Workers clear mud and debris in Tacloban after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in November. (Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images)
December 5, 2013

Jessica Alexander is the author of “Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid.” Follow her on Twitter: @jessalex811 .

Since Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines a month ago, the world has wanted to help the devastated areas. Yet as we’ve seen in the wake of other mega-disasters, well-meaning assistance to shattered communities can cause more harm than good. Let’s lay to rest some of the biggest misconceptions about how best to help victims of storms, earthquakes and other calamities.

1. Locals in disaster areas wait for the international community to come save them.

The first responders after any emergency are always the survivors. Before Typhoon Haiyan struck, a large international aid organization on the ground in the Philippines employed 95 local staffers. Within a week after the storm, it had hired close to 3,000 Filipinos. According to the program’s emergency director, people coming into the office made their sentiments clear: They didn’t want to be paid; they just wanted to help their communities.

There is no shortage of people in the Philippines who want to help their country rebuild. They are sheltering homeless neighbors, searching for lost parents, and providing food and care for newly orphaned children. This is what happens after any natural disaster. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers drove to the Rockaways to bring food to the disabled. After the earthquake in Haiti, locals didn’t wait for search-and-rescue teams: They dug one another out. International aid will fill important gaps, but Filipinos aren’t waiting.

2. Goods and services are “free” donations.

A friend working at that same aid group got a call a week after the typhoon struck. It was one of many he received from people in the United States who had organized aid drives.

“I have 5,000 bottles of water sitting in my garage for the Philippines,” a woman said. “Can you pick them up and take them there?”

When he told her no — that his organization took money, not goods or services, known as “gifts in kind” — she was dismayed. Didn’t Filipinos need clean water? Besides, she emphasized, her bottles were free.

What this would-be donor didn’t consider was the cost to the agency of transporting her bottles. They would have to travel from her garage to an international airport; from the United States to Tacloban, capital of the province hit hardest by the storm; from the airstrip in Tacloban on the back of a truck to a warehouse; and finally from a warehouse to a remote community. With the money it would take to do that, an aid organization could build a purification system that would provide clean water for years.

“Free” in-kind donations aren’t really free. Much of the Tacloban airport is destroyed. Planes are having a hard time landing. Finding places to store items is a problem. It takes only a week or so after a crisis for aid agencies to procure necessities locally, which has the dual benefit of rebuilding markets while saving lives.

3. If aid agencies give affected people cash, they won’t spend it on the right things.

A person affected by a storm or an earthquake knows better than anyone else what he or she needs. Aid organizations can provide the essentials: a water supply, toilets or latrines, temporary shelter, and basic nutrition. What they can’t know is whether people would be better off rebuilding their homes, paying for their children to attend school or restarting their businesses. Providing cash directly to families leaves these choices up to each individual — and from what I’ve seen, they use it wisely.

Humanitarian aid is undergoing a significant shift. Groups are providing more in the form of cash transfers and vouchers — $188.2 million in 2010, compared with $5.6 million in 2007, according to a 2012 Global Humanitarian Assistancereport. Aid workers can monitor how the money is spent by checking with vendors. And cash transfers are particularly important when markets start to reopen, as they are now in Tacloban, because they stimulate the local economy. Often, goods provided by the aid community such as jerry cans and mosquito nets are resold so people can get what they want: cash in hand.

4. Earmarking donations guarantees that the money will be well spent.

Earmarking can make it difficult for agencies to distribute aid equitably, adapt to a rapidly evolving situation or address unexpected gaps in funding. A donor may wish to fund specific programs such as water or sanitation efforts, but these may no longer be priorities, perhaps because another donor has provided enough money. Others may want their contribution to go to a subset of the population, such as women or children. However, these groups may not be the most vulnerable because they’ve received enough help or because the situation has changed. An aid agency may know this, but an earmarked donation forces it to spend money where it may not be best suited.

Donations earmarked for tsunami response in Sri Lanka in 2004, for example, went to building temporary shelters for people displaced by the disaster. These camps were constructed next to those housing people displaced by the country’s civil war. The new settlements, in some cases, had plenty of flushing toilets and electricity while the older ones were worn down, with frayed tents and sewage-lined alleys. This disparity created tension, and agencies were not able to divert any resources to right this imbalance. Unrestricted donations are effective because they let aid agencies adjust to the situation and the immediate needs at hand.

5. Volunteers on the ground are always a help.

Well-meaning volunteers who go to help can complicate matters further. After the earthquake in Haiti, a few medical teams from the United States came to perform surgeries. More often than not, they didn’t connect with other groups and were unable to coordinate long-term care for their patients. The results were devastating: Patients left clinics without knowing when to get their sutures removed, how often to put on clean bandages or where to go for follow-up treatment. Many people developed infections.

Aid professionals have been trained to work in emergency situations, but more important, they work with local authorities to rebuild infrastructure — roads, hospitals, schools — that can help the population over the long term. Meanwhile, unskilled volunteers can burden aid agencies that need to ensure their security, shelter and transportation. Further, they compete with disaster survivors for housing, food and clean water.

Many volunteers showed up in Haiti without any food for themselves, diverting time and resources from disaster response. In Tacloban, agencies are setting up tents for their staff members near the airport because there is no space for them in the city. Volunteers who come to pitch in take up space that experienced, professional aid workers should occupy; those who want to clear rubble take jobs that Filipinos can do better, if only because they speak the language and can navigate the local environment without mishap. There’s no shortage of Filipinos who can perform such work, who want to do it and who can be paid.

We should let them.

Twitter: @jessalex811

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