When there is a disaster, what should you do?

Last week when I was heading out from church, my cell phone rang saying that there was a tornado coming. I ran to my car with my roommates, and we headed home.  A few hours later, we saw the destruction surrounding our community. As the week has gone on, there have been so many stories about the tornadoes and what we can do about them or not do.  While this post was originally in response to the events that happened in the Philippines, the message is transnational.  When a natural disaster occurs what should you do?  Should you donate?  Should you run to help?

A few weeks ago we read a piece by Michael Masacarenhas http://www.sts.rpi.edu/pl/faculty/michael-mascarenhas which is forthcoming about Water for People, and it changed the ways that I see NGOs and sadly. NGOs (Non-governmental organizations) are organizations which provide direct aid services to populations.  In the neo-liberal era, these organizations take on a particularly important role as they fill the void left by devolution. In many places NGOs are working to increase access to education, water, political representation, and health care.  According to Mascarenhas, in some places NGOs have replaced local government.   These organizations have extreme POWER.  That power CAN be very very good. That power can help to liberate individuals from horrific situations. That power can help people live, get access to education.

But these NGOs, especially in a crisis, do have another side. Let me let Masacarenhas explain it…“the relentless expansion of NGOs on the basis of emergency has resulted in a contingent form of sovereignty, where increasingly NGOs are defining which populations to champion or “let live,” and by default, which populations to “let die.””

Those are powerful words.  So, think twice about.  Essentially, NGOs have increased power.  An organization like the Red Cross gets to decide who lives and who dies after an emergency. Especially if the organization isn’t giving 100% of the money raised to that disaster and saving some for a rainy day.

So, what are you to do?

Should you give money to the local organizations? That may not be the answer. Annie worked in Zambia for a few years, and she brought the perspective that in many Zambian NGOs they would want to do their work in a very “Christian” way that would exclude those who did not have that faith. They also were not the most efficient with their resources as a result. Local organizations CAN be very effective and they CAN be on the “heart beat” of what their community needs. But that does not necessarily mean that they are.

Are short term trips the best response? Many times Churches will organize short term trips to conduct humanitarian work.  In Haiti many volunteers came and they demanded basic sanitation and food, when the people that they were helping didn’t have it. They were demanding better living conditions than the people who they were serving. A trip to the Philippines will be more expensive, at least from the US.  An individual may not even be the best equipped to work in a disaster situation, as they may not have the language or technical skills needed.

Here are a few things for you to consider:

(1) Is the leadership of the organization is locally staffed?  If we are discussing an international organization, you should look to ensure that they have natives of the country who are in leadership positions of that subsidiary of the NGO.   The mindset of the organization most likely will be different if there are nationals running it, they will know what is going on and be more invested.

(2) Look and see how they are spending their money.  Do they have high overhead costs?  By themselves, high overhead costs are not necessarily wrong, as it can mean that they are investing in research and program development, which may actually be a great thing.  How much are the executives getting paid?

(3)  What is the organization even doing?  There are plenty of really “great” organizations in the world. What makes an organization “great” however may differ on who you talk to. What issues do you care the most about?  What sort of things do you want your money funneled into? Make sure that you don’t go on blind faith that an organization is going “good”—check it out for yourself.

The bottom line: You should vet the organizations that you choose to donate to.

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