Cash is King (or, Rethinking that Well-Meaning Trip to a Help in a Disaster Zone: Others Ways to Be of Use)

In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, as is the case in the aftermath of pretty much a disaster, there was a surge of aid, in all forms, to the besieged areas, to help the storm’s victims. This is a very normal, very human reaction to seeking suffering - we want to help. And for many people that desire to help translates into action – we  donate money, donate items, volunteer locally to send items to a disaster zone far away, or even volunteer to physically go to the disaster zone itself to help.

This last one – the desire to get up and just GO, to be of use, to do something other than write a check (the act of which seems so small and pointless and impersonal and distant in the face of suffering) is a desire I’ve had many times over. We all have. I remember feeling a pull to rush to the scene after 9/11; the desire to jump in my car and drive to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; searching online to flights to Port-au-Prince after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. For various reasons, in each of those cases (and many others) I ended up not carrying through with the impulse to rush to the scene from my far away locale…..And while at the time I didn’t know that NOT rushing, and that making a cash donation to a reputable, local organization was the better move, was the smarter move, the years I’ve spent working in international development have solidified this notion for me. Because – as unsexy, as uncool, as seemingly lame and boring and basic and lazy as it sounds – making a cash donation to a reputable, local organization is, 9 times outta 10, the better move if you really want to help. It doesn’t feel as good – and it’s certainly not as exciting as the rush that comes from being seated on a plane as it touches down in a conflict area – but it typically goes a lot further towards helping. Here’s a few reasons why:

  • In a time and place of disaster and chaos, professionals are needed: This is not to say that volunteers aren’t helpful in a disaster zone – in fact, volunteers are usually beyond necessary in these areas and situations. However, navigating a disaster area is a tricky, complicated and frankly dangerous thing to do – by arriving solo in a disaster area, or by joining up to go work in a conflict zone when you’ve personally never before done the kind of strenuous and taxing travel and work that is required – often means you’re adding to the chaos, and in some cases, putting other people at risk as well. Leave the heavy lifting up to the pros – and if you do volunteer to go to a disaster zone, its best to have been prepared already. When I lived in NYC I was a volunteer for the Red Cross – in times of crisis we were dispatched to areas of need, however only after we’d gone through proper, formal training by the Red Cross on how to do so.


  • Local capacity is most important: This is a mantra often spouted by folks in international development work, but the same is true in times of crisis and disasters. Supporting local organizations already on the ground – who understand the geography, culture, and people in a disaster area far better than an outsider ever could – is the best means to impact. Additionally, while supporting well-trained experts to fly into a crisis area to help is a good idea and often necessary for a resource-strapped community, remember that itself costs money (it varies depending on the organization/work/disaster at hand, but expats typically stay in nicer hotels in a crisis zone, eat better food, or receive additional compensation for the risk) – none of these are inherently bad things (if you’re in the midst of chaos all day literally saving lives, no way will I begrudge you a decent night’s sleep or a hot meal) but just remember that supporting local orgs with local staff is typically the best way to ensure your donation is supporting the work – and people – most directly impacted by a conflict or disaster.


  • Donating “actual stuff” can be more wasteful than helpful: As noted above, and as we’ve all felt personally, giving cash seems like such an impersonal effort in the face of a disaster - and giving items, such as clothes, shoes, toys, etc., seems much more personal and useful. However the realities on the ground often prove this often just isn’t the case. For example, in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, report after report came out about the fact that well-meaning people sent or delivered item upon item to the besieged country of – frankly – useless goods….winter clothes, toys, sporting equipment, and other items meant to be helpful, or at least spirit-lifting, instead just added to the chaos on the ground. The work in packaging, shipping, receiving, and sorting these goods once they reached Thailand was a tremendous resource-suck for the already-resource-strapped NGOs and aid agencies receiving them, and many of the items, while well intentioned, weren’t useful or helpful, and added to the already-existing mountainous piles of debris more than anything else. Yes in theory sending toys to orphanages or clothes to people who have lost everything is a good idea. But the practicality of that is much more complicated and often not helpful. If a specific organization is requesting specific items (such as Street Hearts in Haiti, an NGO rescuing street kids in Cap Haitien, with a wish list on their website of needed items) and give explicit delivery instructions, than great – go for it. Otherwise donating cash, however unfeeling and impersonal it may seem, is always a better idea. Remember – this donation you’re planning to give is not about what makes you feel good, it’s about what method helps the most.


  • Giving to long term/sustainable projects matters too - so don’t forget about giving after the cameras move on to the next crisis. As posted about previously, @thebrokegirlsguidetogiving is as dedicated to supporting long-term sustainable development work (@TNS) as it is to supporting emergency relief (@Directreleif). As we all know, once the media is done with a crisis area/finds another, newer crisis to move on to, attention (and donations) fade. By mid-2010 the mainstream media wasn’t talking about Haiti much at all –but the rebuilding from that earthquake has gone on for years, literally. After the crisis has passed, the rebuilding begins – and that work is much more tedious, long term, and frankly not as interesting or exciting to donors. However those post-disaster funds are as important - or arguably even more so - than those given in the immediate aftermath of a nightmare disaster. The reason isn’t monumental - the stronger a country’s economy, infrastructure, and basic systems, the more quickly they can recover from a disaster. So don’t forget about donating to longer-term programs in the months after a disaster occurs – like programs supporting small holder famers, local small businesses, agriculture or trade development, value chain development, or investments in education or health systems. And if you still have a desire to visit a disaster zone then the less dire, less dangerous, but equally as important rebuilding time is a much better time for a well-meaning volunteer to give into that urge to jump on a plane and go help (although still – do your homework, get yourself trained, and go with a reputable, local organization who knows you’re coming!).

Here’s to being smart while doing good. Carry on, Broke Girls….