I was sitting at a sports bar during Thursday night football a few weeks ago when one of my friend brought up Hurricane Dorian. This category 5 hurricane wreaked havoc in the Bahamas on August 24. It’s being regarded as the worst tropical storm in Bahamas’ history. “It’s so sad,” he said. “I’m considering getting on a plane to go help.”
“Please don’t,” I responded, which seemed to surprise the group. As a compassionate human, I echo my friend’s instinct to help. As someone with professional experience in relief and development work, I feel compelled to challenge the particulars of his plan.
It’s hard to hear about natural disasters. The world is experiencing them at an alarming rate and the severity seems to be on the rise as a direct result of climate change. Because of modern technology, we have minute-to-minute updates paired with devastating images.
The earth is crying out, and it degrades our dignity if we simply call ourselves lucky and turn away. As fellow humans and fellow creatures, we grieve. We want to do something, and that desire is good.
As someone with professional experience in relief and development work, I feel compelled to challenge the particulars of my friend’s plan to volunteer.
It is natural to feel like physical, hands-on help is the best thing we can possibly provide people facing the upheaval like this. It might even sound fun to fly to the Bahamas and get our hands dirty in physical labor, waking the next day sore from a good day’s work. It’s more tangible than writing a check or clicking an online “Donate” button.
Yet as global citizens we must be savvy with our power. Before we book a flight, or sign up to volunteer on impulse — which will no doubt earn us societal points in good will — we should ask strategic and realistic questions about our skills, expertise and jurisdiction.
Follow the relief effort in the Bahamas. Allow your heart to break open. Act on your human instinct to help. And here are some effective ways you can help people in the Bahamas get their lives back on track:
1. Give Cash
Oftentimes what people who’ve experienced a disaster need the most is simply cash.
Sometimes, organizations may use that cash to pay local people to help with clean-up efforts (“Cash for Work”) that helps them replace the income they’ve lost and start to rebuild their own community. Other times, organizations may simply hand out cash (or vouchers) that victims of disasters can use in whatever way they most need it.
Why cash, instead of other goods or service? First, studies have shown that cash can make the greatest impact, even in non-disaster-related poverty reduction. Second, imagine if you lost your home or business because of a natural disaster like this. Wouldn’t you prefer the flexibility of cash to allow you to determine how to rebuild yourself?
2. Give Cash to Established, Trusted Organizations
Many well-established organizations respond to more disasters in a single year than have made the national news cycle in the past twenty. They’ve learned what works and what doesn’t, and have established principles like “local procurement,” which means they attempt to purchase as many goods from local markets, so as not to put even more people out of business by flooding the market with donated good. They also tend to be part of well-organized networks who are constantly communicating with each other during a disaster, so as not to needlessly duplicate efforts.
Smaller and newer does not always equal better, especially when it comes to international disasters.
Use charity watchdog ratings to find quality organizations, but don’t rely on “Efficiency” or “Overhead” ratios as the sole measure of an organization’s effectiveness. Look to see if they report the impact of their programs, rather than how little they’ve spent on overhead. Charity Navigator, for example, has their own list of highly rated organizations responding to Hurricane Dorian. (See also: The Overhead Myth)
3. Give Unrestricted Cash Donations to Established, Trusted Organizations
Once you’ve found a great organization, give an unrestricted gift. That means you’re trusting the organization (which you should if you’re making any donation) to use your gift in the way they need it the most. They may get millions of dollars for a high-profile disaster, but very few donations for a worse, but largely ignored, disaster somewhere else. Trust the organization with your gift, so that they can respond to areas that don’t get major media attention. Then keep paying attention, so that you can help hold them accountable for how they do use their donations.
An established, trusted organization can take the money we would have spent on a flight and hotel and use it efficiently and effectively on the ground exactly where it’s needed most. It cuts down on duplicate efforts and gives more work to locals who need it in a time of disaster and rebuilding.
Sometimes we want our efforts to help to be adventurous and dramatic to validate the size of the wreck. We can, however, channel that passion into researching trusted organizations.
Sometimes we want our efforts to help to be adventurous and dramatic to validate the size of the wreck.
The best way you can help after Dorian may be to stay home and click “Donate,” but don’t mistake that as an excuse to stay on the couch and take it easy. After giving charity wisely, let’s educate ourselves around care of creation and live out what we learn in the ways we choose to eat, vote, travel, and spend money daily. The earth is moaning, and it will take our communal and continued work of charity and justice to bring about healing.