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How to Help Haiti?

Ask not only how to help, or where to pledge support, but what is it that you want to help with, and is that possible?
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The buzz is loud - deafening, almost. And necessarily so. Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, has had its share of suffering and hardship. So of course you should send a text message to one of several Haiti Text-To-Give Numbers, Co-host a Charity Spin class, eat chicken in Echo Park, and post multiple notices about the catastrophe and involved organizations on your Facebook profile. By donating and helping in the earthquake's aftermath, we Americans can express our solidarity with deserving victims and demonstrate our national compassion. And who knows? Maybe it's a valid attempt to make up for the ways that US military intervention, embargoes, and inconsistent international aid set the stage for such a grave disaster.

Helping now is extremely important. But we should have been asking ourselves how best can we help Haiti long before sending our text messages on impulse. The Yele Foundation is a case in point. They were highly visible within hours of the catastrophe and did a fantastic job of nabbing the text-messaging charity bonanza from the outset, but new revelations of the foundation's accounting practices raise serious concerns about their true intentions. Even more important, Yele is not specialized in disaster-relief or post-disaster reconstruction and should not have been at the forefront of fundraising for this cause. Their presence merely diverts funds from more experienced organizations.

Now, Yele caught us with an astoundingly simple campaign at a moment when any kind of assistance seemed urgent. In the last couple of days, people have begun to reflect a bit more on effective giving. When asking "how best can we help Haiti?" many of us have been primarily concerned with supporting organizations that: (1) will allocate the greatest percentage of our donations directly to relief efforts, (2) have the best capacity to carry out the required actions (in terms of short-term relief and/or long-term recovery), and (3) have grassroots connections and locally-specific knowledge.

While these are all important considerations, the greatest barrier to relief thus far has not been a lack of compassion or resources, but the effective coordination of both. Though certain organizations may have higher overhead, this is often precisely because they have the logistical capacity and technical experience to handle crises of this scale. Smaller organizations may rightfully want their piece of the pie, especially in an increasingly competitive charity marketplace, but we should challenge these organizations to do better and be clearer about their capacity to support either immediate relief or long-term recovery.

There are also many lessons to be learned from Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami. A comprehensive evaluation on international response to the tsunami noted that virtually all (91%) of the Indonesians rescued after the tsunami were saved by private individuals, not members of international organizations. This is because these people were already there, on the ground, and ready to help. The international relief organizations' role, however, became especially important for keeping people alive after the first few days: providing food, water, and medical supplies that are so essential for combating infection, dehydration, dysentery, and other major secondary causes of suffering and death. These are resources that cannot come from local, grassroots organizations and may require large overhead to deliver. With the Port-au-Prince airport operating far under capacity and the country's main port destroyed, well-coordinated international support will be essential in the next few weeks.

But the tsunami evaluation also argues very strongly that we must work with pre-existing local institutions as well. Once supplies are in the country, these organizations have the knowledge and capacity to distribute those supplies effectively and efficiently. Even more importantly, as response efforts shift from relief to recovery, these local organizations should play an increasingly active role. The interaction between international relief organizations and local groups is therefore critical. If the coordinated international effort is too hasty and over-zealous, it risks overwhelming and disempowering local groups rather than helping to strengthen them and thereby reduce vulnerabilities to future disasters. What does this mean for potential donors watching from the US? Supporting any local organization is not enough; we need to support local organizations with broad social networks, long experience, and with enough organizational stability that they can withstand this wave of international assistance.

And most importantly, ask not only how to help, or where to pledge support, but what is it that you want to help with, and is that possible? Do you want to support short-term relief or long-term reconstruction, locally-operating organizations with on-the-ground know-how, or international aid organizations that mitigate disasters in the short-term, or better yet, both?

As donors and charity-workers, we should think twice about our abilities to help and how we might do so in the most effective way consistent with the various stages of recovery. There is much more value in doing something well, or stepping to the side to allow more effective actors to emerge, than in claiming heroism by promoting your charity as the panacea. While this may sound like a lot of responsibility, let's step up to the plate as compassionate, active, and informed global citizens.

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