Friday, April 30, 2010

A stitch in time

Working at an international aid organization, the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake has been interesting to watch.

People are riveted by suffering. Months after the quake, people are still calling to donate for that specific purpose. I gently try to steer them to a general donation. "We've raised all the money we can responsibly spend in the next 5 years. At this point, donations are really more needed in other parts of the world." This is not what they want to hear.

Haiti got $1.55 billion in aid just now, largely because it was on the news. Darfur (remember Darfur?) is not on TV. Nor is Congo. Nor is Pakistan. Nor are millions of poor people around the world whose daily lives are a disaster.

I thought this was the most brilliant thing I've ever seen on aid: Prevent Disasters

I hear people say on the phone, "I saw how bad it was, and I wanted to do something." I'm glad that they're moved to help. But Haiti needed help long before the earthquake. It wouldn't have been so awful there if people had decent housing to begin with. People need help all over the globe, and they will need it tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Not just when they're on the news.


Lucas Sanders said...

Looks like your link got garbled. Here's a working version:

You make some great points. I didn’t realize that Oxfam would still be receiving such significant numbers of calls to support the relief effort in Haiti at this point... thanks for providing that valuable point of perspective. I wonder if some of the people calling to donate to a Haiti relief fund would respond more positively toward making a general donation if you suggested that it might be paired with a Haiti-specific advocacy action, such as the HELP Act letter-writing campaign advertised in an e-mail I received from Oxfam today.

That said, I also wonder how many of the people calling to donate for Haiti at this point are people who organized campaigns to raise funds from a community group to support that relief effort, and so feel like they cannot honor the intentions of the actual donors if the money is not earmarked for Haiti relief... but are still justifiably disappointed that their efforts are unlikely to have a timely impact on the ground in that country.

Finally, I wonder if it is pragmatically wise to dissuade people too strongly from making such donations, if we recognize that Haiti will still be poor 5 years from now and that their plight probably won’t seem significantly more urgent to the typical donor than that of Darfur, Pakistan, the Congo, or any of the other various places around the world that need our support. Or maybe there is evidence from past catastrophes that those graphic images are still atypically potent motivators for giving once you get 5, 10, and 20 years down the road?

One last question: how did the incredible amount of attention on Haiti’s plight impact Oxfam’s short-term ability to raise funds for the rest of its work around the world?

Julia Wise said...

Yes! Lots of good things to chew on!

People who raised money from other people (concert, bake sale, etc) can still give their money to the Haiti quake fund. I'm boggled by the people who are just now calling to say, "I've decided to make a donation for Haiti."

Haiti will definitely need aid in five years. But we can't take money for the Haiti Earthquake Response Fund (technical name of the fund) and not apply it specifically to earthquake response. We'll still be working in Haiti, but the work won't be all that earthquake-related.

As for why we don't have a generic Haiti fund, it has to do with the difference between Oxfam America and the other national Oxfams - basically, our bit of the Oxfam consortium doesn't normally run programs in Haiti. So if you were donating through Oxfam Quebec or Oxfam Great Britain, you probably could designate your donation just for anything in Haiti.

I don't know the numbers, but I'm guessing people were slightly less likely to make a general donation if they gave for Haiti as well. But some donors sent things in saying, "I know you must need this for places that aren't getting attention right now." Which is great.

I like the idea about taking action on Haiti even if you can't donate to that fund. A lot of people have a strong charity/politics boundary in their mind, and they're willing to give money to feed people but not to lobby to change the policies that keep them hungry. Political action is more of a gamble, but it has huge potential.