On January 12th a 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti’s capital, Port-Au-Prince and caused massive devastation to the city. The death toll is expected to be well in the thousands and a massive response by government agencies and non-profits has already begun. Professor Laurence Simon, director of sustainable international development programs at the Heller School, has had a long association with Haiti dating back to the 1980s, including work there on behalf of Oxfam America, the InterAmerican Foundation, and Grain Protection International. He has worked in disaster mitigation and recovery on three continents.
There are some lessons the disaster response community has learned over the years that may serve as a guide for your desire to help Haiti.
Send cash. In disasters of this magnitude, every seaport and airport in the region will quickly be jammed with relief supplies, many of them of marginal value at best. The international airport in Haiti is damaged but will soon be nearly paralyzed with incoming relief. Cash is needed by relief agencies to purchase needs locally (e.g. clothing). They do this to bolster local economies rather than hurt them with imported supplies. Where supplies are not available (e.g. medicines), they are purchased abroad and flown in by the military or at significant expense. Sending clothing, baby bottles, food, etc. at this time would not be useful. At worst, it will block critical supplies that cannot be procured locally.
Contribute for reconstruction and development, not just relief. The emergency period will be over in the next couple of weeks. Many of these needs are being met by international organizations, donor countries, and by the thousands of local volunteers. While the emergency needs are great, even greater, far greater, will be the need for funds with which to help rebuild communities and livelihoods. Unfortunately, many of the relief agencies that flood into countries after major disasters do not stay beyond the emergency period. This is why it is important to contribute to agencies and earmark funds for reconstruction and development in the affected communities and to select agencies that will be there for the long haul.
Select agencies that know the countries. Many of the relief agencies that are listed or advertising for contributions have never set foot in Haiti. Unless they are very specialized agencies (e.g. Doctors Without Borders), many will waste time and money trying to figure out how to operate. The best chance to help is to support those organizations with local offices that are already operational.
Consider local organizations. Most Americans will prefer to contribute to known U.S. or European organizations. That is fine. If you wish, you can contribute directly to local organizations in the countries affected. The difficulty, however, is knowing which organizations are reliable and efficiently getting the money to them. Most do not have Internet sites set up for contributions like the major U.S. and European agencies. Sending checks or wiring funds is unreliable at this time. Where you can contribute directly, the money will go a long way, though you will not get a U.S. tax deduction for it unless they have a U.S.-based 501(C)(3) non-profit channel. Also, I would suggest not contributing directly to the Haitian government’s direct appeals. There is no question as to their dedication to the relief of suffering in this emergency, but non-governmental and non-political organizations will be better stewards of the funds for long-term development.
Most importantly, contribute to organizations that aim to lessen vulnerability, not just help rebuild poverty. While tourist hotels were also damaged, a large percentage of those affected are poor people living in marginal communities. It is not enough to help people rebuild shanties. Every “natural” disaster is also an opportunity to help communities lessen their vulnerability. The most progressive international relief agencies (e.g. Oxfam, American Friends Service Committee, Mennonite Central Committee, etc.) know the conditions that bred such vulnerability and will work with the local government and people to change those conditions.
Download a PDF of this letter and “Five Questions to Ask Before You Give.” This may be useful if you are contemplating a significant gift to an agency I have not listed. Please let me know if I can help you in any way to make a meaningful contribution.
Laurence Simon, Ph.D.
Professor of International Development
Director, Sustainable International Development Graduate Programs
The Heller School for Social Policy and Management
Faculty, staff and students alike are all making efforts to help this global crisis. Shaina Gilbert is one of our own students who has been affected by the recent events in Haiti. Student groups are meeting through the Waltham Group to consider an array of efforts to relieve earthquake victims in Haiti and assist in long-term reconstruction of the devastated country. To learn about more ways to get involved on campus, contact the Waltham Group for more information.
Shaina Gilbert ’10, a first-generation Haitian-American, along with four other Brandeis students and Gilbert’s father, who teaches math at Hyde Park High School in Boston, founded a camp in the Haitian town of Hinche last summer. The ETE (for Empowering Through Education) Camp enrolled 43 children ages 8 to 11 last summer, and will have 70 children next summer.
The camp, which uses Episcopal School facilities in Hinche that were not badly damaged in the earthquake, is affiliated with the Global Haiti Initiative. GHI aims to build awareness of Haiti’s culture, history, current conditions and needs.
“I know people are focused on giving to relief funds right now, but Haiti needs to be rebuilt for the long term too,” Gilbert said during a tabling session in the campus center atrium this week. “Our counseling and teaching work there is very challenging. It has got to continue.”
“I have hope for Haiti. I want others to, also,” Gilbert said. “This is a strong people, a strong culture.” She added that the problems of poverty and underdevelopment that plagued Haiti long before the earthquake and now are making a bad situation worse “are not all the nation’s fault.”
Haiti lies just 600 miles off the coast of Florida and its history and economy are inextricably linked to those of the United States. The Boston area is home to the third largest population of Haitians in the U.S., and Waltham houses a significant portion of them. For more information on helping survivors of the earthquake in Haiti, visit the Charity Navigator web site for tips on funding relief efforts.