The devastation of the Haiti earthquake has motivated thousands of well intentioned individuals and groups to provide support and assistance. Yet, so often in the most critical early days of a disaster, our good intentions -- driven by the initial shock and horror -- lead us into actions that are misguided, creating unnecessary distraction or additional, counter-productive work.
Good Intentions Gone Wrong
For instance, recently, a collection occurred in Brooklyn for donations of food and medical supplies for a Haitian orphanage. The volume of donations was breathtaking in its generosity. But it also included boxes of ramen noodles, canned goods and bottled water -- all of which needed to be shipped to Haiti at considerable cost. With more information, this group might have realized that it was better to collect money for the food supplies and purchase them locally, freeing their precise cargo space for more medical supplies, which are not as easy to procure locally.
New Disasters, Same Problem
This misguided philanthropy is not unique to the Haitian earthquake, it happens after all disasters. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the surrounding areas, were overwhelmed with well meaning donations of food, clothing and baby supplies.
Those early shipments arrived and were stored in donated warehouses while relief teams were still working to evacuate and relocate residents. Unfortunately, storm surges ruined the warehouses and damaged many of the goods stored there.
Volunteers tasked with salvaging these donations were overwhelmed by the abundance of inappropriate donations -- donations like clothing too worn and tattered to be serviceable, or frivolous items, like bathing suits and evening gowns, and even perishable foods like fresh vegetables and fruits.
Not only were these donations a waste of money but now volunteers had to figure out a way to dispose of all these misguided donations at a time when all disposal resources were focused on clearing out the debris from the Hurricane and the storm surges.
Now, the media is reporting that there is a desperate need for tents to house the hundreds of thousands of Haitian survivors. Well meaning individuals will comb through their attics or go to their local outdoor sporting goods store to find and ship tents to Haiti. Some of those tents will be a godsend; others will be a waste.
The Give Registry: Coordinated Generosity
In fairness, most individuals and companies are not experts in disaster relief; we don't know what is needed and when. We don't have a checklist or "give" registry that would help us donate the right items -- much the way we rely on bridal and baby registries to select the perfect wedding and baby shower gifts. In those registries, we're given a list of options and told the brand name, color, size and quantity.
What if we had that type of registry for disasters? Anyone with a computer or smartphone could review the list. They could choose to send money for those specific items or donate from items that they have on hand that matched the requested item or items. And, unlike bridal or baby registries that enable only one family to draft and receive from the registry, this "Give Registry" would allow any approved relief organization to add their request and receive the donations.
In addition, this registry would contain short background information on the area, its climate, its culture -- perhaps sourced from the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Relief or the U.S. Army.
For those who believe that each disaster is unique and that precious time would be wasted, I would counter that all disasters have basic needs of providing portable water, medical care, food and shelter. Of those, shelter is the most variable given the local environment, but portable water, medical supplies, and food are not. In fact, many disaster relief organizations and the U.S. Army are quite aware of the basics that are needed for any disaster mission; that list needs to be shared more widely so that our collective actions accurately reflect our good intentions.
A master registry for all relief requests could help us solve this problem.