I’ve been toying with putting a brief post up (yes, a brief one) about the issues of giving ‘stuff’ to aid agencies, versus giving cash. Brief, because I only really wanted to highlight the debate as an issue and direct you to posts by other aid and development gurus who are altogether more articulate, brief and knowledgeable than I am on the subject. Indeed a raft of really fantastic posts have been written on the subject, which got a lot of re-coverage around the 1 Million T-Shirts debate.
I’ve been pre-empted by reader Sue, who sent me the following comment:
Hi MoreAltitude, love your blog and have learned an amazing amount about international crisis and aid. I will always try to help wherever I can..short of giving cash. I have given food, blankets, time and more. But (and this is largely due to the media hype we see here in the US) I usually don’t trust that cash will be used where it is most needed. Do you have any thoughts on that? Also, Is there a place you trust where small amounts of $$ can be given on a regular basis? Thanks…
It’s a great comment and question, and it’s always good to hear that people are genuinely interested not just in giving to emergencies, but in giving well- which is crucially different. My response to Sue follows. Please note the post by Saundra excellent blog on her excellent website Good Intentions are Not Enough which has additional links to much of this debate and which, if you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend as a starting point.
Actually I have *plenty* of thoughts on the issue of giving ‘stuff’ rather than ‘cash’. First off, before launching into it though, I want to commend your attitude and your heart to give. People like you who want to give and learn are what allows support to get into places that are hurting.
I’ve not really posted much about the issues of giving ‘stuff’ on this website (other than the 1 Million T-Shirts debate), partly because there is SO MUCH AWESOME STUFF written by some of my contemporaries on the blogosphere. The basic premise, as a rule, is that by donating goods internationally, there is a high risk that a) they won’t be what’s most appropriate to the context, b) they’ll cost huge amounts of money to ship and c) they stand a good chance of undermining the local economy. Among other evils. It’s a hard truth to hear, especially by people who are concerned that their funds won’t be well used. However can I suggest you look at this page by Saundra (Good Intentions are Not Enough) which has links to a whole series of extremely articulate, intelligent and spot-on posts as to why giving ‘stuff’ is actually not the best way forwards, and why in fact cash is the best way to go.
You’re right of course- cash can be misused or poorly used, and so you need to do your research into what NGO or charity you want to give to. The decision around this should be based on a few different things. Firstly, from a personal perspective, it’s worth checking the ethos of the organization. Does it have a particular set of values or a mission (e.g. is it faith-based and is this important to you?); is it committed to the long-term welfare of the communities it’s partnering with (sustainability)? Does it run its programs in direct conjunction with the communities it’s purporting to help (participation, empowerment, accountability)? Does it publish its annual reports and financial data in an accessible location (transparency; this enables you to see exactly where your money is going)? Is it involved in cutting-edge best practice, or is it still carrying out outdated development and relief activities (e.g. is it just doing truck-and-chuck handouts that continue the cycle of dependency)? In its literature, does it refer to the people it’s trying to help as partners and people with dignity, or does it make you pity them as poor, shirtless, desperate people in need of any old thing you can chuck at them?
There’s three major perspectives that need to be understood by people wanting to give to a situation. Firstly, that by giving the wrong thing, you can actually make the situation worse. Secondly, that the people you’re giving to are not just hapless victims, but are real people with aspirations, abilities, capacities, creativity and energy, all of which can and must be harnessed to respond to any crises they are facing- ideally on their own terms. Thirdly, that the services that good-quality NGOs provide in this process are often not related to the delivery of things (food, water, hospitals, medical supplies- although in some circumstances these do have their place- unlike, for the most part, t-shirts and shoes) but actually are related to the delivery of services, of expertise, of facilitation, and of processes. These things are, to the donor, more intangible, harder to account for, often appear to be related to ‘salaries’ and other unattractive costs, and are therefore unsexy and frequently result in people prefering to give ‘things’. However if the organization is doing things right, then these services should be enabling and multiplying, and have far greater impact than giving, say, a box of used clothes, or a food parcel.
I hope that gives you some things to think about. Please do follow the links to my colleagues’ sites- they are extremely eloquent, concise and intelligent, and will hopefully help elucidate any questions that remain.
Further to the comment, additional thinking as to which agencies to donate to, it’s best to look for agencies that have an established reputation (beware charities that pop up as a result of an emergency- they probably don’t have the expertise to know what they are doing or to understand what they don’t yet know about emergencies) and ideally ones that have experience and a long-term plan in the country in question. Big NGOs have the downside of apparently having high overheads (sometimes there are economies of scale in there, and sometimes inefficiencies of scale)- but they have the upside of having huge resources to mobilize at the drop of a hat and can actually have a massive impact (hopefully for the better). Smaller agencies sometimes have the reverse. Be careful asking the question ‘how much of my donation actually gets to the field’. It’s a question I’ll address in another blog post, so all I’ll say at this time is that it’s not an accurate reflection of the impact your donation will have. It’s actually much more about making the donor feel good about themselves, rather than benefiting the people they’re trying to help.
I’ve got a list of good, reputable organizations down on the right-hand column of my blog. All of these agencies have strengths, and all of them have weaknesses. When somebody designs the perfect relief and development agency, I’ll be submitting my CV there at the drop of a hat. For now, they are a place to start for organizations that have presence, vision and the capacity to achieve things.
For more specific input (for example, for ideas of particular projects and new ideas that are emerging and are worth supporting) I am not an exhaustive reference, and can I suggest following some of the Aid and Development blogs I’ve got listed on the right, and perhaps following their authors on Twitter and getting involved by asking questions and following threads. The threads of practicioners such as @alanna_shaikh, @TalesFromthHood, @saundra_s, @meowtree, @owenbarder, @Michael_Keizer, @texasinafrica and @aidwatch are informative, entertaining and dynamic. They routinely provide great analysis and insight into contemporary (and real-time) aid-related issues, as well as providing on-target commentary and relevant links and resources.