Thursday, February 4, 2010

Aid is Power. Who Do You Want to Empower?


By Yifat Susskind

In the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe earthquake in Haiti, the first question everyone asked was: How can I help? Many people believe that donating to a large relief agency is the best way to help Haiti. In fact, those agencies do have a critical role to play, though, the problem is that most big relief operations are designed to swoop into a crisis, deliver services and leave.

After the big agencies leave, local people are no more knowledgeable, self-reliant or resilient than they were before. Therefore, it is crucial to help people respond to the next disaster and move toward real development.

One of ways that you can help is to support organizations that reinforce the activities of existing community groups. Too often, big international agencies temporarily set up shop and inadvertently undermine local organizations by attracting their best staff, driving up rents and ultimately weakening the very organizations that communities need for long-term recovery.

It is important to help organizations that understand the role that women play in disasters. Usually, women are described as passive victims. In reality, they are the primary caregivers of those who are most at-risk in a disaster. Women supply the basic needs of children, the sick, the disabled and others in their care.

Also, support relief efforts that involve people who are impacted by the crisis. The “victims” may not have the resources to address the disaster, but they know first-hand what they need to recover and rebuild. Relief operations that allow local people to play leadership roles, set priorities and make decisions are the ones that leave skills and resources in the hands of the communities.

It is crucial to help organizations that talk about root causes of vulnerability in a crisis. Haiti’s earthquake was a natural disaster but there is nothing natural about families living in shacks without disaster plans or government services. Understanding what makes people vulnerable is the first step to recovery and building resiliency.

Finding organizations with a history of work in the country is a smart choice. Having local roots, speaking the language and being culturally sensitive go a long way towards getting things done in a crisis.

People should also support organizations that will stay in the country after the news teams and big agencies leave. Long-term projects will keep people planning for the future, helping to ensure that aid is delivered in a way that builds lasting solutions.

Helping organizations that are funded largely by people like you is also critical. Government-supported agencies are often beholden to government policy, not accountable to their members or, more importantly, to the communities where they work. Haiti needs relief efforts that are going to strengthen Haiti itself, not efforts that pride themselves on funneling most of their money back to U.S. corporations.

It’s also essential to support small organizations. A large-scale crisis seems to require a large-scale response. However, many big aid operations are bureaucratic, slow and inefficient. Often, the best response to tremendous, urgent need is to replicate successful small-scale models of aid delivery rather than try to get a giant operation moving quickly.

Choosing organizations with a human rights perspective is crucial. Organizations that view Haitians as rights-holders, not victims, will be more effective at supporting Haitians as they strive to rebuild a society based on human rights for all.

Finally, support organizations that you want to see strengthened. Donating to an organization means boosting the capacity of the organization.

Whenever you have the opportunity to help someone, remember, aid is power. So the next time you give, ask yourself: who do you want to empower?
----------------------------------------------------------------------Susskind is the Policy and Communications Director of MADRE: Rights, Resources and Results for Women Worldwide.
Copyright © 2010 by the American Forum. 1/10