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So, you want to help Haiti...

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My first thought, upon hearing about the terrible earthquake in Haiti was: "Oh God, no -- not Haiti!" That's the last thing that desperately poor country needs.

Thoughts also turned to Haitian friends, people I learned to know when I was involved in international development efforts in that country. I wondered where they were, and if they were alive.

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Another thought was about what I could do; over supper on Wednesday evening our family agreed together on what we could all give to help.

My thoughts then drifted back four years to the 2006 Asian tsunami, and to a series of articles I wrote for the Free Press about the response to that disaster. A review indicated that what was said back then about the best ways to help people in need, and to understand the relief process, was still applicable today.

First, if you want to help, send cash. That is the best and most useful gift that relief agencies can receive. There may come a time when blankets, clothing and other material aid is needed, but not now. They won't know exactly what they will need -- or the best way for them to help -- until they've had some time to do a proper assessment. Plus, cash can get there immediately; clothing will take weeks or months to arrive.

Second, be careful who you give to. Unfortunately, disasters not only bring out the best in people -- they also bring out the worst in some charitable organizations. Disasters can attract aid groups like moths to a flame; they want to be where the money is going. Groups that have never been in Haiti will suddenly launch appeals, even though they have no experience in the country. Worse, new groups with no international relief experience at all will spring up, asking for your money. If you want to be sure your donation achieves maximum benefit, give to an established aid group that was working in Haiti before the earthquake.

Third, don't even think of getting on a plane to Haiti. It doesn't matter if you swing a mean hammer, or know a thing or two about plumbing. The last thing a country with millions of homeless people needs is more homeless people -- particularly homeless people who don't speak the language, and who don't know where to begin to help. The time may come when volunteers are needed, but not now.

Fourth, be patient. The response will seem painfully slow, even though the needs are so plain to see. Why aren't relief groups moving quicker? Relief work, when done well and done right, requires careful planning. There's no point in two groups ending up in the same town or neighbourhood while other areas of the country or city go without, or in providing the wrong kind of assistance. Complicating everything is the massive damage in Haiti; doing good relief work is challenging in the best of circumstances, and this is the worst possible situation.

Fifth, be prepared for things to go wrong. All aid groups know that things won't turn out exactly as planned. Some aid will go missing. Some will be stolen. Some will end up for sale in the local market. It's normal, and they expect it. The other thing they expect are media reports about lost, stolen or missing aid; as sure as night follows day, reports about misappropriated donations will make the news some days or weeks down the road. When that happens, remember that for every story about missing aid, there are thousands of unreported stories of aid that ended up exactly where it was needed most at the right time. If anything, it's a miracle that things go as well as they do, considering how difficult and challenging things are in that country.

Finally, don't let this be your first and last donation for international relief and development this year. Long after the media is gone, the needs in Haiti will remain; relief groups will need your donations in summer, and fall, and even longer. And not just for Haiti, but also for the dozens of other disasters around the world that have received little, or no, media attention.

Relief Web, an organization that keeps tabs on needs around the world, indicates that there are at least 13 other disasters in the world today; relief groups need your gifts to help those people, too.

But it all starts with a gift; make your donation today.


John Longhurst is a Faith Page columnist for the Free Press. He spent 20 years in relief and development work.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 15, 2010 A11

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