Rescuing the Survivors

Six things to consider when preparing to fund disaster relief

At 4:53 p.m. on January 12, 2010, 8.1 miles beneath the earth’s surface, sudden movement began along a series of blind thrust faults associated with the Enriquillo–Plantain Garden fault system. At the surface, the movement lasted about 40 seconds, registering a 7.0 earthquake at the epicenter. When the trembling stopped, the extent of the damage was catastropic. Hundreds of thousands of buildings collapsed; hundreds of thousands of individuals were injured or dead. Haiti was devastated.

Almost immediately, cable television and radio stations began carrying news of the massive destruction. Within hours, the world saw images of stunned, bloodied survivors, stumbling over rubble where buildings once stood. Almost as quickly, many wealthy nations—like the United States, Canada, France, Japan, Brazil, and Israel—set in motion well-rehearsed rescue-recovery plans. Within one week, the American military positioned 17,000 personnel in and around Haiti, ranging from the 1,000-bed hospital ship USNS Comfort to Air Force Special Tactics personnel who took command of Toussaint Louverture International Airport and coordinated all airborne relief aid. It served as a powerful reminder that government agencies are often best equipped to provide the first response to a disaster.

But not long afterward came tens of thousands of private American citizens. At no time in history has it been as easy for individuals thousands of miles from an emergency to quickly offer direct assistance. Within hours, American charities had set up the capacity to accept donations with a quick text message. But while modern communications have made donating quick and easy, they have not made the business of disaster relief simple or straightforward.


Disaster relief in Chile following the 2010 earthquake

Natural disasters are heartbreaking. They strike arbitrarily, afflicting ordinary people, people who woke up and, like us, expected nothing terribly unusual of the day. The unfairness of it all arouses our deepest sympathies, which are further enflamed by heart-rending images and stories transmitted by instantaneous modern communications. The natural reaction is to be stunned. The second impulse is to want to help. Philanthropists, who have access to charitable dollars and a desire to use them, are especially susceptible to these impulses. Effective disaster relief philanthropy, however, requires preparation and research—not a gut response. Before you write a check to a prominent relief agency, take the time to ask questions and evaluate needs.

Disaster assistance, even when given with the best of intentions, can have unintended consequences. Donors are often moved by disasters that have the highest casualty rates, yet some of the worst catastrophes—those with the most damage and the longest-lasting consequences—have few fatalities. Substantial amounts of aid may never get to its intended beneficiaries. Even when doing the short-term good of relieving suffering, it can inadvertently entrench dysfunctional regimes.

But disaster aid can also work. When it provides basic medical care, clean water, food, and temporary shelter—the staples of any emergency response—it can massively alleviate human suffering. When the right resources are provided to the right organizations, it can even save thousands of lives.

As with any kind of disaster preparation, the key is to plan ahead. For donors who might be interested in funding emergency relief efforts, here are six things to start thinking about right now.

1. React Strategically

Natural disasters occur at random, which makes for a distinct challenge: help is needed, but first responders may have little or no forewarning of where it will be wanted. The organizations best suited to respond will vary from case to case, and will depend on which has existing knowledge of, and networks within, the particular geographic area. Sometimes that means the brand-name nonprofits that have been on the ground for decades. Sometimes it means smaller and less-visible groups that operate within a particular region, or churches and religious organizations with years of experience in the affected area.

Philanthropists can also draw upon the expertise of donor networks in the field. One significant new organization is the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Its mission includes educating donors about effective strategies for disaster relief, improving communications among donors and with humanitarian workers, and increasing disaster philanthropy spending, across all sectors and throughout a disaster’s lifecycle. Donors can consult the center’s new website, which hosts information on the affected populations’ needs and identifies the best programs and organizations at each disaster site.

Donors should likewise compare notes with other philanthropists who support disaster relief. Religious charities and well-established nonprofits that work in the field of international disaster relief are also worth consulting. Even if these organizations lack a presence in a specific disaster zone, they can provide information about the best-performing organizations. Another possible approach is for donors to refer to some of the best donor resources available. For example, the Council on Foundations has on its website a guidebook titled Disaster Grantmaking: A Practical Guide for Foundations and Corporations. Georgetown University makes available on its site a similar publication, Philanthropic Grantmaking for Disaster Management, as does Philanthropy New York with Best Practices in Disaster Grantmaking.

“Consider waiting,” counsels Regine Webster, executive director of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. “Often the most important needs do not become apparent for days, weeks, and even months after a disaster strikes. While your initial response may be to provide urgently needed assistance, it is usually a good idea to wait until specific needs become more apparent.” This does not need to be an exhaustive effort, she adds. In most cases, funders can determine the most pressing needs by studying initial relief efforts and noticing patterns in the reporting—reporters will describe who is most visible and active on the ground, as well as the services and resources they are offering.

2. Think Palliative, Not Transformative

It’s natural to hope that disasters will have a silver lining, inspiring people to rebuild a better society from the wreckage of a crisis. It is easy to compare natural disasters to the stories of alcoholics or addicts who hit rock bottom—only then to turn around their lives. Unfortunately, the analogy never quite seems to work; there is little record of developing countries using natural disasters to turn around their economies. If anything, some poor countries seem capable of staying at the bottom for decades on end. For example, many disaster specialists with field experience in Haiti both before and after its 2010 earthquake expect the situation in that country to be much the same, or even worse, years from now.

Nevertheless, some aid organizations treat disaster relief as a prelude to economic development; one charity suggests for example that its response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti will help Haitians “lead their country to a brighter future.” Other experts proposed using the crisis as an opportunity to rewrite the Haitian legal code, purge the police forces, and overhaul its credit system. While these goals may seem worthy in principle, in practice it is difficult to achieve such things even under the best of circumstances. When food and fuel are running low, they can be a distraction.


Haitian citizens awaiting relief supplies

There is a good chance that your donation is not going to allow recipients to achieve a much better life than they had before disaster struck. It will probably not dramatically improve a poor country’s economy. It will almost certainly not make a dictatorship more benign or accountable. But donations can give immediate relief to those in urgent need, in the form of rescue, shelter, food, and medicine. Clean water delivered when reserve stocks are running low, medical supplies to treat the traumatically injured—these are the things that can mean the difference between life and death to people caught in a humanitarian crisis.

3. Beware of Dysfunctional Regimes

Many people assume that politics is suspended during a disaster, when urgent adversity brings out the best in people and everyone unites in common purpose. Sadly, this is not the case. When regimes are dysfunctional, people often have incentives to act very differently than we might hope and expect. This can undermine the effectiveness of disaster relief, just as politics routinely perverts foreign aid.

Economists from Peter Bauer on have shown that a great deal of official foreign aid is diverted from its intended recipients, and taken instead by those with political pull and used to their own advantage, sometimes with specific intent of subjugating certain individuals or groups. Disaster aid is not exempt from these dynamics. In a regime lacking accountability and rule of law, government officials and other power brokers are presented with incentives and opportunities to grab the money and equipment that pours in during a humanitarian crisis.

With depressing frequency, disaster relief supplies, once they are in a country, are simply stolen by corrupt government officials. In August 2011, just as the world was becoming aware of the famine in Somalia, the United Nations World Food Program was forced to acknowledge that thousands of sacks of donated food may have been taken (and sold for profit) by power brokers and U.N. contractors.

Even verifying deliveries with one’s own eyes may not be adequate. Famine victims were given donated food by local officials in front of reporters at one large humanitarian site in Somalia, but they later told the Associated Press that “they were often forced to hand back aid after journalists had taken photos of them with it.” Oxfam concluded that substantial amounts of tsunami aid given in response to the 2004 Asian tsunami ended up being allocated on the basis of political pull rather than need.

Worse, disaster supplies can actually help sustain dysfunctional politics. Dictators can be toppled, or at least forced to improve their policies, by the failures made evident by disasters, especially disasters resulting from their neglect or malice. For that same reason, regimes can get relief from anything that mitigates their failures, including well-intentioned efforts to ease the worst effects of disasters. North Korea’s self-serving rulers and planned economy contributed mightily to widespread food shortages in the 1990s. To the extent that international food aid limited the resulting malnutrition and starvation, it may have been a critical lifeline that helped keep North Korea’s Communists in power.

To judge the risk of such unintended consequences, donors can refer to guides like Transparency International’s country-by-country index of apparent corruption, the annual Corruption Perceptions Index. Resources like these can focus attention on countries in which aid is likely to perversely end up lining officials’ pockets.

4. Some Disasters Are Manmade

Truly natural disasters like earthquakes or tsunamis occur randomly, indiscriminately wreaking havoc and affecting almost everyone equally. But other disasters—like famines—turn out to be much less straightforward. Amartya Sen, an Indian economist and Nobel laureate, notes that famines do not occur at random. Most obviously, there is no case of a sizable famine in a functioning democracy. Famines in the past 50 years have taken place under what reads like a roster of some of the world’s most despotic and predatory regimes. During civil wars and other power struggles, power brokers use food supplies, and then donated food aid, to their political advantage. Famines are often the result of politics, either of outrageously bad economic policies or what often appears to have been the deliberate, strategic denial of food supplies.

For example, Ethiopia was ravaged in 1984–85 by a famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people. The Marxist government spent heavily on its military, pursued ruinous economic policies, and tried to use the famine to tighten its grip on power by herding reluctant farmers into “villages” where they could be controlled. These events inspired one of the most prominent disaster relief efforts in history, Irish rocker Bob Geldof’s 1985 Live Aid fundraising concert in London. This aid, like the famine itself, may have been perverted by politics: there is substantial evidence that large amounts of the aid were diverted from starving citizens to rebel soldiers, where it went to fund their arms purchases.

More recently, according to Human Rights Watch, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe regime was found to have prevented members of the opposition party from accessing donated food aid. Zimbabwe’s ruling elite has long used food aid to reward loyalists and starve opponents into submission. Mugabe’s government also makes a habit of stealing and re-selling donated medicines, according to a report by Physicians for Human Rights. We have yet to learn how much international aid sent to Burma after its 2008 cyclone and floods was diverted to its corrupt officials and repressive military.

And it’s not just that politics can pervert famine relief; famine relief can also pervert economics. Famine relief has in several cases flooded countries with free, imported food, undermining existing local agricultural markets, driving farmers out of business, and setting countries up for more hunger down the road. Smart relief organizations have learned that in some circumstances, it makes more sense to provide the hungry with money with which to buy food in local markets, in turn providing farmers with incentives to produce more.

In other words, famines and other manmade disasters are politically and economically complicated, presenting donors with a cruel dilemma. On the one hand, aid given in those contexts can end up being diverted at depressingly high rates and could even help a regime tighten its grip on the populace and economy. On the other hand, whatever fraction of aid gets through may be all that stands between victims and catastrophe. Some donors will be determined to try to help, even under these compromised circumstances. They just need to do so with their eyes wide open.

5. Think Hard Before Doing It Yourself

Some emergencies are so devastating that donors will consider launching their own disaster relief effort. Think hard before you do. Getting relief aid quickly to a disaster area requires sophisticated logistical skills, local contacts, and equal measures of ingenuity and perseverance. Launching a freelance relief effort in the chaotic aftermath of a disaster can risk wasting time and money.

Worse, it will not be only the individual donor’s time and money that can be wasted. According to Garrett Grigsby, former Deputy Assistant Administrator at the USAID Department of Humanitarian Affairs, during major disasters, leading government agencies or U.N. offices can be overwhelmed by the need to coordinate the efforts of the many organizations that fly in from around the world. Organizations often duplicate each other’s work, and the sheer number of projects often results in bottlenecks at ports of entry, delaying the delivery of lifesaving equipment and commodities.

Donating to an existing and reputable organization is often the safest way to ensure maximum return on your charitable dollar. There is a reason why disaster relief organizations routinely ask donors to send money, which can be moved quickly and easily, rather than in-kind supplies such as food, which are expensive and complex to ship, unload, and distribute.

6. Prosperity Is the Best Disaster Preparation

The 2010 Chile earthquake was the sixth-largest earthquake ever recorded. As a geological matter, it released about 500 times the energy of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Yet while the death toll in Haiti reached six figures, with over 1.5 million homeless, the dead in Chile numbered 562. Sturdier housing and infrastructure saved lives, and these were possible thanks to Chile’s economic growth and development.

Natural disasters in developed countries tend to be less disruptive and deadly than in poor countries. By definition, wealthy nations have more resources with which to prepare for, and respond to, natural disasters. Instead of helping to save the lives of one set of victims after a given disaster, helping to guide a country onto a self-perpetuating development path could help future generations cope better with disasters, with the additional, and enormous, benefit of creating the conditions in which individuals can live healthier and more productive lives.

Today, there is good work being done throughout the developing world to articulate and disseminate ideas about markets and free societies, both to policymakers and members of the public. Think tanks in developing countries can play a valuable role in promoting the rule and law and economic freedom—two of the essential preconditions for lifting people out of poverty. Based in Washington, D.C., the Atlas Economic Research Foundation supports a network of organizations in developing countries trying to do just that. Several members of Atlas’ network stand out as exceptionally effective, including the Free Market Foundation of Southern Africa, the Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala, and the Liberty Institute in India. Donations to researchers and activists like these could help shift the battle of ideas in ways that would permit poor countries to grow richer and thereby insulate themselves against disasters yet to come.

Richard Tren is executive director of Africa Fighting Malaria, a nonprofit public health research group based in Washington, D.C., and Durban, South Africa. Gerard Alexander is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and an advisor to the Searle Freedom Trust for its programs at universities.


Disaster Relief and Donor Intent

The best disaster response is built on preparedness. For philanthropists, whether individuals or foundations, that means considering their approach to supporting disaster-relief efforts well before a disaster occurs. For foundation donors, that means consulting the bylaws, articles, supplementary material, and principles that guided the founding donor, and determining if foundation grants for disaster relief are consistent with donor intent. (For example, some funders who support primary schools or hospitals have determined that their founding donors would likely have approved extending their efforts to emergency efforts that fall within the scope of those programs.) When those discussions have taken place before the immediate emergency, funders can be more agile in the aftermath of a disaster, directing their attention to the task of identifying and supporting the best organizations and programs.


The Center for Disaster Philanthropy offers the following recommendations for philanthropists interested in supporting organizations responding to disasters:

  • Support organizations with long working histories in the affected community. Many international organizations have worked globally for decades, providing development programs across a range of sectors. These organizations have well-established relationships with local communities and community-based organizations. Supporting such groups helps ensure that donations achieve maximum impact on the ground.
  • Support underfunded sectors. The sector-specific areas of protection, maternal and child health, and provision of psychosocial support are critical to the success of any recovery strategy, but they are often significantly underfunded. Supporting organizations with strengths in these areas will improve the potential for long-term recovery and healing after a tragedy.
  • Make multi-year commitments to rebuild public goods. Disasters indiscriminately destroy homes, schools, community centers, churches, and other infrastructure. Sustained support to rebuild them is vital. They can help rebuild both physical structures and a community’s social fabric. They also provide an opportunity to consider direct funding for local organizations in the affected country.
  • Support risk-reduction and preparedness efforts. Advance preparation and early warning systems help reduce the damage disasters cause. As affected communities work to rebuild their communities, disaster preparedness should be taken into account. This includes support for alert and communication systems, disaster-proof construction, agricultural planning, and operational contingency planning. Preparing now will save lives in the future.

—Regine Webster
Executive director
Center for Disaster Philanthropy

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