In the wake of floods, hurricanes and other recent disasters, many people with the best intentions will flood to donate to the survivors. Some will like posts on Facebook and share the news, others will donate blankets, clothes and other items. The government disaster response teams will provide food, shelter and clean water. There will also be other smaller groups that may be interested in going down to volunteer and bring aid to the survivors.
In reality, not all aid is equal. In some scenarios, the canned food and bottled water given to survivors create a second disaster of waste management. Even the biggest NGOs on the field are unable to distribute clothing, toys and blankets well, and once soiled, it may breed bacteria and cause health problems.
Following any disaster, waste management is a big issue. Although it is important to support the survivors, rushing to donate old clothes and other non-essential items may not be a good idea as most NGOs don’t have the capacity to manage these non-essential logistics. It will be left aside and get damage and in time, create more problems.
On the case of bottled water, this is the worst thing to send. It does not make sense at all, both financially and logistically. Sending 100,000 liters of water a day for 40,000 people can cost up to $300,000 and for large NGOs to purify the same amount of water, will cost $300 and there will be no plastic waste.
Donating to large international NGOs usually mean that a lot of foreign relief aid will be imported into the affected countries. Most disasters, even the large scale ones are rather isolated. Floods and earthquake areas rarely extend over 10km, and there will be local businesses which are open for business post disasters, but they will be excluded from relief by the international NGOs. The businesses in the foreign countries will be the ones who benefit from the disaster.
In the long run, these aids do affect the local economies adversely and your well intentioned donations will cause harm to the financial eco-system. What’s worse, some international organizations are managed off site in another country and bureaucracy may cause massive waste and inefficiencies.
So what can you do?
There are always many innovative locals with solutions on hand. During Hurricane Sandy, a group Occupy Relief Sandy hacked the Amazon Wedding Registry to create a disaster registry. People with needs can get the things they need, like diapers, milk formula, detergents and flashlights, and nothing goes to waste. Local groups usually buy locally and donating to them will benefit the local eco-system.
Instead of donating immediately, you can hold back donations and think about visiting the disaster areas when things are more stabilized to spend tourism money which goes directly into the local eco-system. Buying local products from the affected area is one of the most important things to do to help recovery as the economic recovery is usually ignored by most organizations.
Contact friends / alumni / colleagues in the disaster areas. Their local knowledge and by the fact they are right there in the disaster area, will know which is the most effective way of supporting the survivors. Every disaster is different and getting ground knowledge on the ever changing disaster is the most effective way to provide the right kind of support needed.
The people in the disaster areas are not victims, and do not need your pity. They are survivors and despite the great disaster, they still prevail. They did not ask for your help and do not expect gratitude. A doctor is still a doctor, and disasters destroy infrastructure but local capacity remains. We need to engage survivors and support them in the recovery. Disasters create survivors and it is our collective responsibility that we do not create a system which turns them into refugees.
-- Robin Low