How to give wisely to Haiti earthquake victims

Director of sustainable international development programs offers guidance

Laurence Simon

Professor Laurence Simon, director of sustainable international development programs at the Heller School, has had a long association with Haiti dating back to the 1980s, including work there on behalf of Oxfam America, the InterAmerican Foundation, and Grain Protection International. He has worked in disaster mitigation and recovery on three continents.

UPDATED January 28, 2010

There are some lessons the disaster response community has learned over the years that may serve as a guide for your desire to help Haiti. 

Send cash. In disasters of this magnitude, every seaport and airport in the region will quickly be jammed with relief supplies, many of them of marginal value at best. The international airport in Haiti is damaged but will soon be nearly paralyzed with incoming relief. Cash is needed by relief agencies to purchase needs locally (e.g. clothing). They do this to bolster local economies rather than hurt them with imported supplies. Where supplies are not available (e.g. medicines), they are purchased abroad and flown in by the military or at significant expense. Sending clothing, baby bottles, food, etc. at this time would not be useful. At worst, it will block critical supplies that cannot be procured locally.

Contribute for reconstruction and development, not just relief. The emergency period will be over in the next couple of weeks.   Many of these needs are being met by international organizations, donor countries, and by the thousands of local volunteers. While the emergency needs are great, even greater, far greater, will be the need for funds with which to help rebuild communities and livelihoods.  Unfortunately, many of the relief agencies that flood into countries after major disasters do not stay beyond the emergency period. This is why it is important to contribute to agencies and earmark funds for reconstruction and development in the affected communities and to select agencies that will be there for the long haul.

Select agencies that know the countries. Many of the relief agencies that are listed or advertising for contributions have never set foot in Haiti. Unless they are very specialized agencies (e.g. Doctors Without Borders), many will waste time and money trying to figure out how to operate. The best chance to help is to support those organizations with local offices already operational.

Consider local organizations.  Most Americans will prefer to contribute to known U.S. or European organizations. That is fine. If you wish, you can contribute directly to local organizations in the countries affected. The difficulty is knowing which organizations are reliable and efficiently getting the money to them. Most do not have Internet sites set up for contributions like the major U.S. and European agencies. Sending checks or wiring funds is unreliable at this time. Where you can contribute directly, the money will go a long way though you will not get a U.S. tax deduction unless they have a U.S.-based 501(C)(3) non-profit channel. Also, I suggest not contributing directly to the Haitian government’s direct appeals. There is no question as to their dedication to the relief of suffering in this emergency, but non-governmental, non-political organizations will be better stewards of funds for long term development.

Most importantly, contribute to organizations that aim to lessen vulnerability, not just help rebuild poverty. While tourist hotels were also damaged, a large percentage of those affected are poor people living in marginal communities. It is not enough to help people rebuild shanties.  Every “natural” disaster is also an opportunity to help communities lessen their vulnerability. The most progressive international relief agencies (e.g. Oxfam, American Friends Service Committee, Mennonite Central Committee, etc.) know the conditions that bred such vulnerability and will work with local government and people to change those conditions.

Below is a brief list of agencies that I feel meet the above criteria. This list is not meant to be exhaustive but represents a few organizations whose work and reputations I or trusted colleagues know well.

Please download “Five Questions to Ask Before You Give.” This PDF may be useful if you are contemplating a significant gift to an agency I have not listed.

Please let me know if I can help you in any way to make a meaningful contribution. Please feel free to forward this letter to others or post on other sites if it is useful.

Laurence Simon, Ph.D.
Professor of International Development
Director, Sustainable International Development Graduate Programs
The Heller School for Social Policy and Management

Relief and Development Organizations to Consider

Emergency and Long-term Health Care

Recovery and Development

Housing Reconstruction

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