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#336: Disaster aid: charities find cash the best donation (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
By ASHLEY BAKER
WASHINGTON, Aug 26 (UPI) -- Charities say disasters such as Hurricane
Mitch have taught a bitter lesson they remember in responding to the
earthquake in Turkey: it's better to send money than items victims don't
In February, Ferdinand Mahfood, founder of the charity Food for the
Poor, went back to the hurricane-ravaged community of Tegucigalpa,
Honduras. To his chagrin, he found a massive outpouring of charity that
failed to meet the community's basic needs.
One Tegucigalpan priest's story was typical: in the weeks following the
hurricane, more than 25 tractor-trailer loads of water and used clothing
had clogged the dock.
Unfortunately, neither the water or clothing was needed, and it was
going to cost the priest $20,000 to get them out of customs. There was no
extortion involved, Mahfood said, it was just the local charge.
The priest's account was representative of many throughout the region.
The disaster, which cut a swath of destruction through Central America last
October, left more than 9,000 people dead and more than $8 billion of
damage and touched the sympathies of many throughout the world.
Charities, not wanting to turn away donors, filled their warehouses with
items that victims of the disaster simply didn't need.
The waste associated with Hurricane Mitch has forced many charities to
rewrite their donation policies. In response to the recent devastating
earthquake in Turkey, many charities are shunning "in-kind" donations, such
as clothing, food and sanitary supplies that traditionally have been the
backbone of relief efforts.
"We've learned a lot from past experiences," said Leslie Credit, a
spokeswoman for the American Red Cross. "It's hard because people want to
open their hearts, but you have to give aid that's based on need. With a
monetary donation, we can eliminate shipping costs, build the local
economy, get only what the victims need, and the buying power of the dollar
is so strong we can get a lot."
Although the full extent of the charity is unknowable, an estimated $28
million from the United Nations, including $8.6 million from the United
States, has gone so far to helping the victims of the quake in Turkey.
The American Red Cross leads all non-governmental groups in raising
money for relief, collecting more than $3 million in monetary contributions
for disaster relief.
U.N. relief workers say that most of the emergency food needs are being
met, but there still is a shortage of medicine and shelter. Aid workers are
only now beginning the heavy task of estimating what it will take to
Experts point out that disaster recovery in countries with relatively
weak economies and infrastructure generally is slower than in countries
such as Turkey, which traditionally has provided aid to other nations.
"Americans are wonderful at responding to disasters," said Carol
Lancaster, former deputy administrator with the Agency for International
Development, a U.S. federal agency. "The much more difficult job is using
aid to promote long term social and economic change. The solutions are much
less obvious. There is a willingness to give, but behind that there are
concerns about effectiveness."
"We still don't help people in the right way," said Mahfood, whose
organization is based in Deerfield Beach, Fla. Mahfood has focused his
organization's resources exclusively on poor of the Caribbean and South
America for more than 23 years.
"If Haitians eat beans and rice, and we ship them something else because
we have it, we aren't really helping them," he said. "If a priest needs a
tractor, we shouldn't give him cotton balls or wheat. It's not just a
matter of shipping what we have an excess of, it's a matter of sending what
Promised aid has been slow to reach Mitch's needy. In late July, several
months after a visit from President Clinton, Congress finally approved
spending non-emergency funds first promised 10 months ago.
The most recent figures from Nicaragua show the country has received
just $167 million of the $1.8 billion it was promised in international
Last year, AID spent nearly $7 billion fighting AIDS, mitigating
disaster, making loans, providing basic education and investing in local
economies. Though the amount of government aid is small in the context of
the federal budget, many feel that it could be spent more effectively.
"The aid can't be sent to the government," Mahfood said. "People must be
accountable, but the governments are accountable to no one. We need to find
out what they need, and send it to someone besides the government. The
stuff gets politicized, it becomes a bargaining chip used by politicians
against one another. That is what denigrates it. It loses its efficacy.
"The U.S. government has been shipping food to the people of Central
America for a long time, but they are still poor," he said. "They still
live on top of garbage and sewage."
The solution, others say, is more complex, a combination of fixing
government policies and more traditional charitable activities like food
"Aid may help the poor without reaching the poor," Lancaster said. "If
you look at (South) Korea, they have really done extremely well. This is a
case where overall economic growth lifted the poor out of poverty. You can
inoculate all the children you want, but if when they grow up there are no
jobs, they will still be poor."
An obvious problem with giving aid is that it can fall into the wrong
"I don't think there's any doubt that a large amount of the aid we or
others provide to countries with incompetent or poor leaders is wasted from
a development point of view," Lancaster said. "But we provide aid for a
variety of reasons, some of which are political. We should not judge aid we
provide for political purposes for the effectiveness it has economically."
People tend to donate for relief of the disaster currently in the news,
while long-term needs tend to be forgotten, says one official.
"The media plays a role in the funding cycle," said Nancy Aossey,
president of International Medical Corps. "We were in Somalia a year before
it was in the spotlight, and we struggled to get funding. People didn't
know where Somalia was, and they didn't really care what happened there.
"When the media arrived, and started showing children in trouble, the
passion poured out of the hearts of donors," she said. "They wrote checks.
When the next crisis comes up, images fade and they are more likely to
forget about what's going on there."
When Kosovo was in the spotlight, U.N. officials diverted many of their
resources to serve just 8 percent of the people classified as needy.
U.N. Under-Secretary-General Sergio Vieria de Mello recently outlined
the world's neediest spots. In Sudan, where 2.3 million people rely on food
aid to survive, the World Food Program has a shortfall of 40,000 tons.
Donor assistance to Burundi has been at about 5 percent. For the central
Asian nation of Tajikistan, the U.N. has asked for $28 million, but has so
far received less than $1 million.
Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that
"humanitarian needs in many parts of Africa are nearing irrevocable crisis
proportions, and I am alarmed by the poor response of the international
Overall, Annan said, Africa needs at least $796 million in aid this
year, but so far has only received $352 million.
Civil war creates and then exacerbates poverty and starvation. The
conflict in Angola, for example, has displaced more than 1.6 million
people, and the U.N. says it has only about a weeks' worth of food in the
besieged central highlands.
Donor fatigue is a problem for many of the world's poor, particularly in
Africa. Corruption and long-running civil war -- in some areas as long as
20 years -- mean that aid typically ends up in the hands of those who need
it least, strengthening groups that are, in the final analysis,
Aossey said charities must be able to show the public how the money is
being spent and document success stories.
"The hard part is people can't always see how their check is working
8,000 miles away, and I think we need to do a better job of telling people
about our successes," she said. "A lot of progress is made that really
doesn't get communicated back to the donor public.
"Sometimes you go three steps forward and one step backward," Aossey
said. "(But) giving has more to do with a value system than wealth. People
at all levels should give. If they aren't giving at the lower levels, they
won't give if they become millionaires."