When it comes to disaster relief, too often we fall prey to Bob Geldof’s “we just need to do something” attitude. But, is this a sustainable approach to charity and relief? Does it meet the need, or exacerbate it?
Last Friday CBS News released an article titled, “When Disaster Relief Brings Anything but Relief.” In it, Juanita Rilling, the Director of the Center for International Disaster Information in Washington D.C., brings forward many examples of the unintended consequences of our relief efforts that left me quite shocked. And you might guess, we here at PovertyCure aren’t exactly strangers to relief horror stories.
Please indulge me as I share a couple of poignant examples.
In 1998 a tremendous earthquake shook Honduras. The seismic event left 11,000 dead and countless others without shelter, food or sanitary water. In the midst of this genuine crisis, a supply plane full of desperately needed survival goods was unable to land, and thus save lives, because donated winter coats had been left on the runway. Yes you read that correctly – winter coats… in Honduras! Funny as that sounds, people were imperiled because well-meaning givers clogged an already weak infrastructure with garments no one in the entire country needed.
In 2012 a gunman killed 20 students and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. In what was surely intended as a kind-hearted response, people sent tens of thousands of teddy bears to Sandy Hook. The outpouring prompted a school administrator to comment, “I think a lot of the stuff that came into the warehouse was more for the people that sent it, than it was for the people in Newtown.”
I’m reminded of Michael Fairbanks profound statement in the documentary film, Poverty, Inc., “Having a heart for the poor isn’t hard, having a mind for the poor – that’s the challenge.”
When we see others in pain or in need, our natural reaction is to help in any way possible. And when that person or group is a neighbor, we are able to better discern the type of charity we need to dispense. But, when we send relief from a far-away place, without local knowledge of what is needed, our aid can be detrimental to the community development that we intended.
You might be asking, “Are you saying we shouldn’t help those who are suffering from a natural disaster?”
I’m not – we absolutely should. But the examples above show that charity is complicated. With that in mind, I offer that there are four things we MUST do before we dispense aid to a community outside our own – whether in the U.S. or international.
First, we need to stop, take a deep breath and think about the situation. We may, after all, have no idea what is truly going on. A little humility could avoid the useless expenditure of our scarce resources. Such as, distributing winter coats to Honduras, used tea bags to Rwanda or old breast milk to Haiti – yes, all three of these are real examples. Just reading them here, I’m confident that you see how silly unconsidered aid can be. Still, as you read above, this silliness can turn serious in a heartbeat and cause actual harm to those who most need our help.
Second, we need to research charity and aid organizations before we pledge our time, money or encourage others to give. It is not enough that we send a text message donating $10 because a celebrity prompts us to during a concert. It may be cool to blindly promote a new initiative on social media because it is popular. But is it effective? If we want to ensure our resources create the impact we intend, it is eminently important that we know how they are being used.
Third, we need to hold the organizations that we choose to support accountable. All too often individuals donate to initiatives and never follow-up. We get caught up in our daily routines or we move on to the newer, more urgent relief effort and then forget to check in with the organization we previously tasked with a complex objective. If, relief organizations know what their donors expect, and follow up on results, they will dispense our scarce resources in a more thoughtful manner.
Fourth (and most importantly), we need to get on our knees and pray. Actually, you don’t have to pray on your knees. I do. But, I’m tall. My broader point is that much too often we rely on our human insights and resources to take care of astoundingly complex problems. Poverty is a labyrinthine – far too big of a problem for human minds, no matter how gifted, to solve alone. Oftentimes, the most compassionate act we can do for those suffering is to ask divine intervention, forgiveness, mercy and relief. I can guarantee this act of surrender is much more effective than sending winter coats to Honduras.
Relief is absolutely needed. That’s why it is imperative that we take steps in advance, get to know who is doing effective, ethical and considered aid work before the next catastrophe strikes. We are called to act and to do so with humility, thoughtfulness, accountability and God’s supernatural guidance and grace. If we don’t, we will continue to waste our resources and quite possibly cause even more harm to those we most want to help. But, if we do, there’s no limit to the life-giving change we can bring to countless communities around the world.