Doug Saunders of The Globe and Mail has some wise advice: Lessons in giving from the wave that took all. Excerpt from his experience in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami:
Not only was it one of the worst natural disasters in history, killing at least 230,000 people in a matter of hours and leaving millions homeless in a dozen countries, it also spurred the largest worldwide charitable, humanitarian and aid-agency response. History’s first Internet-driven, crowd-sourced disaster charity effort generated $5.4-billion in private donations on top of $8.4-billion in government spending.
It also provided an advanced course in helping damaged people back on their feet. Here, a decade later, are that catastrophe’s lessons in how to be charitable, and how not to be:
Helping can hurt.
It was three days before any aid arrived in this region – and the first aid trucks to reach this largely Muslim fishing village were from the Church of Scientology. Their assistance came with copies of Dianetics and overt conversion efforts, which were met with vacant stares. Christian and Muslim agencies were far more ethical and didn’t proselytize, but still sent the wrong message. Your religion probably preaches giving (most do), but getting your faith mixed up with your charity can cause people to lose hope.
Good intentions are a bad idea.
Within weeks, there were about 200 organizations operating in and around the village. Most were tiny. Some were devoted to single causes: water wells, sports training or marriage counselling. Some were vanity projects of celebrities. Even worse were the vanity projects of business people, who thought their product would be just the right thing. In the end, only the big United Nations bodies – Unicef and the High Commission for Refugees – and the Red Cross possessed the scale and organizational talent to help communities rebuild, and to keep the small groups out of everyone’s hair. Small charities may sound charming, but it’s better to give big.
Don’t go there.
One of the most extraordinary sights in the cities of Colombo and Jaffna were dozens of hotels entirely filled with doctors who’d arrived from North America and Japan, hoping to lend a hand. They weren’t needed. Even the tiniest villages each had three or four foreign medical teams, treating people who were largely healthy. (Decomposing human corpses do not cause disease outbreaks.) Never have very poor communities been so well treated for venereal disease and hernias. What was needed were framing crews, diesel mechanics and electrical technicians; the agencies scrambled to hire these locally. The doctors had simply assumed they would be needed, which was heartwarming – but they should have asked.
Don’t send stuff.
Most very poor people make their livings growing and selling food or fish or selling cheap goods to one another. A flood of free food, which was quick to arrive, was necessary at first, but it soon hurt the recovery: It’s hard for a poor rice farmer to compete with free dinners. Sending a planeload of toys, shoes or used clothing probably sounded like a good idea to people who’d seen a lot of forlorn kids playing in dust patches on television. Bringing these things to a faraway country and overseeing their distribution cost a fortune and tied up hundreds of people who could have been doing actual good (or buying those things from locals who needed the business).
Such tomfool behaviour only worsened Haiti's earthquake and cholera disasters; too many North Americans just wanted to make themselves feel good about Those Poor Haitians. They did indeed make themselves feel better, but the Haitians continue to live in tents and catch cholera while going broke growing rice that can't compete with subsidized American rice.