Friday, January 15, 2010

Good Intentions are Not Always Enough

Certainly our hearts are with the people of Haiti – those who have died, those who have lost loved ones, those who are seriously injured and awaiting medical attention, those whose homes and communities are destroyed, those who struggle with hunger, thirst and illness. It is a disaster on a scale that can barely be imagined, and it is bringing forth an outpouring of compassion and generosity from folks all around the world, as it should.

For decades I have offered the same counsel to people who wish to do something to help the victims of natural disaster. First and above all, it is more important to give wisely than to give quickly. The needs will continue for a very long time, and many wonderful organizations will contribute not just to the immediate response, but the long-term recovery efforts in a nation that was already living on the edge of desperation. Choose an organization that you trust and give as generously as you can.

Just yesterday I was listening to an experienced relief coordinator on the radio. A good-hearted woman, a schoolteacher, called in to ask how her students could contribute to the effort. They were mostly lower income kids, and she asked if they could collect goods to send to Haiti rather than money. What sort of goods were most needed? She was thinking especially of collecting children’s books to ship. Where should she send them?

Clearly her heart was in the right place, and the relief coordinator chose his words with care. First, even if there were a way to get the goods into the country, there was no infrastructure by which to move them around. Even if there were passable roads and available trucks, the cost of moving them would be far greater than the value of the goods. Sending them might help her kids to feel good about themselves, but it would not help Haiti. Moreover, a flood of goods coming into an impoverished country is likely to make economic recovery even more difficult, since there would be less demand for locally produced goods. As gently as he possibly could, he was trying to tell her that her idea was not a good or helpful one.

She was a determined lady. “So maybe we could arrange to buy locally-made goods in an undamaged part of the country and have them shipped to where the need is?” It is a strong human impulse to wish to give something tangible rather than money. I admire the relief coordinator, who stopped short of saying “Good luck on that one, lady!”

Messages are flying around the internet urging doctors and nurses to volunteer immediately, claiming that at least one major airline is offering free transportation. This morning’s news urged medical professionals to stay away for now – until facilities are ready for them, they would just be extra bodies to feed and house.

The new technological wrinkle is that this is the first major natural disaster where people can make a gift of ten dollars to the relief effort through a text message. Everything I have read suggests that this is entirely legitimate, and probably a good thing. People who normally might not give at all or do not know how to give have a new opportunity to respond. But I also wonder how many people who are in a position to give far more generously will text their ten bucks and think “I have done my share.”

When a natural disaster strikes, we should grieve, we should pray, and then we should pause to think. Yes, if there is any compassion in us we should give generously to support relief efforts, but our dollars do not need to be the very first to arrive. Give through your faith community. Give through the Red Cross, or another fine organization you trust. Give generously, but also give wisely.

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