To help Nepal, choose a sector and do your homework

Military personnel and civilians help clear rubble from buildings that collapsed when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on April 25. The best way to send help during international disasters is to donate money to reputable organizations helping on the ground. Photo by: Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi / UNDP Nepal / CC BY-NC-ND

Give cash. Not canned goods, not bottled water, not volunteer hours. Cash.

As aid groups rush to Nepal to assess needs after a devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake, and as they respond with search and rescue teams, medical interventions, and emergency water and sanitation within a critical 72-hour window, we’re once again reminded that the best way to lend a hand is by handing over money to a reputable organization.

International disasters spur inspiring generosity, but in the wake of crises like this one experts are driving home the message that even well-meaning contributions, when misplaced, don’t actually contribute that much — and sometimes get in the way.

That’s a hard message to impart. It risks negativity at a time when people are trying to make a positive difference, but it can also mean the difference between people receiving medical supplies — or not, Juanita Rilling, director of the Center for International Disaster Information at the U.S. Agency for International Development, told Devex.

Rilling’s “formative experience” occurred when she was working as a USAID disaster operations specialist, supporting the agency’s response to Hurricane Mitch, which ravaged Central America in 1998.

At a small airstrip outside of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, relief workers eagerly awaited a planeload of medical supplies. Unfortunately, the plane couldn’t land, because the airstrip had been covered with unsolicited donations — used clothing, canned food, bottled water — goods that had been sent with little consideration of who would receive them, or how they might be distributed.

The pilot had to find a piece of flat, dry ground — not easy in the immediate aftermath of a tropical hurricane — and all of the nongovernmental organizations expecting a resupply had to pull up stakes and track down the new location. Services were delayed at least a day or two, Rilling recalled.

Nepal quake aid efforts underway — but more needed, warn experts

Humanitarian efforts are underway in Nepal after the South Asian nation was hit by a deadly 7.8-magnitude earthquake. Devex talks to local officials and various international organizations to learn more about the latest situation and needs on the ground.

In Haiti a similar phenomenon occurred. As Port-au-Prince gradually filled up with unsolicited donations — many of them simply addressed to “the people of Haiti” — relief supplies had to be sent to neighboring Dominican Republic and trucked across the border, costing fuel, personnel and machinery that might have been put to other uses.

“Something like that is repeated in many major emergencies,” Rilling told Devex.

Devex spoke with Rilling — who’d not slept much since the earthquake struck Nepal on Saturday — to learn where information gaps persist in the post-disaster context, and what can be done to overcome them.

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

It seems like whenever there’s a disaster situation like this one, we hear that the best thing for people to do is donate cash to a reputable relief organization. What are the questions that people are still asking you?

A number of people are calling, either having collected or wanting to collect material donations, and they ask the question, “What is needed?” … Really, there’s no material thing you can send that has the flexibility that a cash donation has. … Cash donations enable nongovernmental organizations to flex with those needs as they arise, whereas material donations are static. They don’t change. Frequently people send things that are not based on any assessment of need, and that is where the problems begin.

What’s not known quite as well is that cash donations support programs that material donations cannot support, including search and rescue, emergency medical services, family reunification initiatives, trauma counseling. … Cash donations allow the local purchase of much needed goods, which ensures that supplies are fresh, familiar to survivors, labeled in the local language, acquired in needed quantities, and culturally, nutritionally and environmentally appropriate. …These local purchases support local merchants and economies, which strengthen the economies for a speedy recovery. … [Cash is] the easiest for donors. It’s the most efficient for NGOs, and it does the most good for survivors.

If you’re successful in driving home that point that cash donations are the way to go, people still face this long list of organizations they can consider. Is it better to give money to a large international organization that probably enjoys some broad name recognition, or to a local organization working specifically in Nepal?

This is a highly personal decision. It’s almost like you’re asking me to do your shopping for you. … All of the organizations on [the] list must have people on the ground in Nepal. … That is a reliable, vetted list … and we will update it as more NGOs start working in Nepal — and probably India too.

I would encourage people to consider what is most important to them, or what do they feel most strongly about. There are NGOs that are working principally in medical programs. There are NGOs that are working mostly with children. … Sometimes the [Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] will have people working with animals. That gives you a sense of the range of sectors people can support. … I would say pick a sector and support NGOs who are working in that sector.

We’ve done a number of focus groups, and there is some distrust among people for nongovernmental organizations, and you hear them talking about administrative expenses. There are several really great watchdog organizations that people can go to and find out how their donations will be spent. One of them is Charity Navigator, … the Better Business Bureau also has a charity watchdog for NGOs. So people can do a little homework, identify what moves them, and then support those NGOs.

Are there any sectors that, for whatever reason, remain perennially underfunded in these post-disaster situations?

Someone once said to me, “If you’ve seen one disaster you’ve seen one disaster.”

Each disaster is unique. Even in areas like the Philippines, the year Typhoon Haiyan struck, they had 26 named storms. Every storm is different, and every disaster is different and affects people and infrastructure and geography differently … What’s generally underfunded is the recovery phase and the reconstruction phase. People are very generous in the first week to two weeks after an emergency, but then the funding starts to fall off. … It’s in the news less. In the case of Atlantic hurricane season there’s usually another storm coming. But the recovery and reconstruction phases are generally underfunded.

We’ve been speaking mostly about individual donors. USAID is also partnering significantly with foundations, as well as the private sector and big companies. Is your message the same for those actors? Do you look to partners like Coca-Cola, for example, to mobilize their logistics and supply chains — or is the cash preference universal across the board?

It is universal across the board, and the philanthropic organizations of course do this naturally, giving cash grants to help disaster response and recovery, and the corporations do it too. Corporations generally are generous also with cash donations, because they understand the speed and efficiency. And if they can, they will also offer their supply chains and logistics … and, yes, corporations will try to place product as appropriate. Sometimes it’s needed and other times it’s not. Many times corporations are very gracious about waiting until a product might be needed down the line, rather than in the first two weeks.

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.