Blog posts originally posted by Saundra at Good Intentions

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June 1 marks the start of Atlantic Hurricane Season – and as we know, it only takes one storm to cause significant damage to communities in the United States and around the world.




When disaster hits, many generous people start looking for ways they can help.

If you are one of them, you should use the start of Hurricane season to pre-plan your generosity too! It can make a big difference for people trying to get back on their feet after disaster.

How can you make the greatest impact in the lives of others this hurricane season? The answer is surprisingly simple: give cash to relief organizations that work directly with people affected by disasters.

Disasters evolve quickly as people move to safety and start receiving emergency services and humanitarian aid. Cash donations allow relief organizations to respond to changing needs quickly, which enables them to deliver essential supplies that are fresh and familiar to the people they are helping. Donating clothes and household items might seem like the right thing to do, but these items rarely reach the people they’re intended to help. In fact,omega replica unsolicited donations can hinder relief efforts by diverting relief workers’ attention, clogging up already-limited work space and requiring equipment and time to manage. In stark contrast, even small financial donations can make a huge difference because of charitable organizations’ bulk purchasing power. For example, relief organizations can provide safe drinking water to more than 32,000 people for one day for the same cost of shipping one 6-pack of bottled water to a disaster site.

Atlantic hurricane season lasts from June 1 - Nov. 30

Atlantic hurricane season lasts from June 1 – Nov. 30. Photo by NCDOT/Flickr


As we mark the start of Atlantic Hurricane Season, keep in mind these three ways you can help people in need:

  1. Decide ahead of time where your money will go. Choose a charity doing work you feel strongly about in hurricane-affected areas. You can make sure your donation is used effectively by consulting charity watchdogs such as Charity Navigator or Give Well.
  2. If you’ve already collected material goods, repurpose them! Your garage may be full, but fret not. Here are 55 ways to repurpose a material donation, or you can donate locally to people in need.
  3. Help spread the word about hurricane season, and cash donations. Many people aren’t aware of the positive impacts associated with giving cash to relief organizations after a disaster – or about the hazards of sending unsolicited material donations. Help us spread the word by directing people to www.cidi.org, following us on – Twitter and liking us on Facebook. You can also share the wonderful “Cash is Best” ads from our 2017 PSAid student contest! Visit psaid.org to switz-watch see the winning entries.

If you’re still unsure about giving cash, check out our Greatest Good Donation Calculator to determine the cost of material donations like canned food, bottled water and clothes versus the good that the same amount of money can do in the hands of an experienced relief organization.




Save lives, save money – donate cash!

How the Nepalese Diaspora Rallied Together in the Wake of the Nepal Earthquake

Momos are a delicious dumpling native to Nepal. If you haven’t had one, ask any of the thousands of Nepalese Americans and they can probably describe one to you in fond detail. But after the magnitude 7.8 earthquake rocked Nepal two years ago, the momos became so much more than a tasty treat. Communities in Massachusetts began to sell them to their neighbors to raise money to send back to Nepal.




This compassionate spirit and desire to help is not uncommon after disasters strike.

When I think back on the devastating earthquake, I remember photos of roads, temples, and schools reduced to ruins, and one of a crack, several feet across that split a city street where the earth suddenly shifted. And I remember the personal stories of tragedy streaming daily into our homes and smartphones. The images left me heartbroken for the people of Nepal, and determined to help those affected as best I could.

Momos for Nepal

In my 27 years at The Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) I have seen the outpouring of support that comes after a disaster. Unfortunately, I have also seen the “second disaster” of donated household items that can slow the response effort and can be culturally, nutritionally, and environmentally inappropriate for survivors. Decades of disaster response work has shown that cash donations are the best, most effective way to help.

Diaspora groups, with their close connections to their home countries, are particularly interested in helping the relief efforts. So, after the earthquake, CIDI reached out to Nepalese diaspora community organizations, scattered throughout the United States, to work with people to ensure that their good intentions were translated into real impact.

That’s where the momos came in! But the momo-selling communities in Massachusetts weren’t the only ones to lend a hand. At colleges and universities around the country, Nepalese student organizations planned benefit concerts and candlelight vigils. In California, an outdoor clothing and gear company, Sherpa Adventure Gear, raised over $150,000 for the relief effort. We also engaged with the Embassy of Nepal in Washington to help coordinate incoming donations, and worked with USAID’s response teams to field questions about donations and volunteering.

But we did not stop there. With the AD Council, we launched a series of television, print and digital public service announcements about the importance of donating cash.

The response was overwhelming. I will always remember how the Nepali diaspora were joined by other communities in the U.S. who answered the call, whether it was organizing a fundraiser or making a donation to a relief organization. Time and time again after tragedy strikes, I have seen diaspora communities come together to help. The Nepal earthquake response was no different, and it is this spirit of community and resilience that continues to drive CIDI’s work today.

Barlin Ali is a Program Coordinator at USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI).

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When disaster unfolds, diaspora communities around the world want to help. But in times of high stress, worry, and uncertainty, it can be hard to know exactly how.




At USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information (USAID CIDI), it’s our passion to spread the word about effective disaster donations, especially for diaspora hoping to contribute to relief efforts. If you take nothing else away from this post, please know this: Cash is Best.

Last week, we flew to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to discuss the importance of post-disaster cash donations with local East African diaspora communities. We were warmly welcomed by the East African diaspora – and by Representative Keith Ellison, (D-MN), who co-hosted an event focusing on donations best practices in support of people affected by humanitarian crises.

Ellison CIDI 2

Rep. Ellison speaks with members of Minnesota’s East African diaspora. Photo by Mustafa Jumale.

The Twin Cities is home to a large population of African Diaspora. Similar to other U.S.-based diaspora groups, these communities are frequently the first to respond to disasters in their home countries, either with financial or in-kind donations. Diaspora groups often want to plug into the existing humanitarian structure, but aren’t sure how.Here is what U.S.-based diaspora communities are learning about donating during humanitarian crises:

  1. Cash is Best. These three words are so important. Donating cash to relief organizations working on the ground is the best way to support survivors and help affected communities. Cash gets help to the people who need it most urgently. It is flexible, economical, and requires no transportation. Giving cash also means you’re investing in the local economy, as opposed to material donations, which can be financially harmful to local merchants.
  2. Material donations can hinder, rather than help, relief efforts. Unsolicited material donations like clothes, canned food, and even bottled water can hinder relief efforts by diverting relief workers’ attention. They also clog up already-limited work space and require time and heavy equipment to transport and manage. These donations, though well-intentioned, can often show up in the wrong place at the wrong time and can be rendered unusable due to unforeseeable circumstances, like weather conditions, animals, or disease.
  3. Cash goes farther than material goods. As we mentioned, cash is fast, flexible, and cheap to transport. Shipping material donations to a disaster zone can cost thousands of dollars—money that could be used to help the relief effort. For example, shipping just six bottles of water from Miami, FL to the city of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo costs $323.33. That $323.22, as a cash donation, could buy 64,666 liters of clean water locally.

That’s why it’s extra important that we communicate USAID CIDI’s “Cash is Best” messaging to diaspora communities in Minneapolis – and across the U.S. We are so grateful to the diaspora members who attended our event, and for the support of Congressman Ellison in spreading this message.

For more information on why cash is the best donation after a disaster, please visit our Guidelines for Giving, calculate the cost of shipping with our Greatest Good Donations Calculator, or take a look at our Frequently Asked Questions.

And don’t forget to spread the word on Twitter and Facebook!

Barlin Ali and Safiya Khalid are members of USAID CIDI’s Diaspora Outreach Team. 

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We all know people can survive for days without food, but not without water. This tenet of human biology often drives individuals and organizations to donate bottled water in the aftermath of disaster.




Unfortunately, the best of intentions can have terrible consequences. And when it comes to disaster relief, bottled water can quickly become a costly environmental catastrophe.

Let’s start with cost: to send 100,000 bottles of water from Miami to the Dominican Republic by air costs $300,000 in transportation alone. The water itself is $50,000. After this $350,000 worth of bottled water makes it to the Dominican Republic, it’s only enough to hydrate 40,000 people for a single day.

That’s right: 40,000 people for one single day. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti affected more than three million people.

6.22.16_Cost of Shipping Water Graphic_updated-01

That’s not the end of the story. After a disaster, infrastructure and basic services are on hold. Because local waterways are often the only way out of the city,tag heuer replica environmental issues proliferate.

This shipment of bottled water arrived in Haiti:

Haiti Bottled Water before - after

Alternatively, investing in local water purification projects provides drinking water for the same number of people for just $300. Donating cash to organizations coordinating water purification systems is 1,166 times less expensive than shipping water to a disaster zone, and generates no plastic trash.

It boils down to this: If you’re thinking about helping survivors of disaster events, use your compassion for good. Find a reputable charity to support through InterAction or Charity Navigator. Help more people. Give responsibly. Donate cash.

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As we recognize the millions of people fleeing crisis in search of a better life, let’s focus on channeling our generosity for good.




There is a best way to help: giving cash.

Giving cash to relief and charitable organizations working with people in need is the smartest and most compassionate way to give. Yes, refugees need material goods like shelter, clothes, and safe drinking water – but many refugees are on the move with rapidly evolving needs.

In the morning, a family of four’s biggest needs may be food and water. By the evening, perhaps they need shelter and medication. By the next day, this family could have any number of other needs – milk, clothes, first aid, blankets. Given that many refugees are making this journey on foot, maybe they need shoes.

A generous donor might feel that sending all of these things could solve the problem. Unfortunately, the chances of refugees actually receiving the shipment are slim. Shipping goods from the United States abroad can create a nightmarish logistical situation that can easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to untangle. Donations have been known to show up in the wrong places, at the wrong time, and even be bulldozed out of the way to make room for more urgently needed supplies.

It’s a sad truth: material donations can create a disaster, rather than alleviate one.

Back to cash. Cash can be anything you want to send, and everything that’s needed. Even a small cash donation to a relief organization can be converted to shelter, milk for babies (even milk for many babies), medical supplies, or clothes. Cash can be shoes for a family’s journey. Cash is every bit as compassionate – and more economical – than donating clothes, bottled water, or canned goods. You can send cash today and help refugee families tomorrow.

Cash is immediate, compassionate, effective.

Three Ways to Help:

1. Contribute a monetary donation to a charitable organization approved by InterAction. Here is InterAction’s list of responding agencies.
2. Check out our guidelines for giving and our toolkit, which includes 100 ways to raise money for disaster relief efforts.
3. If you’ve already collected material goods for transport to refugee camps abroad, repurpose them to help those in need at home. Here are 55 ways to repurpose donated goods.

Make a difference this World Refugee Day. Give cash.

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If you’ve been watching the news lately, you may have heard that wildfires continue to rage in Alberta, Canada. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported yesterday that 1,000 additional firefighters from across Canada, the United States, South Africa and other countries will soon join the 1,200-member crew working to contain the fires that have destroyed homes, land and livelihoods.




The destruction brought by the Alberta wildfires has been matched by an outpouring of generosity from people around the world who seek to help those who have lost everything. But unintentionally—and perhaps counterintuitively—the kind of help they’re providing is actually hindering the response.

Over the past month, Canadian media has reached out to USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information because unsolicited donations   have begun to spiral into what we at CIDI and many others in the humanitarian community call the “second disaster.”

I’ve been fielding questions about how to effectively support people in need (give cash to relief organizations!), and the unintended consequences of unsolicited material donations (cluttered runways, stuffed warehouses, diverted emergency resources, mold, health hazards). Take a read or watch some of my recent interviews about how best to help, and gain insight into why cash provides the most effective and lasting support to Alberta residents and to responders on the ground:

The National Post: After Fort McMurray Fire, Alberta Copes with ‘Second Disaster’ of Misguided Donations

Canada TV: Fort McMurray Fire: Unusable Donations Flood Warehouse

CBS Sunday Morning: When Disaster Relief Brings Anything but Relief

For more information on the impacts of unsolicited donations, please visit us at www.cidi.org

June 1 marks the start of Atlantic hurricane season – and as we know, it only takes one storm to significantly interrupt our summer or someone else’s.



Wreckage from Hurricane Sandy - Flickr - Wavlan

Wreckage from Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Wavlan/Flickr

If you know you’ll want to help people whose lives are upended by a hurricane, pre-planning your generosity can make a big difference for people trying to get back on their feet after disaster.

How can you make the greatest impact in the lives of others this hurricane season? The answer is surprisingly simple: give cash to relief organizations that work directly with disaster-affected people.

Disaster situations evolve quickly as people migrate to safety and start receiving emergency services. Cash donations allow relief organizations to respond to changing needs quickly, enabling them to deliver essential supplies that are fresh and familiar. Donating clothes and household items might seem like the right thing to do, but these donations rarely reach the people they’re intended to help. In fact, unsolicited items can hinder relief efforts by diverting relief workers’ attention, clogging up already-limited work space and requiring equipment and time to manage. In stark contrast, even small financial donations can make a huge difference in people’s lives because of charitable organizations’ bulk purchasing power.

Hurricane Sandy - Flickr - NCDOT comms

Atlantic hurricane season lasts from June 1 – Nov. 30. Photo by NCDOT/Flickr

Here are three ways to help people in need this hurricane season:

  1. Decide ahead of time where your money will go. Choose a charity doing work you feel strongly about in hurricane-affected areas. You can make sure your money is used how you want it to be used by consulting charity watchdogs such as Charity Navigator or Give Well.
  2. If you’ve already collected material goods, repurpose them! Your garage may be full, but fret not. Here are 55 ways to repurpose a material donation, or you can donate locally to people in need.
  3. Help spread the word about hurricane season, and cash donations. Many people aren’t aware of the positive impacts associated with giving cash to relief organizations after a disaster – or about the hazards of sending unsolicited material donations. Help us spread the word by directing people to www.cidi.org, following us on – Twitter and liking us on Facebook.

If you’re still unsure about giving cash, visit our Greatest Good Donation Calculator to determine the cost of material donations like canned food, bottled water and clothes versus the good that the same amount of money could do in the hands of an experienced relief organization.

Save lives, save money – donate cash!

It’s Hurricane Preparedness Week, which is our annual reminder that it only takes one storm to significantly interrupt our summer or someone else’s.




If you’ve already determined your risk and have developed a hurricane evacuation plan – good for you! If you know you’ll want to help people whose lives are upended by a hurricane, pre-planning your generosity can make a big difference for people trying to get back on their feet after disaster.

Follow the conversation on Twitter using #HurricaneStrong or #ItOnlyTakesOne

How can you make the greatest impact in the lives of others this hurricane season? The answer is surprisingly simple: give cash to relief organizations that work directly with disaster-affected people.

Disaster situations evolve quickly as people migrate to safety and start receiving emergency services. Cash donations allow relief organizations to respond to changing needs quickly, enabling them to deliver essential supplies that are fresh and familiar. Donating clothes and household items might seem like the right thing to do, but these donations rarely reach the people they’re intended to help. In fact, unsolicited items can hinder relief efforts by diverting relief workers’ attention, clogging up already-limited work space and requiring equipment and time to manage. In stark contrast, even small financial donations can make a huge difference in people’s lives because of charitable organizations’ bulk purchasing power.

Here are three ways to prepare for the 2016 hurricane season:

  1. Decide ahead of time where your money will go. Choose a charity doing work you feel strongly about in hurricane-affected areas. You can make sure your money is used how you want it to be used by consulting charity watchdogs such as Charity Navigator or Give Well.
  2. If you’ve already collected material goods, repurpose them! Your garage may be full, but fret not. Here are 55 ways to repurpose a material donation, or you can donate locally to people in need.
  3. Help spread the word about hurricane season, and cash donations. Many people aren’t aware of the positive impacts associated with giving cash to relief organizations after a disaster – or about the hazards of sending unsolicited material donations. Help us spread the word by directing people to www.cidi.org, following us on – Twitter, and liking us on Facebook.

If you’re still unsure about giving cash, visit our Greatest Good Donation Calculator to determine the cost of material donations like canned food, bottled water and clothes versus the good that the same amount of money could do in the hands of an experienced relief organization. Save lives, save money – donate cash!

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: www.cidi.org.

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When people find out I’m writing a book on aid, they often regale me with stories of their favorite charity. Just last week a woman told me of a project helping elderly Navajos. The program provided assistance by selling rugs woven by the Navajo at an art fair without taking a cut, as well as donating either in-kind goods or certificates that could be used to purchase goods from a store. Although I am always concerned about in-kind donations, what really disturbed me was the ceremony.

If I understand correctly, three times a year donors travel to the reservation for a traditional Navajo ceremony. During this ceremony the donations are given, and the money from the sale of the rugs presented to the weavers. Although my acquaintance described the ceremony as very moving, I question it on several levels.

First, this ceremony would appear to be part of the disaster/poverty tourism issues that both William Easterly and I have both addressed in our blogs. Having lived on the Navajo reservation for two years and learned the history of the Navajo people, I know they are very cautious about inviting non-Native Americans to their ceremonies. I was eventually invited to ceremonies near the end of my two years, but I do not recall any of the other teachers attending ceremonies. Thus, I can only think that this ceremony was done to please donors at the cost of turning the aid recipients into cultural curiosity pieces.

Second, this ceremony diminished the work of the aid recipient. The weavers earned the proceeds of the rug sales, why not just give it to them. We wouldn’t expect Expedia to hold a ceremony each time they pay a hotel their portion of the bill? You might argue that that’s different because Expedia takes a fee for their services. However, if the weavers were given the choice between paying a commission on the sales or receiving charitable assistance to sell the rugs, I bet most of them would choose to pay the commission. With a commission it becomes a business deal where they are paid for their products and maintain their dignity. Selling the rugs as an act of charity requires them to be grateful recipients of the largess of others.

Third, the ceremony highlighted the generosity of the donors at the expense of the dignity of the recipients. A key part of the ceremony was the giving of either in-kind donations or certificates. Giving in this way may meet the needs of the donors, but it can be demoralizing for the recipients. If you were poor enough to need to use a food pantry, how would you feel if the people that had donated the food watched as you filled your shopping cart. Although this would allow to donors to see that the food they gave made it to people in need, it might cost you your pride.

For those three reasons I question the purpose of the ceremony. I understand that aid agencies need to please donors, but must it be done at the expense of the aid recipients. Although I question that particular ceremony, I’m not against all aid ceremonies.

Ceremonies are appropriate if the aid recipient earned the assistance through either their past accomplishments or through hard work on the current project. These ceremonies should highlight the efforts and achievements of the aid recipient.

Water projects where the community had a large part in creating the design of the project as well as contributing either partial funding or labor and in-kind donations. I have been to several of these opening ceremonies where the contribution of the school or the community were proudly displayed.

Scholarships earned through a competitive process and based upon student achievement. I personally struggled to afford college and received a competitive scholarship based on my academic record and community service activities. My family attended a dinner held in honor of all of the scholarship recipients.

Livelihood projects where participants develop and display their skills. I attended a ceremony for students of an intensive year long livelihood training. In addition to studying computers and English, they learned to lead dive trips and had to pass the PADI test. This ceremony focused on student accomplishments, although several donors attended, they were not the focus of the event.

In all of these cases the ceremony celebrated the hard work and achievement of the people receiving the aid, rather than focusing on them as recipients of largess.

Ceremonies are not appropriate when it requires the recipients to share their culture with donors. If you would not expect a similar ceremony or cultural experience in your neighborhood, then do not expect it in another country or culture.

Ceremonies are not appropriate when the aid that is given does not require anything of the recipient other than poverty. These types of ceremonies celebrate the generosity of the donor at the expense of the dignity of the recipient.

My Navajo students received shoes and coats based on need. There was no handover ceremony and no photos taken. Parents simply filled out a sheet with the size and style they wanted and the students picked them up in the cafeteria a month later. Had their been a ceremony it would have embarrassed the students by highlighting the fact that they were too poor to buy their own clothes.

I attended a ceremony where a group of Mokens were given boats. The Moken went to the ceremony under duress. They had not been consulted, and although they needed boats, the ones they were given were too small for seafaring and therefore of little use. In addition the boats were improperly caulked and sank during the ceremony. Even though this ceremony was done solely to meet the needs of the donor, the aid recipients were still expected to show up and look grateful.

Another gift to the Moken was that of school supplies from students in the US. These could have easily just been given to the teachers, but all the students were rounded up, the supplies were formally presented, and the children were all made to thank the donor and have their picture taken. This was just one of many unrequested donations given to the Moken, and for each one I’m sure they were expected to show their “gratitude”.

If aid is given purely on the basis of poverty, then ceremonies giving aid to individuals should be avoided. It is hard to retain your sense of self-worth while publicly receiving handouts.

If the aid recipient has accomplished something that needs a celebration to properly mark the achievement, then by all means celebrate. Make the recipients and their work the focus of the ceremony.

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When people hear I’m writing a book on aid I immediately get asked about specific aid agencies they gave to. Unfortunately, I cannot tell them the quality of those aid agencies without spending time to research them. What I can tell them is how they can research the aid agency themselves.

Evaluating aid agencies before donating is critical

If you don’t have time to research an aid agency, then I would suggest not donating. There is no body that regulates aid and no outside entity ensuring that the aid agency is providing quality aid or working in the best interest of those you want to help. Without properly vetting an aid agency before giving, you risk your donation being used on programs that may do more harm than good. To ensure that your money is doing the good you intended you have to look past aid agency advertising, name recognition, and “happy stories”, and instead look for evidence that the aid agency is following best practices and constantly improving their organization.

Do the aid agency photos show the aid recipients as people with dignity and ability or do they show them as helpless victims. We’ve all seen photos of people in tears looking at their destroyed homes or emaciated African children covered in flies. If that was your child or your sister in that photo would you want it used for an international fund raising campaign, or would you feel it was exploitative? There are guidelines being developed for these photos. The gist of the guidelines is that aid recipients should be shown as people with dignity and ability, rather than hopeless and helpless.

In general I find that if an aid agency uses a photo that shows the aid recipient as having dignity and ability, then the aid agency is likely to have the organizational philosophy that aid recipients are able people, and the projects they develop are more likely to treat them as such. If an agency uses photos that show the person as helpless and hopeless, then they are likely to have a similar organizational philosophy and treat them as such. Which way would you rather be treated?

I have a lot of respect for aid agencies that regularly evaluate their work and share the findings, both positive and negative, with the world at large. If evaluations are rigorous and then acted upon by the agency, it can lead to real improvements in the organization, ActionAid is a good example of this. It is not easy for an aid agency to share their negative findings because it puts them at a disadvantage in competing for donor dollars with those aid agencies that do not share their negative findings. However, it is critical for the industry to grow and improve as well as for donors to be able to hold aid agencies accountable for that improvement.

Evaluations should be done on a regular basis. Either yearly as ActionAid does or at the end of each major operation. Annual reports or “happy stories” do not count for evaluations because their is no independent evaluation of their accuracy, therefore it is far too easy and tempting to focus on the positive or disregard the failed projects.

Some aid agencies may argue that project evaluations are too expensive and donors don’t want to pay for operational costs. While I agree that evaluations can be expensive, there are ways to have a less expensive evaluation done, for example working with a local university to have college students perform the evaluation. If it is not possible to find affordable ways to evaluate your project then share what you have tried with the donor so they understand what you have and have not been able to evaluate. Unfortunately, far too much emphasis has been placed on rating aid organizations by their operational costs, leading to donors unknowingly preventing aid agencies from paying for things such as evaluations. This will only change as donors begin to understand the negative impact of not covering operational costs.

If an aid agency does not have the findings from independent evaluations available on their website you should consider whether you want to donate to them. If they haven’t conducted evaluations they are not being professional, and if they have conducted them but have not shared them they are not being transparent. When donors begin to give preferential funding to aid agencies conducting and sharing needs assessments, they are rewarding aid agencies for evaluating their work and financially encouraging other agencies to improve their practices.

If you want to take this one step further, read the most recent evaluation findings and then check that against the current work or funding proposal of the aid agency. Do they appear to have made improvements to their work based upon their evaluations?

If an aid agency is asking for your money, you have the right to know that they will use it responsibly. Unfortunately, in the past this has meant primarily focusing on the amount spent on administrative or operational costs. As stated above this, unfortunately, can do more harm than good.

Instead, I’d recommend looking for audit results from the past three years. A recent posting focused on one of my articles where I made this same suggestion. One of the comments posted was that audits were only legally required for large charities, and therefore didn’t apply to most organizations working in the field. I would argue that it is good financial practice to have annual audits regardless of the size of the agency.

If the audit results are not available on the website you may need to request them. If an aid agency refuses your request consider carefully whether you want to donate to them. If an aid agency has not conducted some sort of audit they are not actively reviewing and improving their internal processes, if they have conducted an audit but are will not share the results, they are not being transparent. If donors begin to fund only those aid agencies performing annual audits and sharing the findings, they are rewarding aid agencies following sound financial practices and encouraging other agencies to improve their practices.

If you want to take this one step further, look for aid agencies that share their financial information with aid recipients. The aid agencies that have tried this admit that it was difficult at first because the local people may not agree with how an aid agency spent money, but in the long run it made their projects use funds more effectively and reduced fraud.

Often the aid agency will not share their needs assessment, which is unfortunate. However, regardless of whether they are willing to share the actual needs assessment, they still need to demonstrate that they have taken the following factors into consideration.

  • What similar services are provided by the government, why are these services inadequate to meet the needs, have they evaluated how to best support government services instead of duplicating or undermining them.
  • What other aid agencies are in the area and what projects are they implementing. This should focus on areas where there is potential problems with overlapping the work of other agencies or the potential to collaborate with other agencies.
  • Information on the situation of similar schools/health centers/orphanages in the wider area. If you know the general situation you will be better able to evaluate whether the aid that is proposed is appropriate.
  • Information on national standards. What does the government consider to be adequate?
  • If there is no needs assessment, if the needs assessment seems inadequate, or if the project they are proposing does not match the needs identified in the assessment consider carefully whether you want to donate to the agency. If an aid agency has not conducted an adequate needs assessment or is proposing a project that does not appear to meet the needs identified in the assessment, then they aid they are giving may not be needed. If donors begin to fund only those aid agencies that conduct adequate needs assessment and share the findings, they will reward aid agencies that following good aid practices and encouraging other agencies to improve their practices.

    If you want to take this one step further, look for evidence that the results of the needs assessment are shared with other aid agencies as well as the local government and the aid recipients. A common problem in aid is the lack of information sharing between agencies and with the people they are trying to help. This wastes donor dollars by forcing each aid agency to pay for separate needs assessments and frustrates aid recipients who take their time to answer aid agency questions but never hear back as to whether or not they will actually be receiving aid.

    Once you have looked at everything suggested above, if you still feel comfortable about the aid agency, then it’s time to see if there have been any complaints lodged or negative research on the organization. Although this information can be hard to find, two places to look include the BBB and AIP.

    The Better Business Bureau’s Charity Reviews gives BBB ratings for aid agencies registered in the US. Unfortunately, since aid agencies are registered by state, it can be a little confusing because a single agency may have multiple entries. Part of the aid agency rating includes a section stating whether or not any complaints about that charity have been filed to the BBB.

    The American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP) Articles page has a listing of charities mentioned in AIP articles. It’s worth seeing if the agency you are considering is mentioned at all.

    There are other charity rating systems that can easily be found on line. In general rating systems are based on the 990 tax form and information on the governing board. Several charity rating sites are working on ways to better evaluate aid agency work, unfortunately, none of them currently evaluate an aid agency on any of the factors recommended in this article.

    One commenter states that it is unrealistic to expect the average donor to take that much time to evaluate an aid agency. The commenter points out that the average person doesn’t even do that much research before voting or investing in stock. While this may be true, the unfortunate end result is that people vote for politicians that do not look out for their best interest, lose their life savings on the stock market, and perpetuate poor aid practices that may do more harm than good. Don’t let this be you. For the sake of the people you are trying to help, please take the time to be an informed donor or don’t donate at all.

    More

    You see a commercial on TV or receive an advertisement in the mail with the picture of someone in need. You reach for your checkbook to donate. But before you stamp the envelope or click the “donate now” button, imagine that instead of it being someone else far away, it is an image of you, your child, or you family. Now ask yourself these four simple questions:

    1. Does the advertising show you as having dignity or does it excite pity by showing you as an icon of suffering?
    2. Are you shown doing something positive to help yourself, or does it show you as a passive recipient with either the aid workers or the donors doing the action?
    3. Does the language used in the advertisement present a fair portrayal of your situation or does it rely primarily on sensational and emotive language? And the most important question of all…
    4. Would you give consent for that aid agency to use this image of you or your child in their worldwide fund raising campaign?
    If you would not allow your family’s image be used in this way, do not donate. Because although this isn’t you, it is someone else’s child, mother, or husband.

    —–

    Standards:

    Child Rights Information Network – The use of images of children in the media

    Dochas Code of Conduct on Images and Messages

     

    More

    Back when I was working on the Navajo reservation a church group invited me to join them in putting together care packages for Thailand. Having worked in Thailand I was very skeptical of what they were sending over: baby bottles, formula, diapers and diaper pins. I’d never seen a rural Thai using any of those items and could imagine the Thais pulling them out of the box and wondering over them. I had assumed that they would simply be a useless donation. It was only later that I found out the well-intentioned donation was not only useless but also potentially harmful.

    Dependency

    If a mother uses formula and thus reduces or stops breastfeeding, it creates a problem when the donated formula runs out. The mother will have problems adequately breastfeeding her child because she has decreased or even ended her own milk production. Thus a simple good will donation can actually lead to a dependency on the item that is donated.

    Malnutrition

    Think of how much it costs to feed a child formula in your own country. Prices in developing countries are not all that much cheaper. Purchasing formula can quickly become a financial hardship or impossibility. If a family cannot afford to purchase enough formula they may either water down the formula to make it stretch further and thus deprive their child of adequate nutrition, or they might try a substitute like powdered milk or sweetened and diluted cows milk.

    Illness and Death

    Depending on the location, mothers may have to walk miles to collect water or firewood. This makes it almost impossible to properly sterilize bottles or ensure that there is enough clean water to mix with the formula. The issue becomes even worse in emergency situations. According to an article from the Humanitarian Practice Network:

    “Even in the best, most hygienic conditions, artificially-fed babies are five times more likely to suffer diarrhoeal diseases. In unsanitary, crowded conditions, a lack of safe water and a lack of
    facilities to sterilise feeding bottles and prepare formula safely and correctly means that artificially fed infants are more than 20 times more likely to die from diarrhoea and other infectious diseases than
    infants who are exclusively breastfed.”

    Donating formula appears on the surface to be a great way to help out, but there are many unintended consequences.

    *** Update

    Caution should be used with breast milk donations as well, if not properly handled it can also cause problems, and keeping it cold throughout the entire delivery can be a logistical struggle. For more see this article and this article

    Although formula feeding should not be an automatic solution, there are instances when formula is appropriate. Before starting or donating to any formula donation program please read the article Infant feeding in emergencies: Experiences from Lebanon to understand the precautions that should be taken.

    —-

    UNICEF, WHO and WFP call for support for appropriate infant and young child feeding in the current emergency, and caution about unnecessary and potentially harmful donations and use of breast-milk substitutes

    For more information on this I recommend reading Don’t Send Baby Formula to Darfur by the Global Health blog. Not only is the article informative, it also includes some good links to other sources of information.

    More

    Manage your expectations

    Although volunteering overseas can be a life-changing experience, it’s also one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Many people have an unrealistic expectation that their experience will be as glamorous as it seems in the Kashi commercials. Managing your expectation before you volunteer will help you have a more successful volunteer experience. Below are some of the common issues international volunteers face.

    You will probably not get a volunteer position with an international aid agency

    The cost of for training, housing, medical insurance, translation, relocation, and evacuation insurance for a volunteer is far greater than the cost of hiring someone local for the job. Aid agencies would also have to help the volunteer with housing, medical issues, and potentially evacuating them from the country if things become serious. In addition volunteers are likely to only stay for a short period of time whereas local staff are far more likely stay for the life of the project. Because there is little benefit compared to the cost for an international aid agency to take on volunteers, most are reluctant to do it.

    You would be far more likely to be able to volunteer with one of these agencies if you move to the country on your own and then offer to volunteer part-time. A part time volunteer already living in country is far less of a liability than a full-time volunteer brought in to specifically assist that agency. But there’s still no guarantee.

    See blog Damsels in Success Why you probably won’t get an international job (and what to do about it)

    Your professional certifications may not be recognized in that country

    You cannot automatically assume that you will be allowed to work in your profession, especially if it requires a certification such as doctors, nurses, architects or lawyers. You wouldn’t expect someone from another country to be able to practice as a doctor, architect or lawyer in the US without first meeting standard requirements. Each country needs to ensure that anyone working in those fields understands local diseases, building regulations, or laws. The country may also be concerned about translation problems, in Thailand doctors must take all of their tests in Thai, there is no English equivalent. In addition, if there are enough local people with those skills it is logical that a country would want to protect the job market and not allow foreigners to come in and take jobs away from local people. I’ve seen nurses and architects arrive in country with great expectations only to be given menial support positions, if they were able to work in their field at all.

    See website: Frequently asked questions – Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) – half way down the page answers questions on volunteering after a disaster

    What you might consider instead is finding ways in which you can help with staff development or specialized trainings to increase local capacity. This is far more likely to be accepted by the government and you may have even more positive impact.

    Unless you are a long term volunteer, you may not work with villagers

    Aid agencies have local staff that speak the language, understand the culture, are familiar with local politics, and will be around for the long term to develop meaningful working relationships in the communities. Unless volunteers already speak the language and understand the culture, the aid agency has to provide a translator to support volunteers and their work in the villages. It would cost the aid agency far more to hire a good translator than to hire a skilled worker to do the job. Therefore there is little benefit to the organization to facilitate volunteers working in the village and a lot of potential problems.

    What local aid agencies do need help with takes place in the office. Grant writing, report writing, developing an English language website, translating brochures into English, leading computer trainings, streamlining procedures, and helping with capacity building of their local staff are some examples of assistance that is often needed by local aid agencies. Although this would not give you the experience of working with villagers, it would give you the opportunity to help smart and dedicated aid workers become more successful.

    See posting: Guideline #2 for volunteering overseas

    You will need to dress and behave professionally

    It seems silly to mention this, but I’ve been surprised at the number of volunteers that treat their work as a vacation. I’ve been interviewed by college researchers dressed in beachwear, I knew a volunteer at a local agency who wore such revealing tank tops that the agency had to invest in uniforms and require everyone to wear them, and an appalled English teacher told me about a male volunteer that showed up to teach at an elementary school wearing yellow short shorts. It is likely that these people would not dress like this in the same situations in their own country. I understand that some volunteers may view this as a vacation, but it’s not. If you’re looking for a vacation there are much better travel choices.

    See posting: Guideline #3 for volunteering overseas

    Also take the time to read Culture Shock or similar book on customs and appropriate behavior. Your goal is to be helpful, by dressing and acting appropriately you’ll be accepted and trusted much more quickly.

    To be successful you will need to adapt the way you work.

    If you go into your volunteer position expecting things to work the same as they did back home, you and your coworkers will be quickly frustrated. I found that out the hard way as a Peace Corps Volunteer. After having gone in completely focused on work at my first site, I discovered that it was almost impossible to accomplish anything. At my second site I made it a rule to spend the first half hour to hour of each work day going around chatting with everyone and sharing snacks. When it was time to get things accomplished everyone worked to support me because I’d spent time developing personal relationships.

    It can be difficult to leave old work habits behind, but you’ll need to adapt to be successful. And after all, isn’t that why you’re volunteering, to understand the world from a different perspective.

    The more time you devote, the more impact you will likely have

    Chances are, the amount of help you are able to give will correlate with the amount of time you are willing to devote. Many people would like a Peace Corps or Three Cups of Tea experience over spring break, but it’s not possible. The Peace Corps is a 2 year commitment with three months of intensive language training, and most volunteers will tell you they weren’t effective until their second year. Greg Mortenson dedicated years to making his project successful and to learning the language.

    See posting: Guideline #1 for volunteering overseas

    In addition to the time spent in the field, you will also be more effective if you take time to learn about good aid practices and common mistakes. This will help you start on a better foot and correct mistakes much more quickly.

    Volunteering overseas is not easy

    Peace Corps has a far higher drop out rate than most people realize. Before you commit, make sure your expectations are realistic and you are willing to take the good with the bad. This will help ensure that you, and the organization you are volunteering with, are satisfied and successful.

    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.

     

    This is the final post in my Guidelines for Volunteering Overseas series. I’m back from hiatus and will start blogging again soon.

    —–

    Manage your expectations

    Although volunteering overseas can be a life-changing experience, it’s also one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Many people have an unrealistic expectation that their experience will be as glamorous as it seems in the Kashi commercials. Managing your expectation before you volunteer will help you have a more successful volunteer experience. Below are some of the common issues international volunteers face.

    You will probably not get a volunteer position with an international aid agency

    The cost of for training, housing, medical insurance, translation, relocation, and evacuation insurance for a volunteer is far greater than the cost of hiring someone local for the job. Aid agencies would also have to help the volunteer with housing, medical issues, and potentially evacuating them from the country if things become serious. In addition volunteers are likely to only stay for a short period of time whereas local staff are far more likely stay for the life of the project. Because there is little benefit compared to the cost for an international aid agency to take on volunteers, most are reluctant to do it.

    You would be far more likely to be able to volunteer with one of these agencies if you move to the country on your own and then offer to volunteer part-time. A part time volunteer already living in country is far less of a liability than a full-time volunteer brought in to specifically assist that agency. But there’s still no guarantee.

    See blog Damsels in Success Why you probably won’t get an international job (and what to do about it)

    Your professional certifications may not be recognized in that country

    You cannot automatically assume that you will be allowed to work in your profession, especially if it requires a certification such as doctors, nurses, architects or lawyers. You wouldn’t expect someone from another country to be able to practice as a doctor, architect or lawyer in the US without first meeting standard requirements. Each country needs to ensure that anyone working in those fields understands local diseases, building regulations, or laws. The country may also be concerned about translation problems, in Thailand doctors must take all of their tests in Thai, there is no English equivalent. In addition, if there are enough local people with those skills it is logical that a country would want to protect the job market and not allow foreigners to come in and take jobs away from local people. I’ve seen nurses and architects arrive in country with great expectations only to be given menial support positions, if they were able to work in their field at all.

    What you might consider instead is finding ways in which you can help with staff development or specialized trainings to increase local capacity. This is far more likely to be accepted by the government and you may have even more positive impact.

    Unless you are a long term volunteer, you may not work with villagers

    Aid agencies have local staff that speak the language, understand the culture, are familiar with local politics, and will be around for the long term to develop meaningful working relationships in the communities. Unless volunteers already speak the language and understand the culture, the aid agency has to provide a translator to support volunteers and their work in the villages. It would cost the aid agency far more to hire a good translator than to hire a skilled worker to do the job. Therefore there is little benefit to the organization to facilitate volunteers working in the village and a lot of potential problems.

    What local aid agencies do need help with takes place in the office. Grant writing, report writing, developing an English language website, translating brochures into English, leading computer trainings, streamlining procedures, and helping with capacity building of their local staff are some examples of assistance that is often needed by local aid agencies. Although this would not give you the experience of working with villagers, it would give you the opportunity to help smart and dedicated aid workers become more successful.

    You will need to dress and behave professionally

    It seems silly to mention this, but I’ve been surprised at the number of volunteers that treat their work as a vacation. I’ve been interviewed by college researchers dressed in beachwear, I knew a volunteer at a local agency who wore such revealing tank tops that the agency had to invest in uniforms and require everyone to wear them, and an appalled English teacher told me about a male volunteer that showed up to teach at an elementary school wearing yellow short shorts. It is likely that these people would not dress like this in the same situations in their own country. I understand that some volunteers may view this as a vacation, but it’s not. If you’re looking for a vacation there are much better travel choices.

    Also take the time to read Culture Shock or similar book on customs and appropriate behavior. Your goal is to be helpful, by dressing and acting appropriately you’ll be accepted and trusted much more quickly.

    To be successful you will need to adapt the way you work

    If you go into your volunteer position expecting things to work the same as they did back home, you and your coworkers will be quickly frustrated. I found that out the hard way as a Peace Corps Volunteer. After having gone in completely focused on work at my first site, I discovered that it was almost impossible to accomplish anything. At my second site I made it a rule to spend the first half hour to hour of each work day going around chatting with everyone and sharing snacks. When it was time to get things accomplished everyone worked to support me because I’d spent time developing personal relationships.

    It can be difficult to leave old work habits behind, but you’ll need to adapt to be successful. And after all, isn’t that why you’re volunteering, to understand the world from a different perspective.

    The more time you devote, the more impact you will likely have

    Chances are, the amount of help you are able to give will correlate with the amount of time you are willing to devote. Many people would like a Peace Corps or Three Cups of Tea experience over spring break, but it’s not possible. The Peace Corps is a 2 year commitment with three months of intensive language training, and most volunteers will tell you they weren’t effective until their second year. Greg Mortenson dedicated years to making his project successful and to learning the language.

    In addition to the time spent in the field, you will also be more effective if you take time to learn about good aid practices and common mistakes. This will help you start on a better foot and correct mistakes much more quickly.

    Volunteering overseas is not easy

    Peace Corps has a far higher drop out rate than most people realize. Before you commit, make sure your expectations are realistic and you are willing to take the good with the bad. This will help ensure that you, and the organization you are volunteering with, are satisfied and successful.

    —–

    Guides by Good Intentions are Not Enough

    Lies, White Lies, and Accounting Practices; Why nonprofit overheads don’t mean what you think they mean.

    Good Intentions’ Guide to Holiday Charitable Giving

    —–

    Related Posts

    Guideline #1 for volunteering overseas – It Takes Time

    Guideline #2 for volunteering overseas – Don’t Volunteer to do What a Local Person can be Paid to do

    Guideline #3 for volunteering overseas – Examine Your Motivations

    Even Dogs get Culture Shock

    Amateurs v. Professional: A complex issue

    Voluntourism: What can go wrong when trying to do right

    Hug-an-orphan vacations

    Volunteer surgical teams struggle with common aid problems

     

    Education, Not Titillation

    Reflecting on the debate over disaster/poverty tourism a couple of weeks back some bloggers, such as Tales from the Hood and Pepy Tours, have argued that there is a benefit, if done right, of donors visiting aid recipients. And, if done right, I agree. One of the common complaints after the tsunami was that donors did not come and check whether aid work was done well or learn about the real needs of aid recipients. Donors do need to have a greater understanding of what does and does not work in aid as well as common problems associated with aid. Properly structured visits can help them become better donors.

    However, it is important that donor visitations are done is such a way that it puts the needs of aid recipient over the needs of the donor. Care should be taken so that the visit does not objectify aid recipients and ensures that the recipients concerns are heard (concerns about objectifying aid recipients and gratuitous visits prompted my Disaster Tourism posting).

    Examine your motivations

    The debate over voluntourism seems to be coalescing around one point – motivation matters. Before volunteering it’s important to have an honest conversation with yourself and examine your motivations and whether putting yourself in the lives of aid recipients is the best way to meet your needs.

    If your goal is to help people, start by helping people in your own home town

    As a Peace Corps recruiter I often told recruits that you won’t save the world because the world doesn’t want to be saved. You will not come riding in on a white horse with all the solutions. Social problems are not easily solved, and there are many factors contributing to them (see posting Mosquito nets, condoms, and recycling). Just as it is difficult to solve problems in our own community, it can be even harder to solve problems in someone else’s community. If your goal is to really make a difference, then consider staying at home and volunteering with charities in your own community. There are plenty of non-profits that need talented people and it may even lead to a paid position, which means you’ll be around long enough to potentially have a real impact.

    Would you want your child operated on by a doctor whose work was never evaluated, even when it appeared that the way the surgery was commonly done may contribute to avoidable illness or death?

    Would you risk hiring a contractor to build your house if that contractor never inspected the quality of their own work and never fixed any problems caused by shoddy or questionable construction?

    Would you want your spouse to invest time and money into a job training program where few, if any, graduates ever found work?

     

    It is likely that you would consider all of these programs to be unprofessional and maybe even detrimental, and you probably wouldn’t allow your family take part in any of them. Yet how often have you paid for these things to happen to someone else’s family. You may have even rewarded this unprofessional behavior by donating repeatedly because they worked cheaper and faster than other agencies took the time and money needed to evaluate their work.

    Always look for whether the charity evaluates their own work

    Unfortunately, many people never look at whether a charity evaluates their own work and may even consider evaluations to be a waste of money. Do you know if the aid agency you regularly donate to evaluates their work? What proof do you have? What changes and improvements did they make as a result of their evaluations? Have they shared country-wide/mid-term/end of project/or organization-wide evaluation with donors? Take a minute to search for an evaluation on their website. If you can’t find one there try ALNAP’s (Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action) Evaluation Reports Database.

    Pretty stories don’t count

    Even though Nicholas Kristof tells donors that aid agencies should use more pretty stories, they aren’t anything more than a marketing tool. There’s no way for donors to know if that person even existed, if their story is typical, or how many failures the charity had compared to that one success.

    Annual reports don’t count

    Unless the report has been verified by an outside party, there is no way to determine if the report is correct. The pressure for positive reports for donors can all too easily lead to questionable reporting practices from the field worker all the way up to senior management. While many charities are truthful in their reports, there is no way for the average donor to know which ones are and which ones aren’t.

    Only donate to agencies that evaluate their work and share the findings

    Charities are often afraid to share the results of evaluations because if an evaluation is done well it will detail past mistakes and suggest areas for improvement. If a charity shares these findings with the public there is the real possibility that they will appear less capable than a competing charity that chooses not to share its evaluations. To encourage charities to evaluate their work regularly and share the findings with the public, donors should fund only those charities that already share their evaluations. Donors also need to be prepared to pay for the cost of evaluations because in aid, what doesn’t get funded doesn’t get implemented.

    —–

    Related Posts:

    Volunteer surgical teams struggle with common aid problems

    It’s time to stop telling pretty stories and start really evaluating the impact of aid

    “Philanthropy is important and serious work. It does require time and thought”

    More bad donor advice

    Related Resource:

    ALNAP’s (Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action) Evaluation Reports Database

    During dinner with my brother last weekend our conversation turned to microfinance and the fact that it’s not living up to it’s original hype. In fact, rather than being a panacea to all problems, people receiving microloans face many of the same problems we face with credit cards. High interest rates, using one card to pay off another, using borrowed money to pay for things that are not actually necessities. It is starting to appear that it may be better to offer other financial services such as savings accounts and insurance instead of, or in conjunction with, loans. For more on this see David Roodman’s Blog, GiveWell’s series on microfinance, and the Good Practice Guidelines for Funders of Microfinance

    My brother, a regular donor to local and international charities, is like so many other donors. He wants to ensure that his donation does the good he intends. As we left the restaurant he stopped me and asked, “What does work?”. This question, or some variation of it, has been asked to me hundred of times by donors over the past five years. Unfortunately, the answer is both simple and complicated.

    What does work?

    There is no silver bullet, there is no single type of project that is successful in all situations or solves all problems. On the flip side there are few aid projects that are always wrong. Even orphanages, which I have written against in several posts, do have instances where they might be the best solution for that specific situation.

    What works are good NGO’s and aid organizations following good aid practices

    Unfortunately, the average donor has very little idea what good aid practices are or how to identify good organizations. A recent post from Tales from the Hood discusses this problem:

    Despite more Developed World interest in international issues, aid, and philanthropy now than at any time prior, there remains massive, general disparity between what individual citizens who support our work think we do, and what NGOs and aid agencies actually do.

    There is a critical need for individual donors to understand aid better so that their funding decisions are based on knowledge rather than the best marketing campaign, the promise of a silver bullet, or the illusion of a person to person connection.

    This blog was started out of the need for better educated donors. Unfortunately, determining if the charity is well managed and follows good practices requires understanding and evaluating a variety of factors. No single post or series of posts can provide donors with enough information to confidently chose between the millions of charities vying for their donations .

    A charity rating system that teaches donors what works

    This has compelled me to develop a different type of charity rating system. One that teaches donors about aid as it walks them through the process of rating the charity themselves. A soft launch of this system is tentatively planned for January.

    Just as there are no silver bullets for aid programs there are also no silver bullets for charity rating systems. While this system won’t be perfect for all donors and and all charities, it will give interested donors the knowledge they need to make thoughtful funding decisions. And that’s as close to a silver bullet as I could hope for.

     

    What’s the worst present you ever received? A crazy colored sweater from your aunt Martha, questionable cookies from a neighbor, a tacky decoration from a coworker. We’ve all received those types of gifts, but have we given them as well?

    The gift that doesn’t fit

    We’ve all received that sweater, shirt, or tie that just doesn’t work. It’s too big, too small, too tight, too wide, or too something else that means we’ll never wear it.

    From my own childhood it was the year that all of the cousins received little knit hats from our grandmother. They were so small that nobody could actually put them on, they would only fit on teddybears. Reflecting back they were probably baby hats that my grandma got on sale. But at that age few of us still had teddybears and none of us had babies, so the gifts were useless.

    How often do we give to charities just assuming that if people are so poor they need charity any gift is helpful. Just like my hat, there are many times when what is given is of little use. Look for charities that vary their aid according to the needs of the local population instead of one-size-fits-all projects.

    Don’t volunteer to do what a local person could be paid to do

    When it gets right down to it, the fundamental reason why people may need aid is that they don’t have enough money to pay for something themselves. Anyone that has enough money could meet all of their own needs. Saudi Arabia has very little local food production, but they don’t have a food crisis because they have the money to pay to import food. People wouldn’t need an aid agency to come in and build school for them if they could earn a good enough money to contribute to the cost of the school themselves. Therefore, one key to alleviating poverty is creating jobs that pay a living wage. By working for free to do something a local person could be hired to do, you are essentially undercutting the local labor market, thereby continuing the poverty cycle.

    Guideline # 1 – Good volunteer projects require a significant commitment of time

    While most development workers can tell stories of volunteers or volunteer projects that did more harm than good, most of us also got our start through volunteering or an internship. I personally was a Peace Corps Volunteer. With the debate raging over poverty tourism, disaster tourism and voluntourism (see links at end of post), I thought it might be a good time to develop guidelines for useful and appropriate overseas volunteer work.

    Because there are many factors to consider in evaluating a volunteer project, this will be a series of posts. I welcome feedback that will help clarify, tweak, or improve the guidelines so that potential volunteers can use these to make informed decisions.

    It takes time to understand the local needs and to develop a successful project

    This may either be your time or the time of the organization with which you are volunteering. Significant time is needed to truly understand the local needs, their abilities, and how you can best contribute. This requires that either you or the organization understands the local language, culture, and politics. In addition, the people you are helping need to play a key role in determining the type of aid that will be provided and how it will be provided. This cannot be accomplished over a one or two week visit. In fact, Peace Corps used to counsel overanxious volunteers to not even try to accomplish anything their first year, but to spend that time learning the local context and developing relationships that will be key to a successful project.

    This makes a lot of sense when you think about it from the perspective of your own neighborhood. Before volunteer work days in your local community, someone has spent months planning the event, working with the appropriate government offices, and laying the groundwork. Imagine if a group of foreign volunteers showed up in a poor section of your town and tried to jump in and lead a project. What are the chances that it will be successful? I talk about this in-depth on my posting The allure of the quick fix.

    Organizations can be hurt if they invest more in a short-term volunteer then they receive back

    Orienting, training, and supervising a volunteer takes up precious staff time. If the volunteer only stays for a short period of time they can actually use more resources then they contribute, thereby hurting rather than helping the organization. When I worked for the Red Cross we had a foreign exchange summer program try to arrange an internship with us for one of their participants. The person wanted to learn about international aid, and would be volunteering full-time for just three weeks. I put a good deal of thought into what this person could do and asked a few of my staff members. Without an understanding of our projects, without previous development experience, without the ability to read or speak Thai, there was nothing we could give them to do that wouldn’t end up taking more of our time to orient and train them then we would get from them. There was no benefit to us to have this volunteer for such a short period of time, so we turned it down.

    The exception to this point would be if you had a critical skill that the agency needed and that you could use almost immediately. When I was director of D-TRAC we had a retired accountant that volunteered twice to help us streamline our accounting procedures and ensure everything was correctly documented.He gave us far more in what he accomplished then what we invested in him.

    If you pay a voluntourism company, make sure they have invested significant time on the ground

    People that don’t have a lot of time to commit to volunteering overseas often pay to go with a company that arranges everything for them. If you decide to this this, it is critical that you ensure the company you use has invested a substantial amount of time in the local area, building relationships, understanding the local situation, and working with the local people to develop the program. Not allvoluntourism companies do this. After the tsunami we had a company that had already sold the trip to participants without actually having any staff on the ground. A month or two before the project was to begin they sent a team member to try to find a project that met their specifications. They were unsuccessful and eventually had to go elsewhere. Even if they had found a willing community, the chances of it being a quality aid program are questionable, as it would have been designed to meet the needs of the donor and not the aid recipient.

    Volunteering requires a significant time commitment

    Before you commit to a volunteer project, ensure that either you are able to give the time needed to so that what you contribute is greater than what you take, or that the organization you are working through has invested that time for you.

     

    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

     

    Most of us have heard of bad aid projects, but few of us really know what makes a program good or bad. Because of this, most donors fund what feels good to them. Unfortunately, what feels good to donors might not be best for the people they are trying to help. So I’ve decided to share a system I use whenever I’m trying to determine whether an aid project is a bad idea.

    First, research the current situation on the ground – this is key to making good aid decisions. If you are unwilling or unable to take the time to do the research, then I recommend not donating. Without this information you’ll likely donate based on assumptions or stereotypes, both of which play a large role in bad aid. To avoid the possibility of biased information, make sure you use a source other than the agency that is seeking donations.

    Everyone has heard of aid agency waste and poorly implemented programs, but few people understand the underlying causes. Unfortunately, poor donor advice, heavy media coverage of “sexy” projects and locations, and aid agency advertisements targeting donor heartstrings, have made it so the average donor has many misconceptions about good donor practices. Donating based on these misconceptions may fund programs that are poorly implemented, unnecessary, or even do more harm than good.

    Many people think that there is an international body regulating aid
    Most people assume that the aid agency they are donating to is monitored and regulated.

    In reality, there is generally no real oversight or regulation of aid agency work.

    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?

    After having posted a contest to find the worst examples of in-kind donations, it was suggested that there are some in-kind donations that can be useful. Thus, in this post I am asking for examples of the most useful in-kind donations.

    I invite you to submit examples of useful in-kind donations, research demonstrating the best types of in-kind donations, or criteria for useful donations.

    I’ll start by submitting two sets of guidelines from the World Health Organization; Guidelines for Health Care Equipment Donations, and Guidelines for Drug Donations. The four criteria given in the first set of guidelines are specific to health care equipment, however donors would benefit from considering these criteria for all donations.

    The following is a copy of the comment I posted in response to the Wall Street Journal’s article Charities: Tough Times Call for Smarter Giving.

    While proposing to provide information on smarter giving, your article will, unfortunately, only perpetuate poor donor practices. I’ve addressed some of the problems with the advice given in Ask Before You Give.

    Question 1 – What portion of spending goes to programming (versus operational costs)?

    The reason this question doesn’t work:
    Although it seems to make sense that the higher percentage of money spent on programming the more money goes directly to those it is meant to help. However, this has not been proven to be true. Operational costs are needed to ensure the money gets where it is most needed. Needs assessment, which are an expensive operational cost, ensure that money is not wasted on building orphanages without any orphans, as happened more than once after the tsunami.

    Additionally, what constitutes “program” spending versus “operational” spending is rather fungible. Aid agencies know they are being rated on this, so they quickly learn how to massage the numbers.

    Request this instead:
    Ask for a copy of last year’s audit findings. Even if you do not understand the audit this will tell you whether the aid agency does yearly audits and whether they are willing to share financial information. A step further would be to request evidence that the aid agency is financially transparent about their expenditures to both donors and aid recipients

    Question 2 – What have its accomplishment been? What challenges does face?

    The reason this question doesn’t work:
    We all know these as classic interview questions, and we all know how to answer them. Aid agencies are essentially applying to you for money, so any answer they give would gloss over their failures. Instead you would likely be told about mild problem that has already been solved.

    Request this instead:
    It would be far better to request the results of several independent evaluations of the aid agency’s work. Look at the dates and frequency of the evaluations to ensure that the aid agency is actively trying to evaluate and improve their practices (evaluations are, of course, operational expenditures).  Look for evidence that senior management has developed ways to address whatever negative findings were in the report, and that the solutions have been implemented in the field.

    Question 3 – Can I direct my gift to one of the charity’s particular programs if I want?

    The reason this question doesn’t work:
    Earmarking funds for specific projects leads to far more wasted funding than the average donor realizes. Earmarking means that “sexy” programs, such as houses, boats, or orphanages, receive far more funding than non “sexy” programs such as legal aid to help people get the documentation they need to access government services. Earmarks may also require aid agencies to provide aid far in excess of the actual need.

    After the tsunami, “mini-mansions” were built by some aid agencies because they had to spend all the money earmarked for housing. Not only did this waste donations, but it also caused a lot of acrimony between the aid recipients that received these houses and those that received houses built to the minimum Sphere standards. Boats were also “sexy” programs which received too much money. Due to the glut of boats being built in Thailand one international aid agency decided to halt their boat making project until it could be determined whether or not more boats were actually needed. The program was forced to restart by headquarters because donors wanted boats and so boats had to be built.

    Request This Instead:
    Request the results of the agency’s needs assessment. This will tell you if a needs assessment has actually been done, as well as whether it has covered a wide enough area and took into account the assistance provided by other aid agencies and the government (so as not to duplicate assistance). If the aid agency has not yet completed a needs assessment then they should not be developing programs and requesting funding.

    Aid practices cannot improve until donor practices improve
    Everyone has heard of aid agency waste and poorly implemented programs, but few people understand the underlying causes. Attempts from within the aid world to improve the quality and professionalism of aid have thus far had minimal impact because donors continue to prioritize their funding based on recommendations such as those just provided by WSJ. Aid cannot improve until donors have a greater understanding of good aid practices and donate their money accordingly.

    For readers that are interested in learning more I’d suggest the following four resources:

    1.    MANGO (Management Accounting for Non Governmental Organizations)
    2.    The Listening Project country and issue reports on the CDA website
    3.    Lessons learned, evaluations, and meta-evaluations on ALNAP’s website
    4.    My blog on the impact of aid at http://informationincontext.typepad.com

     

    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.

     

     

     

     

    This is a modified repost from a previous month

    Craving beef I stopped by a McDonald’s in Indonesia looking for a hamburger. I was surprised at the menu filled with fried chicken and only one hamburger choice. Both McDonald’s and international aid are affected by market forces. At McDonald’s local tastes of the diners affect what’s on the menu. In international aid the “menu” is often based on the taste of the donors and senior management, not the diners.

    A hamburger analogy

    Imagine aid as fast food. In a top down or “donor led” model, here are some things that could go wrong.

    • The restaurant is paid to make hamburgers, but the local people are Hindu and don’t eat beef
    • The villagers will eat hamburgers but they prefer chicken, which is cheaper
    • The villagers can’t pick up their hamburgers because they are only served from 9 to 5, which would mean missing work
    • The restaurant was built ten miles away from the village and it’s too far to walk every day
    • To save administrative costs the restaurant is only open one day a week. Villagers are expected to pick up enough food to last a week, however, without refrigeration the meat quickly goes bad.
    • An opportunistic family sends each child in separately to pick up enough food to feed a large family and sells their extra food to families not so “fortunate”.

    “Donor led” vs. “Owner led”

    In donor led or top down programs, donors or senior management determine what type of aid will be provided and to whom. Unfortunately, they are often unaware of the needs and limitations of each location receiving aid. If there is no feedback loop programs may waste money and even do more harm than good.

    The following excerpt is from CDA’s issue paper The Cascading Effects of International Agenda and Priorities compiled from listening exercises in 13 countries.

    People also resent assistance that is pre-determined and inappropriate. They say things such as, “NGOs are inflexible in the types of assistance (they provide)…it is top-driven and is simply channeled down to us.”  “Some international NGOs come with their own agendas and are driven and influenced by the priorities set by their donors.”

    One Listening Team summarized what they had heard, noting “There are common complaints that NGOs take a blanket approach and arrive with pre-planned programs.” Another suggested that, “NGOs are often bound by rigid proposal submission deadlines set by donors and this hinders their ability to consult communities.”

    Listening Teams have heard many people express their anger at the arrogance of outsiders who pre-determine need in categories that they feel are biased and inappropriate in their society, or when they apply programming approaches that have been developed elsewhere in quite different contexts. Some used the word “insulted” to describe how they felt when NGOs brought pre- packaged assistance such as very low microcredit loans and training programs based on employment opportunities in other countries rather than their local economy and markets.

    In “owner led” projects, aid recipients pay a key role in determining what type of aid will be provided and how it will be distributed. In addition to the programs being developed to meet local needs, it also gives aid recipients ownership of the program, which increases the chance that the projects will be survive once the aid agency leaves.

    MANGO (Management Accounting for Non Governmental Organizations) outlines Two Golden Rules for managing aid agency field work.

    1. NGOs have to maintain a respectful dialogue with the people they aim to help.
    2. NGOs depend on their field staff and have to empower them to make good judgments.

    The Humanitarian Accountability Partnership – International (HAP-I) has developed a system for training and certifying aid agencies that are accountable to those they aim to serve.

    “HAP certifies those members that comply with the HAP Standard in Humanitarian Accountability and Quality Management, providing assurance to disaster survivors, staff, volunteers, host authorities and donors that the agency will deliver the best humanitarian service possible.”

    To ensure that the aid we give does the good we intend, we have to stop giving hamburgers to Hindus. How can we break out of the common top down, donor driven, aid model to ensure that aid recipients voices are heard and aid programs are developed accordingly?

     

    The recent posting Analyze This on Philanthrocapitalism stated

    In a speech at the conference, Ken Berger said that sometimes he cannot sleep for worrying that Charity Navigator’s ratings (of up to 4 stars) “may do more harm than good”. Its stars are awarded for “financial resilience”, which largely means the ratio of costs to money raised. This is widely recognized to be a lousy measure of effectiveness:, as anyone in business knows, it is costs (such as spending on recruiting the best talent, marketing etc) that often make success possible.”

    From my own experience tracking aid in Thailand after the tsunami, I saw many examples where an emphasis on low administration costs did more harm than good.

    Not enough orphans for all the orphanages

    Needs assessments are expensive and increase administration costs, this meant that after the tsunami  aid agencies were unwilling to share their assessments. Giving another aid agency their assessment would have meant that the other agency would benefit from the information but not take a financial hit by paying for it. Therefore, each aid agency either had to pay for their own assessment – wasting overall funds through unnecessary duplication of work and leading to “assessment fatigue” in villages and government offices – or agencies simply developed programs without a needs assessment.

    In one instance an orphanage was built without first determining if there were orphans in need of a home. The dearth of homeless orphans led representatives from the agency to visit my office seeking orphans, eventually they had to recruit street children. In another instance there were four aid agencies competing to lead children’s programs in a village of just 23 families, while

    in a similar village 10 kilometers up the road had no aid agencies helping children.

    Practices that are less expensive may appear more expensive

    When I worked for the American Red Cross we funded four programs in six provinces. In order to save costs and increase coordination we decided to rent a single office in each province and hire a  coordinator, office manager, and cleaner which each program would share. We debated how to pay for this because paying for it directly meant the expenses were billed to general management, increasing our apparent administration cost. If, instead, we had given money to each program to rent their own office and hire their own staff it would have cost considerably more, but would have been billed as a program expense creating the appearance lower administration costs.

    Taking advantage of the lack of communication between aid agencies

    Many agencies gave out student “scholarships” (monthly or yearly payments into a bank account to pay for uniforms, books, etc). This was cost effective for the aid agency because all they had to do was send a team into the area for a week. They would meet with principals and students to choose aid recipients and set up bank accounts after that most things could be handled at a distance. There was no need to pay for an office, vehicle, or full-time staff. Unfortunately, principals, teachers, and students quickly learned to take advantage of the system to get multiple scholarships for the same students – some of which never made it to the students. This was done by repeatedly telling aid agencies that the students had not received any assistance, and then opening bank accounts at different banks. Students in easily accessible schools received more visitors and could get more funding. Students is more distant schools often received no assistance.

    To keep administration costs low, agencies did not dedicate the time and staffing needed to communicate with other aid agencies. Because they came and went so quickly they did not spend time in the villages to hear what was really going on. This and other examples of unfair distribution of aid created animosity and distrust between villagers that had been neighbors for generations.

    Why the focus on administration costs?

    Charity rating agencies have very little information with which to work. In the US the only annual reporting required is the IRS I-90 form. Religious agencies don’t even have that requirement. As the Philanthrocapitalism article points out, getting any other information from aid agencies is extremely difficult.

    “The biggest problem may be the lack of cooperation from non-profits themselves, not least because shockingly few of them actually collect meaningful data on their own performance. Berger recently asked the 100 biggest charities with a four star rating to provide him with performance data, and only 10% did.”

    Changing how we rate aid agencies will change aid agency practices

    Perhaps, instead of rating aid agencies on the percentage spent on projects, we could rate them according to their financial transparency. A base score could be assigned according to whether they regularly share their financial information with donors and aid recipients. Extra points could be awarded to those agencies that make their most recent audit findings available upon request.

    The information used to rate aid agencies does impact aid agency practices (see related post). Agencies that score well are financially rewarded by donors, therefore priority is placed on those factors that lead to high scores. By changing how we rate aid agencies we can potentially improve aid agency practices.

    In a recent Huffington Post article, Drew Barrymore urged readers to give to the World Food Program to help end world hunger. I understand Drew’s concern and desire to help, it is what drives so much of international aid. However, food aid alone will not end world hunger, and food aid should be done carefully so that it does not harm the local economy – see my related post.

    The best way to solve world hunger is to address the root cause of the food crisis

    There are many factors that can cause a food crisis. Addressing these problems will provide longer term solutions to world hunger.

    Is the food crisis caused by unemployment?

    A food crisis can be caused by high unemployment. There could be food at the marketplace, but people are going hungry because they cannot afford to buy it. Imagine if the US’s economic situation were to worsen and unemployment increased dramatically. Would the best solution to a potential food crisis be for an aid agency ship food in? US farmers, cattlemen, and grocery stores would strongly disagree.

    A better solution might be to develop a voucher system – food stamps – that would allow villagers to buy food locally. This puts money into the economy and keeps the farmers, grocers, and cattlemen from loosing their livelihoods.

    Is the food crisis caused by the inability to get food to the marketplace?

    When roads are damaged by conflict, natural disaster, or lack of maintenance, it can be too difficult or even impossible to get the food to market. Imagine if a disaster were to hit New York City and the bridges and ports
    connecting it to the mainland were destroyed. Would the best solution be for an aid agency to ship in food from Canada?

     

    A better solution might be assisting the government or the local people to repair the roads, bridges, and ports needed to transport food.

    Is the food crisis caused by high transportation costs?

    A food crisis could be caused if the price of gasoline eats away any profit the farmers might have made by shipping food to market. In Thailand filling up a compact car costs 1/5 of a laborers monthly wages.  Imagine if gas prices in the US rose to $12/gallon, how would that affect food transportation. If the price of gasoline in the US rose so high that it was cost prohibitive for farmers to ship food into our urban centers would the best solution be for an aid
    agency to pay to ship food in from Mexico?

    Better solutions might be subsidizing gas, helping farmers purchase vehicles that run on natural gas, or building more train lines.

    Is the food crisis a political problem?

    Suppose that the dollar fell so low against the Euro that US agribusinesses shipped most of their food to Europe because they could make more money there than selling it domestically. Would the best solution to the ensuing food crisis be for an aid agency to buy food internationally and ship it to the US?

    Many food problems are caused because local farmers are forced off of their land and into city slums by agribusiness or other forms of development. If these root problems are not addressed there will be a continued food crisis.

    Factors causing world hunger vary, a single solution is not the answer

    Factors that cause world hunger are varied, and rarely are related to a lack of available food. Giving food aid does not address the underlying cause of hunger and is not sustainable over time.

    Before donating to an aid agency that provides food aid, request answers to some critical questions:

    1. What is the root cause of the food crisis?
    2. Is there food available within that country or in neighboring countries?
    3. Where is the majority of the food purchased?
    4. What impact will food aid have on the local economy?
    5. What efforts are being made in conjunction with the feeding program to address the underlying causes?

    Once you have answers to those questions put yourself in the villagers shoes. If this were to happen in the US, is that the solution you would want?

    “Hit the ground running”

    As a Crisis Corps Volunteer (part of the US Peace Corps) I was sent back to Thailand to help with the tsunami recovery efforts. Before my departure Peace Corps sent out a press release which stated:

    “The three resource development volunteers will be working with local governments to determine where the greatest need lies and identifying resources to help the local communities. They will also put together a local staff to insure progress will continue after the Crisis Corps team departs.”

    So essentially we were to go into a government office, work with them to determine needs, develop a program, find funding and resources, implement the program, and ensure that it was sustainable – all of this in the span of just six months – there would be no extensions.

    How long would it take to develop a program that solves a problem in your own community?

    Would a six month program be successful in your own city? Imagine if a stranger were sent to your community from an aid agency boasting that they were going to solve a community problem. How would your community react?

    Upon posting the article 5 questions to ask before donating goods overseas it was suggested to me that we should hold a contest to find the worst examples out there. So here it is….

    Reply to this post with the worst examples you know of, we’ll post the winners next week. I’m looking forward to seeing what we get!
    —–

    Related posts:
    What is an in-kind donation?
    The worst in-kind donations

    In the past month I have seen three different aid agencies request donated goods to send overseas. This is always an appealing idea because it makes you feel like you’re really helping while at the same time recycling things that are no longer of any use to you. Unfortunately, it often costs more to ship goods than to buy them locally, and inappropriate donations can do more harm than good. The following are five questions you should always ask before donating.

    1. Is the donation appropriate for the local climate, culture, and religion?
    2. Do they actually need the donation?
    3. Are the goods available locally?
    4. Will the people receiving the goods be able to afford to fix or replace the donated item?
    5. Will donating this item do more harm than good?

    “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and “beggars can’t be choosers” are platitudes I hear when I talk about inappropriate and unhelpful aid.

    Misconception #1: Aid recipients can’t be choosers

    Those who say beggars can’t be choosers mistakenly assume that people that receive aid are begging for help and therefore any aid is helpful. The truth is that most aid recipients are not out begging for assistance, instead aid agencies have decided to provide assistance for a variety of reasons – which will be the topic of another post.

    As Director of D-TRAC in Thailand, I was regularly approached by donors wanting to fund aid agencies  helping with the tsunami recovery. With over 200 aid agencies to choose from they quickly became overwhelmed and sought advice on choosing aid agencies. D-TRAC aid agency folders - Photo by Saundra Schimmelpfennig

    The photo is of the blog’s author at D-TRAC. The blue folders are filled with information on different aid agencies responding to the tsunami.

    Choosing the right aid agency can be a daunting and frustrating task

    Without adequate information or guidelines, many people choose aid agencies based on name recognition, speed of implementation, or percentage spent on administration. Unfortunately, none of these are real indicators of the quality and appropriateness of aid.

    Donations can be misused and ill-spent despite the best intentions of donors
    Deciding whether or not to donate and which agency or project to donate to can be a daunting and frustrating task. Although donors choose aid agencies that they think will have the greatest impact, aid donations often are misused and ill-spent. This occurs both despite of and because of the best intentions of donors.

    How does this happen?
    Concerned about aid reaching those who need it the most, many donors give to aid agencies that work quickly and cheaply. Dependent upon donors for funding and survival, aid agencies feel pressured to develop programs that are fast and cheap. Unfortunately, projects with low administration costs and fast implementation rates often have unintended consequences.

    This posting is from a journal I kept as a Crisis Corps volunteer working on the tsunami recovery in Thailand.

    Boats are “sexy”Donated boats - Thailand - photo by Saundra Schimmelpfennig

    Boats have become the “sexy” projects of the tsunami recovery.  Go onto the web site of most aid organizations and odds are that somewhere they will talk about boats.  Some days it’s seems as though you can’t turn around without running into another organization working to give boats to villagers.

    Don’t get me wrong, boats are very important for these coastal villages.  They are also extremely difficult for the average villager to replace because, as a general rule, they cost around 120,000 baht (to put this into perspective, as a crisis corps volunteer I would make about 96,000 baht a year, and our salary is based upon local wages).  This means it’s almost impossible for villagers to replace their boats on their own, especially now that many of their livelihoods have been destroyed.  So boats are desperately needed.  But there is a growing belief (unsubstantiated because of the difficulty of collecting data from the multitude of aid organizations) that there will be more boats in this area after the tsunami than there were before the tsunami.  There is also a fear that some people may well receive 2 or 3 boats.

    Think about the most memorable photo in a recent advertisement from an aid agency. What emotion did that photo create? Did it inspire you to give money?

    Now imagine that it is your child, sister, or parent in that photo. Would you want that picture used in an advertising campaign?

    Does the photo show the aid recipient as helpless or able?

    Recently I’ve seen several of my friends give to an aid agency that uses the picture of an emaciated African child on death’s door. We’ve all seen the type of photo I’m talking about (in writing this article I tried to find some sample photos by typing “starving child” into google image, it came up with thousands of them, and almost all of them were from an aid agency website). Each time I see someone donate to an agency that uses this type of photo I think NO, DON’T DO IT!

    Following the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami, I was sent back to Thailand. I’d been a Peace Corps volunteer there in the late ’90’s and can both speak and read Thai. My assignment was to work in a government district office (like a county but also includes all the towns and cities) to try help coordinate all the aid flooding into the area – often called “The Second Tsunami.”

    It was the Wild West all over again. During my four years in Thailand, I saw the best and the worst of aid. I saw houses built on land without titles, once the charity went home the government was left to figure out whether the owner could evict in one case the people were kicked out of their new houses when the landlord fought it in court. I heard the frustration when one charity just finished constructing toilets for a school just before another charity tore them down so they could build a larger school instead. I saw boats sink during the handing over ceremony. I saw one village with 34 charities competing to lead projects while another similarly sized village just 10 kilometers received only the barest assistance. I saw failed livelihood projects where the people were left with products they could not sell. I saw project evaluations ignored when the powers that be didn’t like the findings. And the list goes on and on.

    The people in the temporary camps felt pretty helpless to find the assistance they needed. The nonprofits did a poor job of keeping them informed and if they lived in a hard to reach area, far fewer nonprofits came by to check on them.

    It was just crazy. So I started to investigate how to solve this problem. Obviously, the first solution was to set some decent standards. T

    “I wish my parents had died so I could get all this stuff too.” An aid worker overheard a student say while visiting a school receiving tsunami recovery assistance. Rumors of people pulling down their own houses to claim tsunami assistance were also common. Why did this happen? Because people that were “directly affected” received far more assistance than those that were “indirectly affected”.

    Should aid only go to those “touched by the water”?

    Directly affected usually meant that their house was damaged or destroyed or one of their parents died. Aid workers began to call this “touched by the water”. However, many more people were “indirectly affected” losing their livelihood, transportation, or extended family.

    Last week John W. Yettaw, an American, swam across a lake and into the compound of the Burmese Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. As a result of this thoughtless and illegal act the Burmese government have put Suu Kyi and two of her servants on trial for breaking the conditions of her house arrest, which bans visitors that have not received official permission.

    “Unaware of the problems his actions could trigger”

    According to the Associated Press

    “Yettaw’s family have described him as an as well-intentioned admirer of Suu Kyi, unaware of the problems his actions could trigger. Her supporters have expressed anger at him for getting her into trouble.”

    Suu Kyi and her two servants face the possibility of five years imprisonment. This comes just weeks before May 27th when, after six years of house arrest, Suu Kyi was scheduled to be freed.

    Menus vary according to local taste and preferences

    Craving beef I stopped by a McDonald’s in Indonesia looking for a hamburger. I was surprised at the menu filled with fried chicken and only one hamburger choice. Both McDonald’s and international aid are affected by market forces. At McDonald’s local tastes of the diners affect what’s on the menu. In international aid the “menu” is too often based on the taste of the donors, not the diners.

    From the Kenyan newspaper the Daily Nation:

    Mosquito net manufactures are teaming up with the provincial administration and village elders in several parts of Kenya in an effort to apprehend and prosecute people who use the products for purposes other than covering beds.

    According to Dr Elizabeth Juma, who is the head of malaria control under the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation, there has been evidence of people turning the nets into fishing gear especially in Nyanza Province. Now a different group has discovered another lucrative business venture, and are using the nets to make wedding dresses.

    Upon reading this news clip in William Easterly’s blog “Aid Watch“, I was reminded of condom training in the Peace Corps. The rampant AIDS problem in Thailand meant we were all trained on teaching rural Thai’s to use condoms, even if we weren’t health volunteers.

    A report just released by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies titled Tsunami – Global Lesson Learned, highlighted six key lessons learned.

    “…facing the challenges of leadership and coordination, achieving equity in recovery, embracing people’s participation, countering corruption and ensuring accountability, innovating in disaster risk management and the fundamental question of whether we will do better next time.”

    The fundamental question has to be whether we will do better next time. A quick review of evaluations and lessons learned from both Darfur and Rwanda show that these “lessons” are not new. An evaluation by the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition (TEC) in 2006, describes many of the same problems found in ALNAP’s Lessons Learned the Darfur Experience (2004) and the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda (JEEAR, 1994). A quick scan of the findings in each of these reports shows that although major efforts were launched to improve the quality and professionalism of international aid many of the same problems still exist.

    Sending donated items can undermine the local economy

    Recently the local news featured the story of an aid group seeking donations of slightly used soccer balls and shoes to send to children in Afghanistan. Although this sounds like a great way to get involved and help out sending donated goods can actually undermine the economic recovery of the people you are trying to assist. By importing items and then giving them away for free, instead of purchasing them locally, you out compete the local shop keepers trying to sell similar goods. They, in turn, do not purchase more these items from local manufactures and farmers. If enough goods are given away for free it can bankrupt the local businesses that are struggling to survive.

    Would we allow goods that would compete with items made in the US to be shipped in and given away for free?

    Let’s look at this from a different angle. Suppose instead of soccer equipment being shipped by the US to Afghanistan, China, concerned about a prolonged economic downturn in the US, decides to donate fuel efficient cars to California to help the world’s 6th largest economy recover. Would the US allow China to import donated cars? Think of the effect this would have not only on the car dealers in California but also to the car manufactures and parts manufacturers throughout the US. To protect our own markets the US has import restrictions and tariffs, other countries have similar regulations.

    Importing goods often costs more than buying them in country

    Shipping items is also very expensive. Costs that need to be considered include air or sea transport, custom fees or tariffs, and overland transportation once in country. It is often cheaper to buy the goods in country which would put money into the local economy. Shopkeepers who are struggling after years of war would welcome the business, they may then buy more soccer balls from the factory. With increased orders the factory would have more work for their staff, which may lead to increased wages with which workers could feed their families and buy soccer balls for their own children.

    Guidelines for in-kind donations

    The Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) has some great guidelines for in-kind donations, even if it’s not a disaster. Here’s an excerpt:

    “unlike in-kind donations, cash donations entail no transportation cost. In addition, cash donations allow relief supplies to be purchased at locations as near to the disaster site as possible. Supplies, particularly food, can almost always be purchased locally- even in famine situations. This approach has the triple advantage of stimulating local economies (providing employment, generating cash flow), ensuring that supplies arrive as quickly as possible and reducing transport and storage costs.”

    Buying locally supports the local economy which speeds recovery

    Although the intention behind the donation of sporting equipment was good, good intentions alone are not enough to ensure good aid. Buying locally is always preferable to shipping in goods from outside. Donated goods undercut the local economy and if the markets are undercut often enough businesses will fail creating more people in need of aid.