In the summer of 2005 I worked at a summer camp, earning enough money to purchase my school uniforms and excited by the prospect of riding Metro without an adult. When not working I was glued to the television, watching events unfold after Hurricane Katrina and related flooding in New Orleans . Thousands of moms, dads, children, and elderly people were in desperate need of relief. So many thoughts raced through my mind. What could they have done to prepare for this? What would I do in their situation? What can I do to help them? As days passed, I saw more and more initiatives to support the survivors of New Orleans, yet none of them inspired me to act.

Soon, I started high school; classes and extracurricular activities occupied by mind and time until one announcement thrust Hurricane Katrina back into my consciousness. All after-school activities in the gymnasium had been cancelled or moved to a nearby recreation center so the gym could shelter survivors of Hurricane Katrina who relocated to DC.. There were no ready answers to our many questions: how were they chosen, did they volunteer to come to DC, when would they arrive, how long would they stay, and will they have beds and supplies? This sparked a conversation with a girl in my homeroom who moved to DC following flood warnings in New Orleans. Her stories about how drastically her life changed left me sympathetic and scrambling to grasp that we are all at risk of life-changing events. How can we prepare for the unpredictable?

Preparing for emergencies within our families and communities is important and potentially life-saving. So is preparing oneself as a donor, being ready to give aid to people impacted by disasters. Are you prepared to help others in the most effective and efficient way possible? When disasters strike, many people’s first impulse is to collect food or clothing; it is not unusual for community and local groups to collect thousands of pounds of material – typically used clothing, canned food and bottled water – realizing only afterward that they do not know whether it’s actually needed, how they will transport it or who will distribute it. We all want to help affected families in difficult circumstances, and it is important to remember that material donations not specifically requested by relief organizations can actually slow the process of delivering essential supplies, as they take away precious space, personnel, time and other resources from life-saving activities. For those who want to send material things, it’s important to “connect before you collect” and identify a relief or charitable organization beforehand that needs and can distribute the collection. Charitable preparedness!

Being prepared is a skill and it can be a challenge. In light of National Preparedness Month, I am reminded of that summer before high school. There was little difference between what my classmate shared and what the news recounted after Hurricane Katrina; it was the same story from two different perspectives. Both of them inspired me to think hard about priorities in preparedness. As a donor, I may be tempted to donate clothes and other things I no longer have need for, but realized that the best way for me to thoughtfully express compassion starts with being absolutely positive that what I give is needed and requested.

That’s why Cash is Best! Cash donations to relief and charitable organizations working in disaster-affected communities can be used immediately to purchase supplies that are urgently needed, while supporting the local economy. Sending coats that don’t fit any more or out-of-season shoes to disaster sites can disrupt relief operations by taking up space needed to manage and distribute life-saving supplies. Therefore, it’s important for donors to understand that in-kind donations can be useful in the right circumstances but very harmful in others. For more information on donations and why cash is best, please visit:

As director of D-TRAC I was often asked to orient heads of aid agencies and donors on the tsunami recovery efforts. As part of this there was usually a request to visit temporary camps and villages to see things in person. I was always torn as to the right thing to do. Was it more important for that person to see the situation on the ground, or was it more important for people who have just lost their homes and loved ones to be able to care for their children and rebuild their lives without having strangers walking through their village looking at them.

What is interesting and educational to you may be intrusive and demoralizing to them

Recently, a reader argued that the donor’s needs for understanding and education are just as important as the needs of the aid recipients. I would disagree with that. I strongly believe that the needs of the aid recipients should be paramount, with the needs of the donor accommodated only when it is appropriate. What is interesting and educational to the donor may be intrusive and demoralizing to the people they are trying to help.

Feeling like an animal at a zoo

Perhaps I am hyper-aware of this issue because of my own experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand in the late 90’s. I was one of the few westerners in my province and many people had never seen a westerner close up. As a result of this I was regularly stared at in the market place with parents pointing me out to their children saying “farang, farang” (westerner). When I sat on my front porch at night cars would slow down as they drove by. Old women on buses would rub my arms telling their friends my hair was like gold. All of this made me feel like an animal in a zoo rather than a real person. How then, must aid recipients feel with foreigners walking through their neighborhoods or temporary camps, staring at them, and talking about them.

In addition to being stared at and touched, many Thais used me as an educational tool for their families or students. Although my job was to train teachers on environmental education techniques, most principals just wanted me to visit their school so the children could see and hear real westerner. There were far too many times when I had to stand in front of a classroom, or an entire school, while the principal pointed out my straight nose, blue eyes, and “gold” hair to the students. This was usually followed by having me speak in English, to the amusement and astonishment of the students.

None of this had anything to do with my skills, my experience, or my job responsibilities, but it had to be endured to get the support I needed to get the job done. How often do aid recipients feel as though they are not respected for their knowledge and abilities, but instead have to endure being viewed as an educational experience or cultural exchange by the myriad of people attracted to a disaster. I choose to become a Peace Corps volunteer and knew that this was a price I paid for that experience. For them it must be worse because they did not choose to become disaster victims, instead it was thrust upon them.

How would you want people to act in your own neighborhood?

Imagine having just lost all of your possessions, your job, and members of your family. How would you feel about the stream of people walking through your neighborhood? There would likely be foreign and national aid agency staff, researchers, photographers from corporations and aid agencies wanting pictures of you or your children, dignitaries garnering a little PR, donors wanting to understand the situation or check up on aid agencies, volunteers looking to be helpful and to have a cultural experience, and plain old tourists wanting to see the impact of the disaster. Which of these people would you feel were appropriate and which would you feel were intrusive. How would you want them to behave?

Before becoming a disaster tourist, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is visiting this site crucial to your decision making, or will it just satisfy personal curiosity?
  • Is visiting temporary camps and newly built villages necessary, or would visiting destroyed areas  provide you with the information or photo ops you are seeking?
  • If you must go into the village, how would you want a person of equal standing to act when walking through your own neighborhood, near your children, or watching you in the unemployment or food pantry line?
  • If you want to speak with disaster victims, then under what circumstances would you feel it was appropriate for someone of equal standing to take up your time with questions?

I would argue that these same guidelines should be used by anyone thinking of becoming a poverty tourist as well. But I’ll leave the debate on poverty tourism to others (see Aid Watch).

Good aid puts the needs of the aid recipients before the needs of the donor

As in all cases, it is crucial to evaluate an aid activity not from the standpoint of what is good for you as a donor, but from the standpoint of what would be good for you as an aid recipient. How would you want others to act if you were an unwitting part of disaster tourism?


Do you agree or disagree? Do you have any research or guidelines on this? I look forward to your comments.


The situation after a disaster can be extremely chaotic, as everyone works as quickly as they can to try and help. Adding to this chaos is an increasing number of individuals and companies traveling to the disaster scene to distribute aid. While well-intentioned, these efforts can often exacerbate the problems common to disaster relief, such as:

  • A confusion of actors making it impossible to know for sure who has received what already
  • Unequal distribution of aid, with some areas getting much more assistance while other areas may get far less
  • Creating aid dependency by distributing aid in such a way that people come to depend on it
  • An influx of inappropriate aid clogging the ports


A confusion of people and organizations
If a disaster were to happen in your own town you may get help from:

  • Your neighbors, friends, and family
  • Community based organizations – like your local food pantry
  • Local churches – which often serve as immediate shelters after the disaster and help feed and clothe disaster victims
  • City and county first responders – such as the police and fire departments
  • Local clubs and civil service organizations such as Rotary or Lions Club
  • County and state government offices – such as the National Guard
  • State wide aid non-profits – such as the Red Cross
  • National and International businesses – such as Coca Cola after the tsunami
  • National government offices – such as FEMA or units of the Army or Navy
  • National and international aid organizations – such as CARE or OXFAM
  • Depending on the disaster, the offices of United Nations might respond such as the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) or UNICEF

Just listing the different organizations can make your head spin, let alone trying to track and coordinate their work. Unfortunately, because of the sheer numbers and types organizations, coordination and information sharing generally only happens within smaller groups. The local government talks to other government offices, the local aid organizations generally share information with each other and some government offices, and the international aid organizations may share information with each other, the UN, and some government offices. Although there are attempts to improve this with the Humanitarian Reform Process, currently a coordinated response between all the actors is far more a goal than a reality.

Add to this confusion people outside any of the coordination structures showing up for a week or two to distribute aid, and the chances of duplicating each others work becomes even more likely.

Unequal distribution of aid

Because there is generally no shared needs assessment or a fully coordinated response plan, the location of your village or your temporary shelter can affect how much aid you receive. Areas that are closer to a main road, are easily accessible, or that receive a lot of media attention, generally get more aid. Locations that are difficult to access, such islands or in areas with poor road access tend to get less aid.  People that chose to live with family members rather than in camps may miss out on a variety of help. This unequal distribution of assistance cause widespread rumors In Thailand that people were moving to temporary camps closer to the main road so they could get more handouts.

With no overall needs assessment readily available, and without the time or the money to do a comprehensive needs assessment, people delivering goods themselves must rely on what they can see or where their translator or guide directs them. This means they are far more likely to go to the areas that are easily accessible and better known. Therefore, instead of giving aid to those that need it the most, they may accidentally compound the problem of unequal distribution of aid. Additionally, because they are acting alone, there is a very good chance that other aid organizations are unaware of the aid given. This creates an even greater probability of duplicated assistance.

Creating aid dependency

After the tsunami, many people came with goods donated from home (see related post on problems with inappropriate donations) or with cash. Often people would hand out 1,000 baht bills (about 35 USD) to each person or family in a camp. Because the average day laborer makes about 5,000 – 6,000 baht a month, this windfall was too much to be missed.

People handing out help could show up at any time of the day, depending on their travel schedule, villagers that went to work risked missing out on whatever was donated. This lead to people staying in the camps to receive handouts rather than seeking day labor jobs. A local orchard owner complained to me that he could no longer hire any help because no one wanted to work anymore. A local monk complained about all the handouts creating aid dependency.

Inappropriate aid clogging ports

All people and goods arriving in a country must enter through sea or air ports. The huge influx of people and goods entering a country after a disaster may far exceed the capacity of the local government to process in a timely manner. Unless the country has the appropriate laws and regulations already in place as well as the authority to prioritize which people and goods are allowed in the country first, well-intended donations of clothing may take up the customs area preventing shipments of medicine from clearing customs.


Consider staying home and donating

Unless you are immediately adjacent to the disaster and can get basic supplies there within the first 72 hours, it is better to stay out of the fray and donate to the aid agency you think will do the best job. Although traveling to an area to distribute aid is appealing, the common problems inherent in disaster relief mean that your well-intended assistance may exacerbate an already difficult and confusing situation



CIDI’s Barlin Ali and OFDA Asa Piyaka speak to Ahmed Scego, one of the founders of Global Somali Diaspora

People like to say that this is the Age of Connectedness. Yes, we are more connected. But we’ve always been connected—now it is on a much more intimate and expansive level. Humanity has always sought connectedness. We’ve been exchanging ideas for thousands of years; initially through conquest and trade, now exchange occurs through expedient international travel and the Internet. Diaspora groups are a manifestation of this continued connectedness as community boundaries have reshaped and expanded in our modern era.

At USAID Center for International Disaster Information, we hosted the first organized event in our history. On November 13th, “Diaspora, Disaster, and Donations” welcomed a brilliant set of panelists, each engaging diaspora communities in different ways, with robust discussion about diaspora communities’ roles following disaster events. Each panelist touched upon the importance of the connectedness of our world and how diaspora groups are an active expression of this.

USAID Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance’s Asa Piyaka expounded upon the shifting role diaspora communities are playing in disaster relief. Diasporas play such a crucial role during disaster, he explained, because these communities already have ties to the affected region and are typically more tuned-in to what is needed than international relief organizations may be. USAID CIDI’s own Barlin Ali conveyed that diasporas and charities wish to send remittances and donated cash to disaster-affected areas. However, in addition to the power of cash during emergencies, it is crucial to provide education about responsible giving in order to maximize its efficacy and impact.

During a disaster, remittances sent to countries of origin by diaspora communities are often the only stable source of income, stated Safiya Khalid of the Institute of Immigration Research at George Mason. For example, in the 2004 tsunami, Sri Lanka received government and NGO money to provide fishermen with boats; nonetheless, it was remittances that provided the nets with which to fish. Remittances aren’t without associated challenges, including misdirected money. Katherine Gupta of the US Treasury Department outlined avenues in which remittances can be given safely and transparently.

Diaspora groups send remittances and concerned citizens donate to communities stricken by crises because each are affected by the global reverberations during their aftermaths. Professor Terrence Lyons of George Mason University mentioned that “communities are not bounded by territory, they are transnational.” That to be a part of a diaspora community is to be both “simultaneously a Virginian and a Liberian. Those links of affinity, that you have an obligation to this community . . . that is what drives so much of the politics and the donations, and the remittances.”

Our global community is transformed by the immediate communicative and physical connection we all now have. When disaster strikes, it is no longer an isolated incidence as it may have been a hundred years ago; rather, it now impacts the world on a global and a regional level. Diaspora groups are a realization of the expansion of distinctive regional communities. These communities, especially diaspora, are poised better than ever to respond to disaster and reshape our global recovery efforts.

USAID CIDI Staff at "Diaspora, Disaster, and Donations"

USAID CIDI Staff at “Diaspora, Disaster, and Donations”

Here are the winners from the stories submitted for the worst in-kind donation contest (related post: What is an in-kind donation). You may have your own personal favorites, all submissions can be read here, please feel free to add more. Thanks to everyone that submitted their stories!

The most common in-kind donation
Shoes of all sorts; soccer shoes, running shoes, flip flops, etc… (see post for why this might not be a good donation)

The most ridiculous in-kind donation
Knickers for Africa and bras for Haiti – recent requests were made for donations of both of these items recently by two different organizations

The grossest in-kind donation
Used soap from hotels are collected and sent to Uganda

Worst in-kind donation as a tax write-off
Skeleton shaped suckers leftover from Halloween sent to survivors of Hurricane Mitch

Worst in-kind donation as a political stunt
Spam (spiced ham) hand delivered by a US Senator to Muslims after the tsunami (this donation was also a contestant for the next category)

Most offensive in-kind donation
The offer of what was perceived as dog food to Kenya to help with their food crisis –

In-kind donation that wasted the most recipient time
This was a toss-up between a broken computer that the recipient organization spent years trying to fix or the 15 pallets of random medicine sent after Hurricane Mitch. Critical time was wasted sorting through the medicine and throwing 3/4 of it away.

Most dangerous in-kind donation
Baby formula donated after Hurricane Mitch – if mixed with contaminated water could kill a baby from diarrhea within 24 hours.

Related posts:

What is an in-kind donation?
6 questions you should ask before donating goods overseas
Sending sports equipment to needy children seems like a good idea, but is it…
The most useful in-kind donations
Donating shoes and other aid fads
Why do we so often give aid in ways that does not support the local economy?

event invite

Join us as we host a panel discussion on:

Diaspora: who are they, why do they matter, and how are they impacting the economics of disaster relief in an increasingly globalized world? We want to take the mystery out of this very diverse, dynamic topic and engage with those who are active diaspora working in development.

RSVP here, from now until seats are gone, so hurry!

We’ve all heard of, or even volunteered for, popular non-profit organizations like United Way, Salvation Army, Goodwill, American National Red Cross, and YMCA to name a few. Non-profit organizations rally around a common principle, using profits to invest back in projects that address the organization’s interests. The ones we are most familiar with have a charity or a public service component. They welcome and enable people to contribute their time, skills, efforts, and money for a greater good. Organizations that do this play an integral role in the general welfare and economic and social interests of our communities – solving problems and enriching the community. Non-profits can work domestically or internationally on a range of issues, from addressing immediate hardships for people to preserving macro and micro aspects of cultures.

Do you have an interest in working for the greater good? Human rights, gender equity, environmentally sound development, assisting refugees – I bet there is an organization that exists to address what you care about! Are you interested in giving to or volunteering for a non-profit but you’re not sure what charities are nearby and who needs help? As part of my focus on the Back-to-School season, I’ve compiled a list of non-profit organizations, both domestic and international, that address some of the issues related to going back to school like access to food, books, and a well-rounded education. Thanks to websites like Global Giving and InterAction, we have the resources to explore and support trusted organizations that serve nearly every country and every cause in the world.

Here are some organizations and projects that I have learned about that might interest you:

Help 95 DC Kids Extend Learning After School: New Community for Children plans to serve students from Kindergarten through 12th grade and support them in reaching their full academic potential, preparing for college, and giving back time and talent to their communities.

Increase Graduation Rates In Little Rock: City Year, of Little Rock, Arkansas, is dedicated to improving educational outcomes for low-income youth. City Year’s Long-Term Impact goal is to ensure 80% of the students in the schools they serve reach the 10th grade.

The Lunch Box Expansion Project: Chef Ann Foundation believes by changing the way children eat and think about food, we are helping to create a future generation of informed consumers and parents whose food choices will support sustainable, healthy food systems.

Goods for the Greater Good: Good 360 transforms lives and strengthens communities by mobilizing companies to donate needed materials. The non-profit leader in product philanthropy distributes goods to a network of more than 32,000 prequalified charities, schools and libraries on behalf of America’s top brands.

Pact:Pact’s vision is a world where those who are poor and marginalized exercise their voice, build their own solutions, and take ownership of their future. Pact accomplishes this by strengthening local capacity, forging effective governance systems, and transforming markets into a force for development.

Donating money to a non-profit enables it to utilize the funds in a manner that best serves its goal. Donating your time and skills to an organization locally means you understand the importance of the cause and think it is valuable enough to your community for you to contribute. However you choose to start the year, I encourage you to donate your time, effort, skills, or money to an organization you believe supports the future you want to see.

Class is dismissed! You’ve successfully completed the final course in giving back for back-to-school. What did you learn? What do you plan to share? I want to make the final lesson more active than the previous two and hope that my reflections on the fundamentals in starting the school year encouraged you to reminisce as well. I have a couple of questions for you!

How important can a great foundation be for a student to succeed?

How do you define foundation?

What’s your favorite organization? Is it one of the non-profits we mentioned above?

Share with us below, on your Facebook, or on Twitter! We’d love to hear from you.