Donors have given more than $560 million to charities “to help earthquake relief efforts in Haiti.”
How much of that money has funded/will fund earthquake relief efforts in Haiti? How much should?
Money isn’t the only thing needed to deliver relief
Reports from the relief effort have stressed logistical challenges, such as blocked roads and limited access for planes and boats. See, for example, this interview on Reuters AlertNet from the 18th:
” The capacity of the Port-au-Prince airport is about to be increased but it is still a small airport. It’s very congested … The seaport is not operational and needs to be fixed in the coming days … It’s a big traffic jam of vehicles carrying humanitarian assistance and carrying people who want to leave Port-au-Prince … A massive effort is needed for Haiti but it needs to be done in a coordinated way. We need more realism about how long it takes to get an operation of this magnitude in such an intensely complicated environment running. A feeding operation for 2 million people is the goal. We know that in every case it takes time in the beginning and more time when every structure on which we can rely has been so appallingly hit.”
We’re not sure of the extent to which these issues have improved since. But we think it’s important to note that they do not sound like the kind of issues that can be solved directly by more supplies or even more money.
In fact, it is easy to see how deliveries of supplies and arrivals of volunteers could make things worse, if they are not carried out in full consideration of conditions within the country. We speculate that charities that are desperate to help, but without a strong on-the-ground presence, could be dropping off supplies without a clear plan for their distribution, and thus worsening congestion. This dynamic is described (for the case of the 2004 tsunami) in a Global Post article (H/T Good Intentions Are Not Enough):
although officials didn’t request any medicine, they received 4,000 metric tons of it, or more than 4 pounds for each person in the tsunami-affected area. There were multiple-year supplies of antibiotics, and palette loads of drugs unknown to health care providers. Seventy percent of it was labeled in a language that locals did not understand … In the end, most of the drugs had to be incinerated — you can’t simply send such a stock to the dump, where it would seep into the ground water and create another health hazard. That cost donors and the Indonesian government millions.
Other charities may be reluctant to overspend on the relief effort, for exactly these reasons. Doctors without Borders, which has a major prior presence in Haiti (over $15 million spent there in 2008, according to its activity report), is explicit that it is no longer seeking to use additional donations for the relief effort:
We are incredibly grateful for the generous support from our donors for the emergency in Haiti … We are now asking our donors to give to our Emergency Relief Fund. These types of funds ensure that our medical teams can react to the Haiti emergency and humanitarian crises all over the world, particularly neglected crises that remain outside the media spotlight. Your gift via this website will be earmarked for our Emergency Relief Fund.
Just because charities are soliciting doesn’t mean they need more funding for Haiti earthquake relief
Funds raised in this appeal will be used in the recovery and rebuilding effort in Haiti in the wake of the earthquake. Any funds that exceed the level needed to provide relief in this rebuilding effort will go toward the disaster relief fund and for the entire mission of Heifer International.
Other charities may be less explicit. (We have argued before that even if donations are formally earmarked for a project, they may effectively end up funding the charities’ general activities.) Worse, some charities may in fact be soliciting for Haiti and intend to spend the money in Haiti, even if they can’t do so productively.
In an ideal world, charities that had no strong and underfunded presence in the relief effort would not be soliciting donations in the context of the relief effort. But it seems to us that this crisis (and the media coverage around it) arouses people’s emotions in a way everyday suffering can’t. That gives charities reasons to “capitalize on the opportunity” – reasons that may be
- Straightforwardly selfish: fundraisers are evaluated by how much money they bring in.
- Based on morality: donors want to give more to a relief effort that can be usefully spent, but they give less to other humanitarian initiatives than can be usefully spent.
This dynamic could explain why so many different charities are clamoring for donations under the heading of “Haiti earthquake relief” (details forthcoming in a future post).
Can you make sure your money is going to the Haiti relief effort? Should you?
There are strong arguments that the gift you make for Haiti, in the heat of the moment, would be better applied to (for example) a bednet distribution program in Africa.
However, in our view, the fact that there are many other worthwhile activities doesn’t absolve charities of responsibility for being clear about how funds are spent, and if anything it increases the responsibility of donors to understand what they’re paying for and how it compares to their other options for accomplishing good.
We believe that “room for more funding” questions do not get enough attention. In future posts, we’ll be discussing how those questions might be answered in the context of the Haiti relief effort.