Aid is Power. Who Do You Want to Empower?

In the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe like the earthquake in Haiti, you’re focused on one question: How can I help? It’s the right question, but the answer isn’t always what it seems. Many people assume that donating to a large relief agency is the surest way to help meet the overwhelming need.  People trust a name-brand; and in fact, these organizations do have a critical role to play, especially where government doesn’t or can’t assume full responsibility for disaster relief.

The problem is that most big relief operations are designed to swoop into a crisis, deliver services and leave.  And when they do leave, people are no more knowledgeable, self-reliant or resilient than they were before. Your first priority in a crisis is to help save lives. In Haiti, and other places where people face frequent disasters, it’s critical to help save lives in a way that builds community capacity to respond to the next disaster and ultimately, move toward real development.  

Here’s how you can help.

Support organizations that reinforce—rather than replicate—the activities of existing community groups. Too often, big international agencies temporarily set up shop and inadvertently undermine local organizations by attracting their best staff, driving up rents and ultimately weakening the very organizations that communities need for long-term recovery.

Support organizations that understand the role that women play in disasters. Women are commonly portrayed as passive victims. In reality, they are critical first-responders. Relief efforts should also recognize that women are the primary care-givers of those who are most at-risk in a disaster and supply women with resources to meet the needs of children, the sick, the disabled and others in their care.

Support organizations that involve people who are impacted by the crisis in relief efforts. The “victims” may not have the resources to address the disaster, but they know first-hand what they need to recover and rebuild. Relief operations designed to include local people to play leadership roles, set priorities and make decisions are the ones that leave skills and resources in the hands of community members.

Support organizations that talk about root causes of vulnerability in a crisis. Haiti’s earthquake is a natural disaster, but there’s nothing natural about families living in shacks without disaster plans or government services. Understanding what makes people vulnerable is the first step in building resiliency.   

Support organizations with a history of work in the country.  Having local roots, speaking the language and being culturally sensitive go a long way towards getting things done in a crisis.

Support organizations that will stay in the country after the news teams and big agencies leave. Long-term projects keep people thinking about the future, helping to ensure that aid is delivered in a way that builds lasting solutions.
Support organizations that are funded largely by people like you. Government-supported agencies are often beholden to government policy, not accountable to their members or, more importantly, to the communities where they work.  Haiti needs relief efforts that are going to strengthen Haiti itself, not efforts that pride themselves on funneling most of their money back to US corporations.

Support small organizations. It may seem that a large-scale crisis requires a large-scale response. But many big aid operations are bureaucratic, slow and inefficient. Often, the best response to tremendous, urgent need is to replicate successful small-scale models of aid delivery rather than try to get a giant operation moving quickly.

Support organizations with a human rights perspective. These groups recognize that the provision of water, housing, sanitation and healthcare after disaster is the fulfillment of every person’s basic rights. Organizations that view Haitians as rights-holders, not victims, will be more effective at supporting Haitians as they strive to rebuild a society based on human rights for all.

Support organizations that you want to see strengthened. When you donate, you’re boosting the capacity of the organization you’ve given to, even if that’s not your motivation for giving. Remember, aid is power. So the next time you give, ask yourself: who do you want to empower?



By Yifat Susskind, MADRE Policy and Communications Director.  A version of this op-ed was distributed by the American Forum/National Women’s Editorial Forum.


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