Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Haiti contribution caution

Reuters’ economics blogger Felix Salmon offers a pragmatic caution regarding donations for Haiti earthquake relief. His title, “Don’t give money to Haiti,” is intended to get attention but it doesn’t mean what you might think. His point is to urge unrestricted donations to worthy charitable organizations.

Salmon’s supporting example is actually pretty startling. Five years after the 2004 Asian earthquake and tsunami, the Red Cross is still sitting on over a half-billion dollars in contributions towards its relief. This is not due to ineptitude or malfeasance by Red Cross. Rather, people simply gave more money than it could use for that disaster. If those contributions had been unrestricted, they would be available now for the Haiti catastrophe.

Organizations like Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and countless others operate year-round and around the globe. If anything good can come from these enormous disasters it is that they are very effective fund raisers for such organizations—and I am not being at all cynical in saying this. They genuinely need the money. In reality, these mega-disasters raise more money than aid organizations can use in those locations but—quite legitimately—they aren’t going to say that.

It should be realized that the majority of aid for Haiti will be coming from foreign governments. As April 15 draws near, perhaps you’ll feel better about the phrase “Your tax dollars at work” if you imagine American GIs passing out bottles of water and MREs on the streets of Port-au-Prince. Yet obviously NGOs also are doing, and will be doing, very important work and now have a much greater financial need to support their Haitian relief efforts. So give generously, but don’t tie their hands. They are also doing important work needing funding in places that aren’t in the news—unless another disaster strikes.

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