Haiti’s Tragedy

Lisa Genasci —  January 24, 2010 — Leave a comment

There is with good reason an outpouring of sympathy and aid from the world to Haiti fueled by some of the most tragic images in years. Perhaps since the South East Asian tsunami on December 26 2004 that killed 230,000 people there hasn’t been such a rush to help others in need.

The  earthquake directly affected about a third of the nation’s population of 9 million, according to the Economist. Perhaps 2% of the population has been killed, and a larger share injured. Much, and maybe most, of the capital city was destroyed. Millions may be without homes. There is certainly need.

In response, US private donors have so far sent US$1.8 billion in cash and in-kind aid, according to the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy, with an AP poll showing that 30 percent of American households donated within two weeks of the disaster. There have been  parties in most communities to raise funds for Haiti. Schools have rallied in support of victims of the tragedy, organizing fundraisers and other events. Company employees have rallied to donate.

Much of the initial rush of funding has gone to support some of the aid organizations actively organizing relief operations in Haiti, including the Red Cross, Oxfam America, Partners in Health (which has been working in Haiti for two decades), Doctors without Borders and Unicef.

But it is important to remember that relief is only a small portion of what’s needed in Haiti – there will of course be a massive rebuilding effort once this initial phase is over. History shows that donations spike right after a disaster and then trail off as attentions are focused elsewhere.  At the same time, we must remember lessons from the Tsunami, which also stirred an outpouring of support for victims. Estimates are that despite the billions in well-meaning contributions, 30-40 percent of donations were tainted by graft or went astray.

Before the disaster, Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and among the poorest nations on earth, with barely functioning infrastructure nd already enormous challenges for the government.  Now it is outsiders who will have to direct and support much of that effort and it will be enormous.

So it is  important to consider longer-term support for Haiti once this first rush is over. the Besides the excellent Partners in health (http://www.pih.org), Acumen Fund’s Jacqueline Novogratz recommends donating to Architecture  for Humanity (http://www.architectureforhumanity.org/).

In an excellent blog in the Harvard Business Review targeting corporations gearing up to donate, Timothy Ogden (http://bit.ly/8N7EWh) turns to the adage: “don’t just do something, stand there.” He too points to patterns following other disasters:  donations spike in the immediate aftermath; A huge portion of the funds donated are spent on setting up disaster-relief operations that are no longer the primary need; A flood of cash and materials cause a logistics nightmare leading to waste and ineffectiveness, if not corruption; Six months later, reconstruction stalls because the world’s attention has moved elsewhere.

What can we do? Obviously there is need for short-term funds but Ogden and others suggest that when you donate, not earmarking funds for relief only as well as giving to organizations with solid local connections and long experience in-country such as Partners in Health. They are in Haiti for the long-run. Give cash rather than in-kind donations. In the aftermath of the tsunami, products and supplies that could have been sourced locally were flown into affected countries at great expense leading to waste and losing the opportunity to fuel local economies. Ogden also suggests considering giving in six to eight months when it is clear where rebuilding funds are needed.

Lisa Genasci

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CEO of Hong Kong-based ADM Capital Foundation

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