Responding Responsibly to Disasters like the Haiti Earthquake

In response to the terrible earthquake in Haiti, both Outreach International (click here for their appeal) and the church (click here for their appeal) are calling on church members to give generously to those in need.

In times like this there is often a rush of people wanting to jet to the disaster zone and volunteer, or collect clothing, medicines and food to send to the people suffering. This altruistic impulse is praiseworthy and displays the great generosity and charity human beings show in times of trouble. However, not every well-meaning response to a disaster is a good one. In this briefing paper I wrote in light of the Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, I explain how, when responding to a humanitarian disaster, potential donors should keep in mind the following key principles to guide their gift:

1. When making a donation, cash is best (see this helpful information sheet from InterAction). Cash can be moved around the world far more quickly and cheaply than medicines, clothing, food or other commodities, and enables agencies to respond flexibly to the situation.

2. If you want to volunteer, do so in your area of expertise (Those considering volunteering, might want also to read this article I wrote about the response to the Tsunami, the same principles apply).

3. Coordinate your response with other agencies and donors — don’t “go it alone.”

4. Make a long-term commitment to the region

Click here to read about these principles in more detail.

Click here to make a donation to Outreach International’s Haiti response.

-Matthew Bolton

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23 comments on “Responding Responsibly to Disasters like the Haiti Earthquake

  1. dhowlett says:

    Thanks, Matt and John, for posting links and information here. This is really helpful. It seems that Outreach is best equipped to help with the rebuilding process–the time when donations generally go down after a spike in giving right after a disaster. I hope we all continue to support disaster relief even after this early phase.

  2. FireTag says:

    Matt:

    Sometimes the “emergency” requires one to divert resources from PREVIOUS long-term commitments, such as the dedication of oblation funds from the next month to Haiti drawing from resources previously intended for commitments to other areas.

    Any thoughts on how to handle the interaction between these principles?

    • Matthew Bolton says:

      This certainly can be a problem — as economists will tell us, we live in a world of scarcity. Sometimes giving more to one place, means somewhere else gets less. It is up to us to determine where we feel need is greatest, and where our assistance will do the most good. This takes a commitment to do a little research and turn to trusted sources for guidance.

      That said, in a disaster like this, many of the donations are what fundraisers call “new money.” It is money that would not have been donated if the disaster did not happen, so in this sense it is not taking money away from others who need it. It is more likely to be taking money away from people disposable income. Moreover, a situation like this often makes people more generous than usual, and can lead to more “new money” for a variety of programs and regions — not just Haiti. Therefore, I suspect (though obviously don’t know for certain) that there will not be a major dent in other Oblation funding caused by the need to give more to Haiti. Indeed, it may make people more willing to give money to Oblation throughout the year.

  3. James E Elliott says:

    I left the C of Christ but I am happy to read about the work of the church in Haiti. What theology will our ministers teach when our chapels are rebuilt?

    A church in Florissant Mo. has this posted, “Love God because God first loved you.” Will Haitians accept this theology? I wouldn’t. Did God create the Island with an earthquake prone fault line passing through it? Maybe we should give up the idea of a loving creator. We should remember that our area was hit by a major earthquake about 200 years ago.
    How much longer can we expect the New Madrid fault to remain quiet?

  4. Matthew Bolton says:

    Here is an update on the situation of the Haitian church:
    http://www.CofChrist.org/news/2010/jan/Haiti-15Jan2010.asp

  5. FireTag says:

    James:

    The island was created through earthquakes. All land above the surface of the sea is created through earthquakes and volcanoes. Life on earth will die when those processes run out of the internal heat energy of the earth that drives them.

    What theology will they teach? I hope one that sees God as both creator and destroyer, since creation and destruction are often the same act. I hope one that continues to teach what most denominations in Haiti are now grasping (see the front page of January 17th Washington Post if you can get a look): denominational differences do not matter, and the grace of God can be present even in hell on earth.

  6. My concern is that many of us living on limited incomes will divert the money we have been giving to the World Church to oblation or Outreach International.

    We had our congregation’s budget meeting recently and were surprised to learn that our giving to the world church had gone up 15% this past year. Unfortunately our local giving had gone down that much.

    Most people have just so much money to give..regardless of the need.

    • FireTag says:

      This is an observation I have found to be true about the church for a long time. People in the CofChrist allocate resources of both time and money across ALL their responsibilities exactly as they would if they already recognized that Christian responsibilities transcend denominational boundaries. They have done so since at least 1880 in regard to time; monetary statistics don’t go back that far, but do show that the sum of local and world church giving returns to a constant despite short term fluctuations over the last couple of decades.

      The split is about 2:1 toward local, and we ought to understand WHY before we try to change it to 1:1.

      So I would expect that giving to humanitarian relief WILL come out of world church tithes rather than local. NEW money for Haiti, as Matt referred to it will probably come from consumption outside the church as well as from inside the church.

      Bottom line? Is Haiti worth more than other WC programs? If so, then it isn’t a problem, it’s just a fact of life.

      • That always reminds me of an old question Ie used to hear when my kids were small. They always wanted to know which one I loved the most..I would answer “the one who needs me most at the time.”

        It’s only a matter a preference when there is great and tragic need…. like with Haiti just now. Next year it may be another.

  7. FireTag says:

    Matt:

    I was asked to do a post on Mormon Matters concerning the differing approaches taken by the LDS and CofChrist in regard to working in Haiti, and I did so.

    A commenter raised a question that I couldn’t answer (not a surprise). He wondered about who owned the schools that we supported, and what organizations would need to be involved in financing and/or performing the rebuilding.

    Does anyone here with knowledge of the Outreach history know the answer to that?

    • Matt Bolton says:

      Firetag,

      I can answer this as I was recently appointed Haiti Emergency Coordinator for Outreach International.

      The school program in Haiti arose out of the commitment of Outreach International to help children and families breakout of the cycle of poverty. Education in Haiti is a scarce commodity, with the government providing schooling for barely 11% of school aged children. For almost 30 years, Outreach International has worked with professional teachers and staff, volunteers and parents, to provide schooling for approximately 9,000 children. Without the funding, technical and administrative support of Outreach International this schools program and the opportunity of these children to attend school would be severely limited. The school facilities range from multi-story buildings, to more humble dwellings in rural areas. All children, without regard to religious affiliation, are welcome to enroll.

      The commitment of Outreach International is to remain working in the nation of Haiti, and help it rebuild. With a commitment to empower women and men to act together to create just communities free of poverty, Outreach International will focus its efforts on the children and families served by the schools, and the communities where they are located. We believe, and our experience shows us, that by working with local people to create local solutions, solutions can be found and capacity can be built to address many problems of poverty. And in the process, people who were once silent and hopeless become courageous and community is built.

      In the 14 nations in which Outreach International operates, we use facilities under a variety of agreements, ranging from formal rental contracts to informal, rent-free arrangement. This is also true in Haiti. Our focus is on human and community development rather than facility ownership.

    • Matthew Bolton says:

      Firetag,

      I can respond to this as I have recently been appointed Haiti Emergency Coordinator for Outreach International.

      The school program in Haiti arose out of the commitment of Outreach International to help children and families breakout of the cycle of poverty. Education in Haiti is a scarce commodity, with the government providing schooling for barely 11% of school aged children. For almost 30 years, Outreach International has worked with professional teachers and staff, volunteers and parents, to provide schooling for approximately 9,000 children. Without the funding, technical and administrative support of Outreach International this schools program and the opportunity of these children to attend school would be severely limited. The school facilities range from multi-story buildings, to more humble dwellings in rural areas. All children, without regard to religious affiliation, are welcome to enroll.

      The commitment of Outreach International is to remain working in the nation of Haiti, and help it rebuild. With a commitment to empower women and men to act together to create just communities free of poverty, Outreach International will focus its efforts on the children and families served by the schools, and the communities where they are located. We believe, and our experience shows us, that by working with local people to create local solutions, solutions can be found and capacity can be built to address many problems of poverty. And in the process, people who were once silent and hopeless become courageous and community is built.

      In the 14 nations in which Outreach International operates, we use facilities under a variety of agreements, ranging from formal rental contracts to informal, rent-free arrangement. This is also true in Haiti. Our focus is on human and community development rather than facility ownership.

  8. Thank you for this information, Matthew. May I share it on the church’s board? We have been discussing that situation.

  9. FireTag says:

    Thank you, Matt. I will copy your response to the comments on my post on the differing strategies used by the LDS/CofChrist in Haiti at Mormon Matters.

    Please feel free to join the conversation there. People there are trying to figure out how best to help within the context of their own faith structures and church guidance, so your perspective may be very valuable and will be appreciated.

  10. Matthew Bolton says:

    Firetag and Margie

    Feel free to crosspost or present any of the above information.

  11. Rich Brown says:

    I’ve been watching the TV reports of the 10 Southern Baptist church members being held in Haiti, charged with kidnapping after they were detained at the DR border with 30 Haitian children. Apparently at least some of the children are not orphans at all. Different reports describe the group as “well-meaning” and with “the best of intentions” but also that they knew exactly what they were doing (in violating Haitian law) and believed they would succeed “if God wanted them to.”

    There’s obviously several layers of concern with this story: the “actual best interests” of the children (from their and others’ viewpoints), the appropriateness of religious groups “rescuing” children whether they are orphans or have been signed over by parents, the image of Western nations descending on Haiti to exploit the situation, and the short- and long-term effects this arrest may have on other religious and secular groups attempting to sincerely help the Haitian people.

    My first thought was to recall that statement I’ve heard all my life about a certain road paved with good intentions. Anybody else have thoughts on this?

  12. That’s a tragedy, isn’t it? It reminds me of a remark made by Matthew about “missionaries”.

    Those people knew exactly what they were doing.

  13. I agree. They should be prosecutes. But what do you want to bet they won’t be.

    They’re Southern Baptist.

    • Rich Brown says:

      Actually, I just learned that they’re American Baptists, not Southern Baptists. Not sure that matters at all, but thought I should correct my previous error.

  14. Doug Gregory says:

    Is there a passing lane on that road?

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