An Avalanche of Cash

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After the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Japan, and the typhoon in the Philippines, millions of Americans (and a fair number of Gathering participants) responded to the immediate needs through Twitter, Facebook and text donation appeals from scores of well-known relief organizations. Of course, there are more than a few scams that proliferate after every disaster. The earthquake in Nepal will be the same.

Years from now even many of the better-known organizations (like the American Red Cross) will be either holding millions of dollars in unspent money—or worse will have used the money on projects completely unrelated to the original appeal.

Years after Superstorm Sandy a third of the $303 million the Red Cross raised specifically for storm victims was either unspent or misspent. Years after the Haiti earthquake less than 40 percent of the $4.6 billion raised and pledged in a few months has been spent. Stories of corruption, theft and political patronage are still in the news. Japan has spent funds intended for reconstruction after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami on roads in Okinawa, whaling research and an ad campaign for Japan’s tallest building.

Ben Smilowitz of Disaster Accountability Project is a wealth of information on how much of relief money is badly spent (or not spent) and how important it is for charities to be transparent in their reporting of finances and what they accomplished. You can learn more here about Ben and his work in this interview on Nepal.

Many of us want to help immediately—especially when we see the pictures of devastation, havoc and loss of life, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of orphaned, homeless children. How can you not respond immediately? It would be heartless to wait. But in fact, waiting may be the best thing we can do.

After the Philippine typhoon I published a blog that outlined some options for us, and those same principles are relevant to the situation in Nepal. It’s often overlooked that there are important and distinct stages of disaster relief. I want to thank Steve Haas of World Vision for making this information available to us. Each one has needs and challenges:

24-48 hours. This is the “storm surge” of money that follows the news and media frenzy. To quote legendary football coach Woody Hayes, “Three things can happen and two of them are bad.” The money and flood of in-kind contributions can be as destructive as the earthquake if there are not systems in place for making use of it. Because 95 percent of the large-scale disasters occur in the undeveloped world, this means there are few if any systems in place. This stage can last up to six months. If you feel you must give right away you should be focused on finding organizations and ministries that have a local presence and have experience. Those who have to fly in assistance without any prior relationship are far less effective – even harmful.

48-100 hours. Resources begin to arrive and distribution issues become complicated. The media looks for stories and snippets that will focus on either the physical horror of the disaster the carnage or the confusion of relief efforts. While there is merit in keeping the “story” alive because tragedy news is often displaced by celebrity gossip there is an increasing pressure to find news that will get the fleeting attention of a viewer. Donors should stick with supporting organizations with a local presence as they will not be as affected by the logistics and they know best the immediate responses needed.

7-14 days. The international professionals and specialists arrive and begin to mobilize and organize resources. Used items and in-kind gifts shipped in from other countries are rarely helpful and tend to clog up the ports scarce storage facilities and overtaxed distribution chains. This is a good time for donors who have managed to avoid the temptation of contributing to the “storm surge” to instead support organizations with competence and track records for this work. Cash is still the most-needed commodity–not material items.

30-45 days. Temporary shelter, health and medical care, food and water, and economic aid—along with the care of children without parents and a host of other problems—require sustained organization, not just reactive assistance.

45 days – one year. While this is by no means the end of the impact of the disaster this is the time for donors who have an interest in long-term relief and development. This is when the media attention has faded, and many first responders have left to wait for another disaster or moved on. Organizations with long-term commitments and established reputations are the best investments. This is also when pressure builds from the media and outside agencies to question why all the money given has not been spent. In their defense it is not just the amount of money that is difficult to manage but the slow progress of legitimate recovery.

While we rarely recommend organizations for support I have checked with Gathering participants who have long-time experience and relationships in Nepal and asked them to recommend organizations and ministries for me to suggest. Here is their list. It is not exhaustive and in no order of priority or ranking.

Disaster Accountability Project


Medical Teams International

Vision Nationals Nepal

Samaritan’s Purse

World Vision

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  • Avatar

    Many thanks, Fred. Your article reminds me of a saying: “Doing good does not relieve us of the obligation of doing it well.”

  • Fred Smith
    Fred Smith

    Thanks, Stu. It’s hard to wait.

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