Friday, February 5, 2010

Haiti Earthquake: A Missed Opportunity for Large NGOs

The Haiti Earthquake is slowly drifting out of the headlines and as the number of casualties is said to top 200,000, there have been alarming reports that aid does not nearly reach the multitude of people in need.

I don’t know whether coordination is worse this time than it was in 2005 in the various areas hit by the Tsunami. It is probably easy to think that it should not have taken much to come up with some disaster plan ahead of time and then follow it when sadly the catastrophe happened. But I am pretty sure that this is not as simple when it is just chaos around as it was the case shortly after the Earthquake. It is also rare to see a disaster of that magnitude hit a capital city with high density and a large population. One has to remember as well that the Haiti administration ceased to function almost entirely overnight and that most of the senior UN folks died when their building collapsed.

However, a few weeks after the Earthquake hit, it must be extremely frustrating for the population – and for donors on this side – to see that aid is not reaching its destination.

Like in 2005 big humanitarian organizations are competing for people’s financial contributions to the relief efforts. As I pointed out in an earlier post a lot of those large NGOs realized that the emotion caused by the 2004 Tsunami provoked an unprecedented movement of generosity on the part of the general public. The last 2 years have been tough for those nonprofits on the fundraising side, thus it is not unrealistic to think that they are viewing the Haiti Earthquake as an opportunity to be helpful to the Haitian people and in doing so, fulfill their mission certainly but also raise much needed money for non-Haiti-related activities.

I did a search on Google of the term “donate to Haiti” and here is what I got: eleven (11!!) sponsored links, in other words ads, by humanitarian organizations, namely from the top of the screen to the bottom (3 in the top segment of the page and 8 in the right column), Red Cross, UNICEF USA, Habitat, Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, Save the Children, Hope for Haiti, Samaritans Purse, Food for the Poor, Doctors Without Borders, Charity Navigator (a tool to conduct due diligence on nonprofits), and IRC. The search results listed the following links on the first page (not including the news results): Red Cross, how to Avoid Scams (, Yele (Wyclef Jean’s nonprofit), the general Google page on how to donate for relief efforts that I mentioned in a previous entry, and four newspaper / magazine articles on where and how to donate (in order US News, NY Daily News, Huffington Post, and The Atlantic).

My reaction to this is twofold. As much as I applaud the efforts of the UNICEFs, Red Cross, and MSFs of the world, I think it is confusing to most folks out there to get messages from those organizations and many others asking to help them specifically. In a time of such a huge crisis, considering moreover that the vast majority of the general public knows very little about who does what in the social sector – and even less about who does what well – I don’t see the “greater good value” of sending those messages to the general public.

What the public wants is to contribute to relief efforts in Haiti. People want their money to get where it is needed, they want to see that their money is making a difference and helping those who are suffering right now. My guess is that they could not care less whether the money goes to Mercy Corps, MSF, CARE, or UNICEF as long as it reaches those in need.

That is why the concept of a Fund like the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund is appealing because it is equivalent to having a big bucket where people give to a cause vs. a certain entity and then the money is distributed according to the needs.

It is not surprising that most donations to date have gone to organizations considered as generic names so to speak like the Red Cross or UNICEF. I bet most think that the Red Cross has a particular status whereas in fact the American Red Cross is just another 501c3 like any other nonprofit in the same field. The Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent housed in Switzerland does have international organization status but the national organizations don’t.

In this dramatic crisis, I would like to see nonprofit leaders do for once what they have been long criticized for not doing enough, i.e. BAND TOGETHER. Why don’t they raise money together and figure out a way the money should be distributed among their organizations depending on what part of the reconstruction or relief activities they are taking on?

An interesting NYT article recounted earlier this week how in other countries like Britain and Canada such pooling of funds has taken place on occasion in times of great catastrophes. But it has not been possible in the US yet – it should be noted though the American Red Cross did pass on 46% of the money it raised after the Asian Tsunami to other organizations, which was positive.

Thus, the idea has been around – actually brought up by those organizations that raised very little money obviously – but large humanitarian agencies in the US have not come through on this topic.

This is a shame and a major missed opportunity. For a sector that is widely known for its “planting the flag” mentality (i.e. I want my organization’s name on this project – as a result, the project’s very objective may take a back seat to the organization’s and its leadership’s ego), the Haiti crisis was an opportunity to do things differently, to “think outside the box” – if this cliché is ever to be used… – and to show the world that this is not about them.

And don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that it is actually about them but by acting this way, it seem awfully as though large NGOs and international organizations want to get our money because they know better and will do a better job with it than others.

Lastly, I believe that MSF’s co-founder and ex-president Rony Brauman was wrong (no newspaper article found) when he said the other day that people should keep donating to his organization, irrespective of the needs in Haiti because the needs are so enormous elsewhere. The needs in other countries are indeed huge. But as I already argued – and sorry for sounding repetitive, supporting MSF or the IRC is not what the public wants – not now.

This is what I think the NGOs should do: in case there is any money left after the relief and reconstruction needs have been met, all the nonprofits that received contributions should contact those who donated, giving them the choice to get the % of their gift that was not utilized for Haiti back or to allocate it to other programs of their choice (the nonprofit should list options) or picked by the entity itself (no earmarking).

I am afraid that by doing business as usual so far the big humanitarian organizations involved in the wake of the Haiti Earthquake have reinforced negative stereotypes about them and lost an opportunity to change the way they work and, in doing so, be way more effective and helpful to the Haitian people.

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