Acton Institute Powerblog

The ‘second disaster’: When humanitarian relief goes wrong

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In the wake of the destruction from Hurricane Harvey, Americans are rallying to provide aid and relief, from local residents to distant countrymen to nonprofit organizations to various levels of government. Yet amid the overwhelming display of generosity and camaraderie, we should be attentive to ensuring that our good intentions translate into actual assistance and service.

In a recent CBS News story, disaster relief expert Juanita Rilling highlights the routine risks of such efforts, which often lead not only to excessive waste on behalf of the donors, but to new burdens, complications, and obligations for the recipients.

“Generally after a disaster, people with loving intentions donate things that cannot be used in a disaster response, and in fact may actually be harmful,” says Rilling, who is the former director of the Center for International Disaster Information in Washington, D.C. “And they have no idea that they’re doing it.”

Those new challenges — introduced not by Mother Nature but by generous, well-meaning givers — are what some humanitarian workers now call the “second disaster.” Rilling proceeds to run through a thick portfolio of examples, offering exhibit after exhibit of relief gone wrong.

“You know, any donation is crazy if it’s not needed,” she explains. “People have donated prom gowns and wigs and tiger costumes and pumpkins, and frostbite cream to Rwanda, and used teabags, ’cause you can always get another cup of tea.”

Following 1998’s Hurricane Mitch, for example, Rilling recalls finding loads of boxes on an air strip in that were filled with winter coats (it was summertime in Honduras). Likewise, after the disastrous tsunami of 2004, beaches in Indonesia were so filled with donated clothes that the donations were eventually set on fire due to oncoming rot. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, American mothers donated breast milk, not thinking of the challenges of keeping it fresh.

Rilling also points to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, CT. Although it wasn’t a natural disaster, in the aftermath of the tragedy, the town was bombarded by somewhere around 67,000 teddy bears, as well as thousands of other toys. The majority of it had to be sent elsewhere, involving tedious time and effort for Newton residents.

It’s a familiar theme, and one that’s highlighted at length in Acton’s Poverty, Inc. film and PovertyCure film series. But as each of those films makes clear, our response needn’t be mere criticism or cynicism. Indeed, while it’s important to be more attentive and cautious about whether our generosity is actually meeting needs and bearing fruit — materially, socially, spiritually, and otherwise — we should be careful that we don’t retreat into a different sort of apathy, one that uses the challenges of effective relief as an excuse for inaction or inactivity.

It’s really the age-old knowledge problem, requiring that we wield humility in the face of complex problems and pursue paths that prioritize local, interpersonal knowledge and decision-making. In the CBS News story, for example, we meet Tammy Shapiro, who led a group called Occupy Sandy, which relied on a boots-on-the-ground network of activists that innovated solutions as they saw needs arise (or disappear). Eventually, Shapiro’s group refused certain items (e.g. clothes) and developed what she calls a “relief supply” wedding registry, allowing survivors to send clear, accurate signals to donors wishing to help. “We were able to respond in a way that the big, bureaucratic agencies can’t,” Shapiro says.

In the current case of Hurricane Harvey, we see similar activity taking place through DonorSee, an app that serves as a connection point between everyday donors and survivors. Rather than sending large checks to bureaucratic governments and nonprofits or sending huge boxes of random items, DonorSee helps people connect to the lowest level possible, targeting specific needs through specific projects. “Helping each other should be about just that — helping each other,” says Gret Glyer, the founder. “Not sending checks to NGOs, nonprofits, ‘causes,’ etc.”

As for Rilling, she prefers the simplicity and efficiency of cash donations (a path that economist Tyler Cowen advocates when it comes to gift-giving in general). “Cash donations are so much more effective. They buy exactly what people need, when they need it,” she says. “Cash donations enable relief organizations to purchase supplies locally, which ensures that they’re fresh and familiar to survivors, purchased in just the right quantities, and delivered quickly.”

Whatever the path we choose, our generosity mustn’t lead to wasted, burning piles of clothes on a beach or crates of goods left rotting in a warehouse. We have an opportunity and obligation to help those in need. Succeeding in those efforts will require connection, intentionality, visibility, and adaptability, but more simply, and perhaps more importantly, it will require the humility and care to pause and consider the fruits.

Image: SC National Guard, Public Domain

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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