As part of the U.S. Agency for International Development Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA), the Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) guides and informs the public, including religious and community groups; diaspora; embassies; non-profits; corporations; businesses and governmental organizations about the most effective ways to support international disaster relief and recovery.
about usaid cidi

Mission and Goals

USAID CIDI provides resources and conducts public awareness activities designed to empower donors to most effectively help people affected by disasters overseas. Through outreach, partnerships, and our annual student PSAid competition, we support donors and relief agencies as they work together to provide essential relief to disaster survivors quickly, effectively, and economically.

USAID CIDI‘s Guidelines for Effective International Disaster Donations have been adopted in some form by many key players in the international donations management arena, including federal and local government agencies and coalitions of relief and development organizations.

Make an Impact

Learn more about how you can make an impact. Our situation reports, donations advice, guidelines, volunteer guidance, and articles provide details about international disaster relief and how the public can support it.
  • Disaster Responses

    The U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance writes highly detailed incident reports and fact sheets about major disaster responses overseas. Each report includes key developments, a word on context, major interventions by sector, funding data and more. Information is key to effective disaster response and to effective giving.

  • Tools for Giving

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    ToolKitWelcome to USAID CIDI’s Smart Compassion Tool Kit! And thank you for your interest in making a big, positive difference in the lives of people who are affected by disasters. The desire to help is an important first step. Desire plus information enables you to maximize your benevolence – to people affected by disasters, the relief workers who help them, and response operations overall. Knowledge is the key to this multiplier effect, and this tool kit gives you what you need to be a practitioner and an ambassador of Smart Compassion.

    You can help to save lives and reduce human suffering after disasters by sharing proven guidance within your community, schools, parishes, sororities and fraternities about needs-based assistance and how Smart Compassion does more good for more people more quickly and with less hassle and expense for donors and relief workers. Sound good? It is enormously good. We have tools for individuals and organizations:

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    For Individuals

    Arm yourself with the knowledge and tools to give more effectively after a disaster, helping to best save lives and reduce human suffering.
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    Tools for Individuals

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    For Organizations

    Tools for Organizations
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    You can help save lives and reduce human suffering after disasters by sharing proven guidance within your community, schools, parishes, sororities and fraternities.

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    Tools for Effective Giving

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  • Guidelines for Giving

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    USAID CIDI provides information and guidance on the best way to help support relief efforts following disasters around the world.  With more than 20 years of experience working in disaster areas and with relief organizations on the ground, USAID CIDI knows that monetary donations are the best way to help people affected by international disasters. Our goal is to ensure that America’s generosity results in the most effective relief, and we focus on helping donors make informed decisions about how to help.
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    Looking to support relief efforts?

    These guidelines will help make sure your donation is as impactful and effective as possible.

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    Monetary Contributions to Established Relief Agencies are Always The Best Way to Help

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    When disaster strikes overseas, people want to help. The good news is this: the easiest way to support response efforts is also the most economical efficient, and effective – through monetary donations to relief agencies.

    Financial contributions allow professional relief organizations to purchase exactly what is most urgently needed by disaster survivors, when it is needed. Cash donations allow relief supplies to be purchased near the disaster site, avoiding delays, and steep transportation and logistical costs that can encumber material donations. Some commodities, particularly food, can almost always be purchased locally – even after devastating emergencies and in famine situations.
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    Cash purchases also convey benefits beyond the items procured. They support local merchants and local economies, ensure that commodities are fresh and familiar to survivors, that supplies arrive expeditiously and that goods are culturally, nutritionally and environmentally appropriate.

    Many Americans respond to disasters by collecting food, clothing and household items for people in need. It is not unusual for community and civic groups to collect thousands of pounds of material. These donations require transportation — which is expensive and logistically complicated — and a pre-identified recipient on the ground who will receive the shipment, pay customs and other fees, sort and distribute the items.
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    examples of inappropriate donations
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    In contrast to how financial donations are used, unsolicited household donations can clog supply chains, take space required to stage life-saving relief supplies for distribution, and divert relief workers’ time. Collections of household items serve no useful function in the acute phase of an emergency operation. Managing piles of unsolicited items may actually add to the cost of relief work through forcing changes to logistical and distribution plans and creating more tasks for relief workers.

    Before collecting goods, consider transportation expenses, storage and distribution challenges, and the real-time needs of those in the affected area.

    Monetary contributions donated to established, vetted relief agencies are always more beneficial to survivors and to relief operations. Keep reading for more information on why monetary, rather than material donations, are the most effective way to help.

    Know What Relief Experts Know

    Every disaster is unique and every disaster response is carefully tailored according to population needs that are assessed by relief professionals on the ground. Relief organizations that have personnel working in the disaster area coordinate with each other, with government entities and with local groups to make accurate assessments. These appraisals evolve daily as survivors migrate to safety and normalcy returns. Unsolicited, unneeded commodities are never required in early stages of response, and they compete with priority relief items for transportation and storage. Relief organizations that request material donations through public appeals will communicate specifically what items are needed in order to avoid these problems.

    Some foods, particularly in famine situations, can cause illness or may be culturally inappropriate. Donations of canned goods are rarely beneficial and the collection of bottled water is highly inefficient, as both food and potable water can be purchased more inexpensively through merchants close to affected populations. In every case, survivors are most effectively helped when an accurate assessment of need leads to thoughtfully selected, appropriate commodities.

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    Before Collecting Material Donations, Confirm There Is A Need

    Some people feel a strong desire to give material donations in addition to cash. Opportunities to do this are rare but do come up, usually through appeals by relief organizations. In those cases, the organization will give specific directions on exactly what to collect, a time frame in which to collect it, and specific directions on transportation. Appeals will be advertised but interested parties can search the internet proactively. Visit www.InterAction.org for more information on relief and development agencies, where they work and how they’re responding to a specific disaster.

    Any call for material donations must meet each of these criteria, or will risk burdening the relief effort it seeks to support:

    • A credible relief organization has identified a need for items being requested.
    • An organization is prepared to receive, manage and distribute the items.
    • Costs of transportation, shipping, warehousing and distribution are covered.
    • Management of customs tariffs, fees and other cross-border requirements are covered.
    • Quality assurance requirements from the host government and the recipient are met and are available for disclosure.


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    Transportation Is Expensive And Requires Planning

    It is important that transportation arrangements are secured before any kind of material donations are collected. A common misconception is that the U.S. government or relief agencies will transport donations free of charge, or even for a fee.  This may have been the case decades ago, but is no longer true. Individuals or organizations that accept donated items are also responsible for paying for transportation and related fees – including customs fees – at commercial rates.

    Volunteer Opportunities Are Extremely Limited

    Volunteers without prior disaster relief experience are not generally selected for overseas assignments. Candidates with the greatest likelihood of being chosen have fluency in the language of the disaster-affected area, prior relief experience, and expertise in technical fields such as medicine, communications, logistics, water/sanitation and engineering (credit pantal). In many cases, professionals who meet these requirements are available in-country, not far from disaster affected areas. Most agencies will require candidates to have at least 10 years of relief experience, as well as several years of experience working overseas. It is not unusual for a hiring agency to request that volunteers make a commitment to spend at least three months working in a particular area.

    Though kindhearted and well-intended, offers to drive trucks, set up tents and feed children are rarely accepted. Relief agencies that hire volunteers are responsible for volunteers’ well-being, including food, shelter, health and security. Resources are strained during a disaster, and a person without technical skills and experience can be more of a burden than an asset to a relief effort.

    Those who lack necessary training can participate most constructively by volunteering vicariously – by raising funds and fostering community awareness of organizations that support trained personnel on the ground. No donation is too small and every dollar contributes to saving lives and reducing human suffering in the most economical, efficient and appropriate ways.

    Read more about Volunteering After a Disaster

    Excerpts from this document should reference the USAID Center for International Disaster Information (USAID CIDI) as the source.


  • Volunteering for International Disaster Relief

    What You Need to Know

    The primary goal of relief work is to help the greatest number of people as effectively as possible. Volunteers can be an asset to this end, but they can also be a hindrance – the difference depends on a few factors described below. The following will help clarify some common misunderstandings about volunteering and provide links to additional resources and information.

    Volunteers are Limited

    Prospective volunteers with the best chance of being selected have fluency in the language of the disaster-stricken area, prior disaster relief experience, and expertise in technical fields such as medicine, communications, logistics or water/sanitation engineering. In most cases, professionals who fit this description are available in-country, which decreases the need for foreign volunteers. While offers from individuals, college service clubs, church groups and others to drive trucks, set up tents, and feed children are well-intentioned, they are typically not accepted by relief organizations. Local volunteers and even disaster survivors themselves are often available for these tasks, and people impacted by a disaster benefit from being actively involved in the restoration of their communities.

    From an administrative perspective, once a relief agency accepts a volunteer, they are responsible for that person’s well-being, including food, shelter, health and security. Untrained volunteers are expensive, and a lack of sectoral, cultural and language training can actually result in more harm than good to survivors. Resources are particularly strained during a disaster, and people without required technical skills and experience can be a financial and practical burden to an ongoing relief effort. Relief work is a profession, and requires individuals who are trained to work effectively under sustained difficult conditions.

    Gaining Necessary Experience

    People who are interested in becoming qualified volunteers can begin by starting small and starting locally. Volunteering in one’s own community will yield useful experience in helping people in need. For additional skills, local colleges and Red Cross chapters may offer disaster management training courses throughout the year. To find a local Red Cross chapter, please visit the Red Cross web site at:  www.redcross.org.

    Medical and Healthcare Professionals

    In most international emergencies doctors are available locally, within the country and within the region. In most cases, the affected country government will rely upon these resources first, before requesting outside assistance, since these doctors are most familiar with local medical systems, the language, the culture and treatments required. Prospective volunteers with medical training are strongly encouraged not to go to disaster sites on their own, but to contact an agency or organization that is working on the ground and has authorization from the government to bring in personnel. Many of these organizations will also require that volunteers have registered with them before a disaster, so that they have sufficient time to review their qualifications and experience.



USAID created CIDI in 1988 one month after Hurricane Gilbert—a Category 5 storm affecting 10 countries —made landfall. An outpouring of unsolicited donations took up space at ports and airports that was needed to manage and deliver emergency supplies, and responders spent valuable time and resources dealing with unneeded clothing, expired medicine, and other non-critical items. USAID established CIDI with the goal of educating the public about how best to give when disaster strikes overseas.

Decades of experience with donors, donations, and relief efforts have shown us that monetary contributions to proven relief organizations give the best support to people affected by disasters. They ensure that supplies are fresh and familiar to survivors, that provisions arrive quickly and that goods are culturally, nutritionally and environmentally appropriate. No unsolicited material donation can do as much good as quickly and at such low cost, with as little hassle for donors, recipients and, in the case of international disaster response, affected countries. Even tiny cash donations can do a great deal of good, as relief organizations can exercise bulk buying power to serve more people.

Compassionate people feel the suffering of others deeply and want to help in a personal way. For some, canned food, bottled water and used clothing are more satisfying to send because they are tangible, personal items one might give to a friend in need. Every disaster is unique, though, and affects survivors uniquely. Frequently, clean water, food and clothing are available near the disaster site, and sending more can get in the way of staging and delivering life-saving supplies. Uninvited donations take relief workers’ time to manage and may put local merchants out of business, creating a second, economic disaster. They are also exponentially more expensive to send, incur more costs every time they change hands and leave a big carbon footprint in their wake. In addition to helping more people at lower cost, monetary donations are used to set up medical clinics, reunite family members and provide shelter and other services which are vital to survivors.

USAID CIDI Donations Outreach Fact Sheet

Cash is Best

USAID CIDI coined the phrase “Cash is Best” in 1988. For more than 25 years, this tagline has been used by domestic and international relief agencies, U.N. organizations, the White House, and federal agencies to promote effective public support of disaster relief.