those might just be the more extreme cases and you know that food, water, and diapers, are what folks really need in the immediate aftermath, so that’s what you would send. Or maybe you’re a bit more savvy and know how important sanitation (think toilets) and debris removal are after a disaster and want to send goods related to that.
Unfortunately, the same problems apply to sending these.
Yes, the sentiment is respectable
Don’t get me wrong! I understand and laud the sentiment.
When the news footage shows survivors desperate for food and water, the desire to send food and water shows an empathy that’s absent in too many aspects of our interactions. There is no doubt in my mind that the contribution of food comes from the heart.
And yes, the alternative — sending cash — feels like an open invitation for intermediaries to use it inefficiently or worse — commit fraud.
And besides, money is impersonal. Giving cash may seem akin to giving your wife a gift card for your anniversary — it sorta feels like you don’t care enough to pay enough attention to figure out what the priorities on the ground are.
In short, giving stuff lets you feel like you’re making that sad child on TV smile with her new teddy bear, rather than giving impersonal cash to a faceless bureaucrat.
What’s going to happen to your in-kind contribution
Aid workers will have to spend precious time sorting through the goods for what’s useful.
Unusable items will have to be transported away. Dangerous items such as expired medicines and batteries that cannot be sent will have to be disposed of properly.
In-kind contributions will largely be sent by sea, taking weeks or months to arrive and will have to wait in line at the already congested ports.
This is if they make it at all; goods can get damaged en route and the port at Tacloban — one of the region’s busiest — was destroyed.
In fact, some aid organizations may be so overwhelmed, they may confuse you by turning away your well-intentioned gift.
So what should you send?
Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres), CARE, the U.N. World Food Programme, and UNICEF are all well-run organizations with experience responding to disasters. Donating money directly to these organizations is the absolute best way to help.
Besides their experience, these organizations can pool your money with lots of other donations to buy goods in bulk.
More importantly, these organizations have been on the ground for days, have been partnering with local organizations for years, have contracted with suppliers in unaffected parts of the country and region, and know exactly what’s necessary right at this second.
Even the most connected among us on this side of the Pacific can only guess.
Alright, so how can you help?
Here are links to the organizations I mentioned earlier:
Thank you for reading. I ask that you also contribute to one of these organizations and pass this list along to friends.