“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.

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.

“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.

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.

Three years ago, the Japanese region of Tohoku was struck by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, followed quickly by a 130 foot high tsunami. These horrifying events had tremendous short and long-term consequences. Most disastrous was the loss of life and the widespread, catastrophic damage to infrastructure. Damaged infrastructure at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant added a layer of concern, but thankfully, a nuclear disaster was avoided as 300,000 people were evacuated to safety.

Japan’s emergency response system is one of the best in the world, but any country would be hard pressed to return to normalcy after an event that left 21,000 people dead, injured, or missing and their communities destroyed. On this 3rd anniversary of the Tohoku Tsunami, many survivors are moving forward with their lives because of their own hard work and the support of NGOs in their communities. The time it will take for a full return can be magically reduced through the generosity of donors to the NGOs who continue their tireless work in Japan. Those who feel inspired to help can check out the multi-sectoral work of InterAction members, www.interaction.org and programs supported by Global Giving www.globalgiving.org. It may take years to restore communities and infrastructure, but the generosity of those who donate cash to these programs ensures that recovery will come sooner rather than later.