What questions should we ask ourselves when we donate to disaster relief campaigns?

Research Assistant Sam reflects on his experience of a family holiday being cut short by hurricane Irma and choosing which overseas aid charities to support.
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Sam Burthem

Having recently returned from Cuba, getting off the island a couple of days before hurricane Irma hit, we decided as a family to give a donation to help the disaster relief efforts. Just as we were about to donate to the International Red Cross, a discussion started which showed each of our own personal preferences and worries. While I was concerned mainly about the financial prudence of the organisations receiving the donations, dad was worried about whether larger more prosperous countries (i.e. the USA) would take the lion share of the international attention and the aid. Mum came from another angle of whether religious aid organisations would favour communities of their own creed over others.   

All these points and many more are valid to bring up when trying to decide who to give to. However, this discussion highlighted a serious problem: how can individuals make an impactful donation to help disaster relief, when there are such huge numbers of problems to take into account when responding to a disaster on the scale of Irma, as well as the huge numbers of aid agencies of all sizes. How is it possible for an individual to decide where to distribute their money, especially when their contribution is likely to be small in the grand scheme of things.

Such thoughts do not appear to be unique to me: our research shows that only 37% of the public feels positively about the overseas aid and development, with 35% of the general public saying they had neither negative or positive feelings towards the sector. It seems hard to believe that this apathy is not driven at least in part by a lack of knowledge about where donations go and what impact the money has.

The DEC Boxing Day Tsunami Appeal provides a model example of a public appeal that was able to mobilise the British public to provide funds to countries thousands of miles away for millions of people which they have little connection with. But the tsunami appeal also reveals the unevenness of public attention towards certain disasters:

“In just two months, the DEC tsunami appeal received eight times the amount of donations that it had received for its Sudan appeal, which had been running for four times as long.”

Therefore, I have put together a short list of organisations and mechanisms that I picked out when I was looking at how to effectively give to disaster relief. This list will reveal more about my own priorities when it comes to disaster relief, but will hopefully help to provide insight and understanding into some of the structures that attempt to ensure the effectiveness of aid or emergency relief.

Information Sources

Relief Web - UN affiliated information portal with a focus on forgotten crises and with tools to help humanitarian organisations, information about in-country organisations, and large datasets. This includes the Relief Web Crises app, which provides live updates of disasters worldwide along with information about funding streams, donors and in-country contacts.

Website: https://reliefweb.int/

HumanitarianResponse.info - Another digital service, provided by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which aims to provide operational tools to help national and international NGOs coordinate in the event of a humanitarian crisis. A notable feature is a large website directory of different International/National NGOs and infographics presenting (among other things) the capacity of different NGOs in various disaster areas.

Website: https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/

Notable funding organisations

UN Central Emergency Response Fund - Set up a year after the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2005, CERF was created “to deliver funding quickly to humanitarian responders and bring greater balance to emergency response”. Two thirds of the funds are earmarked for rapid response to emergencies, and one third are reserved to support underfunded, and often protracted emergencies. Between 2009 and 2017 CERF has allocated $4.8 billion to 98 countries.

Website: http://www.unocha.org/cerf/

UN Humanitarian Country Based Pooled Funds – This organisation allows donors to put their donations towards unearmarked funds to support local humanitarian efforts in one of the 18 countries currently with dedicated funds of this type. They can give grants to UN Agencies, NGOs and the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement, after these organisations have undergone financial and in-country capacity assessments.

Website: https://www.unocha.org/our-work/humanitarian-financing/country-based-pooled-funds-cbpfs

Disaster Emergency Committee - A partnership of 13 of the UK’s leading aid charities, which each allocated between 3% and 20% of the funds raised by the appeal to each of its member charities during a disaster. The exact proportion of of money given to each charity is calculated depending on how much each organisation spends on aid in the affected area and their UK fundraising capacity.

Website: https://www.dec.org.uk/

Charities working in disaster relief have a difficult line to tread; balancing the development of effective ways to react quickly to arising disasters, whilst meanwhile preparing support in vulnerable areas. Navigating these complex problems leads to different organisations taking different approaches to solving these problems, and they are also affected by the ideological preferences and priorities of the people who lead the organisations. There is no one size fits all organizational structure that will satisfy the preferences of all those donating. Therefore, the best course of action is to find out what is important to you are and try to give to organisations whose priorities best align with your own. 

What do you think? Share your thoughts on this topic in the comments section below:

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