Want to help the Philippines? Give unrestricted cash

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Boston Big Picture

Another major disaster strikes and do-gooders rush to help however they can. It is one of the most endearing qualities about humanity, but sometimes your instincts fail you. The compulsion to help can be good, but it is only effective if done right.

With disasters, the best way to help people is to donate cash. Not just money, but donate money that is unrestricted. So, keep your unused clothes in your closet and don’t think about volunteering.

Relief agencies need money to pay for the staff, services and provisions that will help people in need. With cash, they can purchase exactly what they need for the best price possible. Yes, people need food and blankets, but what you send may not be appropriate for someone living in an emergency shelter on the other side of the world.

Same goes for medical supplies, shoes, and bras (yes, there are charities that collect them).

Aid workers compete by telling stories about their craziest experiences. Tales of unnecessary things sent to disaster areas is one of the most spirited categories. From expired medicine to wooden crosses, the stories all feature examples of airplanes full of things that end up as exported trash during a time of confusion and limited resources.

You may have some things in your closet, like an old sweatshirt, that you don’t use anymore. That’s nice, but donate it to the local goodwill store, not your church emergency effort. There are too many stories of items flooding into post-disaster situations that take up space, go bad and are thrown out.

Much like you know what you want and need better than your great aunt on Christmas, aid agencies and the people affected know what they need today. Cash solves this problem, but there is another important step.

It may seem free to give away things from your home, but it there is a coast to fly or ship goods from the United States to the Philippines. Airplanes filled with non-essential unwanted goods suck up fuel, money and space on the airstrip.

Money is faster and more effective. It is that simple.

When you give, make sure your donation is unrestricted. Disaster situations cause a flood of cash, but not all are created equal.

Hundreds of millions of dollars poured into Haiti following the earthquake in January 2010. Flooding in Pakistan only a few months later was woefully underfunded. Organizations that worked on both disasters could not use Haiti money in Pakistan.

Here is what you may not know. When you earmark a donation for certain spending, the organization has to spend it based on what you tell them, not on need. If it costs $75 million to provide aid and relief in the Philippines for organization x and it gets $100 million in donations for the Philippines, that means that the extra money has to be spent and quickly.

The incentive is to then go on a spending spree. This is called in the industry the ‘burn rate.’ Countless NGOs faced this problem in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami in east Asia. People were exceedingly generous, but the majority of the money had to be spent on relief work even if it was not needed or there was another problem elsewhere in the world.

Blogger J coined the phrase Stuff We Don’t Want (SWEDOW) to describe the things sent by people to disaster situations and developing countries. Just because you don’t want it or need it does not mean that it would be better off in the Philippines.

Volunteering is often no better. The thought is to jump on a plane and lend a hand. You will create more work for the relief agencies who need to manage you and the fact that you take up valuable plane space that could be filled with skilled aid workers or lifesaving supplies. In fact, the thousands of dollars that you would spend to travel to the Philippines could do a whole lot of good if you just donated it.

Even skilled volunteers can cause problems. Amy Costello recently reported on medical volunteers who went to Haiti in the wake of the earthquake and were ill prepared to work in the makeshift medical facilities. There are professionals with training on disaster relief and rescue. They are by no means perfect, but they are the best out there. Let them do their work.

The same mistake keeps being made after each major disaster. It is time to stop.

You can make a difference in the Philippines, but it is through your checkbook, not your closet. There are organizations that have a long history of working in post-disaster areas. They are your best bet to make sure that your money will reach Filipino people.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.