Feb 22, 2010

Doing Good Badly

This was an article about "giving" in the 2/22/10 issue of Time Magazine, and is primarily directed toward Haiti.  There was great outpouring of support, and always discussion and push to "give", but is it the right thing?

Help never arrives fast enough because no two disasters are alike and chaos is an agile enemy. So how would we feel, after texting our $10 donations to the Red Cross and writing checks to Save the Children, still coming home night after night to the growing mass grave on our flat-screens.

Epic disasters inspire dreams of glory. "Everyone wants to be a hero. Everyone wants to help," Dr. Thomas Kirsch, a co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Refugee and Disaster Response, told MSNBC. "It's not the way to do it." A team from his school arrived in Haiti so unprepared, its members needed rescue themselves. "They had no bedding, supplies or food," he said, and they had to rely on other relief agencies for support.

One's duty in the face of disaster is not just to be kind but to be sensible. Chances are that if the 82nd Airborne can't get food to the tent city fast enough, your food bank can't either.  Then there is the help that is no help at all. After the 2004 tsunami, aid poured in from all over the world. But it included tons of outdated or unneeded medicines that Indonesian officials had to throw out. People sent Viagra and Santa suits, high-heeled shoes and evening gowns. A year later, after an earthquake in Pakistan, so much unusable clothing arrived that people burned it to stay warm. It may make us feel good to put together children's care packages with cards and teddy bears--but whose needs are we trying to meet?

Money is fleet and nimble. The very thing that makes it unsatisfying to give makes it powerful to deploy. It can turn into anything--a water bottle, a prefab house, a tetanus shot, a biscuit. It lets relief agencies buy locally whenever possible, supporting local markets for products that are culturally and environmentally right. In the past decade, accountability has become a watchword of relief agencies around the world, with new guidelines to help donors know that their aid won't be wasted. Give money, Presidents Bush and Clinton implore, and by implication, leave the rest to professionals.

We can give globally and help locally. Either way, the same principle holds in helping as in healing: First, do no harm.

So while it may feel good to donate food to the local food bank for a disaster somewhere in the world, and providing clothing and blankets may seem like the altruistic thing to do, the real question is, who are you doing it for?  If you really want to help, leave it to the experts, not your local church or food bank.  Let the locals help here in our country, and donate dollars to let the experienced organizations do their things at ground zero.

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article


  1. I agree and understand completely. But with everyone casting their doubts about the ability of many organizations to make use of the funds they recieve properly, the guilt that is felt that leads to the giving of the inappropriate for the mission gifts, a lot of people feel that they 'know' better than those who are putting in work on the ground on the kind of aid that is needed.

  2. What I cried bullshit on was the "Faith Comes By Hearing" organization sending hundreds of solar powered electronic bibles to Haiti..while I love gadgets, whether or not you are religious, the last thing they needed right then or now is a gadget..food, medical care and some kind of shelter are whats important..I donated money to the Red Cross for Haiti and left my guilt at the door after that...I figured exactly like you said, and let the organization use it as they know better than me where the money is best needed right then...electronic solar powered bible...puhlease..

  3. I just wanted to stop in and say hi. I think you're right about the donating thing. We have a homeless camp in Colorado Springs, and people drop unwanted stuff off there all the time. It's actually caused a problem with having too much garbage and litter around, because no one wants to use the stuff. The best thing to do is donate money to a reputable charity.

  4. I agree with you 100% on this one Ken. Do no harm. Give in the form of money that can be converted to what is needed at the time.

  5. Spot on. What makes money useful (its flexibility) makes it harder to part with ('I could've bought...').

    Nicely summarized.


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