What To Do II.1: The Donor Edition – Emergency Response

31 Jul

Getting back to blogging about aid work… Tardy by several days, here is a follow-on to a prior post on what to support as a donor, but specifically focused on emergency response.

Emergency response is what pops into the heads of many when they first hear or think about aid work. It’s what most frequently makes the news, and it’s the image of aid work most often in the popular media – movies like “Beyond Borders”, occasional episodes of  “E.R.”, or the just-back-still-dusty-from-Sudan-ex-girlfriend who showed up once on “Grey’s Anatomy” (my wife told me about it). Compared to long-term, local culture-intensive community development, emergency response and relief work can seem simple. In reality, though, it is rarely simple.

Here are my thoughts on what donors ought to consider as they contemplate supporting disaster response agencies and projects.

* * *


The more general your disaster response donation, the more useful. Disaster response operations, like the contexts in which they happen, are often extremely fluid. And not just the actual situation, but also the flow of information and understanding about the extent and nature of need on the ground. Make a donation to an NGO for a particular disaster, but then let them decide whether to use it for shelter or food or the transportation of shelter and food from point A to point B.

Support recovery (not just emergency response). When CNN is flashing images of disaster victims huddled under tarpaulins in the pouring rain (or scorching sun), the automatic reaction of many is to want to donate to help them now. All well and good. Just remember that those same people will very likely still need support a year from now. When you make your donation, specifically say that it can be used for both emergency response and also recovery.

Support refugee work and response to emergencies caused by conflict. These might be far messier in some ways (mainly in terms of the security, political and legal contexts within which response work must be carried out), but in terms of the humanitarian need they are every bit as straightforward as emergencies caused by disasters. I’d also personally implore donors to not allow your own political or religious views to cause you to withhold support. A refugee is a refugee.

Support disaster risk reduction and disaster mitigation work. The very best emergency responses are those where preparation has taken place. Obviously you can’t plan for every disaster. But there is a great deal that NGOs can and do do to help communities be more resilient, to minimize the effects of disasters when they do occur, and to prepare now for a rapid scale-up of operations should a disaster happen. Support disaster risk reduction and disaster mitigation, either as part of long-term community development (i.e. before the disaster strikes), and/or as part of recovery programming following a large disaster.

Must-haves in any good emergency response project.

Focus on basic needs: Emergency response is about ensuring basic survival, physical security and health. You want to support programs that address some combination of the following basic activities: food, water, shelter, sanitation, protection, psycho-social support. Choose to support emergency responses that are primarily focused on one or more of these. Think carefully about why you’d want to support an NGO or organization doing something other than these during the emergency response phase. If the organization you want to support is proposing to do something else, there is a good chance that your donation will go towards something other than what people affected by a particular disaster most need.

(To me these are all obvious and self-explanatory. However, please do not hesitate to comment or send me email directly if you’d like further discussion on any of them.)

Focus on Local. For all of the above emergency response activities, you want to support those organizations and relief projects that emphasize the purchase, use and distribution of locally available goods as much as possible. In cases where need on the ground legitimately outstrips local supply, purchasing and importing from within the region is the next best thing. There are many reasons why you want to go local, two of which are cost and cultural appropriateness.

Respond now, but with a view to the long-term. Choose to support organizations and projects that plan for recovery beyond the initial emergency response. In many ways, this is where your charitably donated dollars make the most difference.

The very best will also include…

Protection. Disaster zones, places where large numbers of displaced people suddenly amass, and even actual refugee camps can be very dangerous. Many non-aid-workers are surprised to learn that abduction for ransom, general human trafficking, murder for revenge, rape, and all forms of exploitation of those most vulnerable (most frequently women and children) are all very real dangers in disaster and post-disaster settings. Ask an NGO or aid agency that you’re thinking of making a donation to what kinds of protection measures they support or may even directly put in place.

Accountability to beneficiaries. Even the most basic, straightforward relief activities need to be designed and carried out in a manner that is transparent. Beneficiaries have the right to know who (which organization/s) is providing assistance in their communities, what exactly is being provided, and what criteria an NGO uses to select who receives assistance. Beneficiaries have (or should have) the right to say whether or not they even want assistance, as well as the right to give feedback to any NGO working in their community and have that feedback heard and responded to. Ask an NGO or aid agency that you’re thinking of making a donation to what their practices are for ensuring their own transparency and accountability to beneficiaries.

You should think twice about supporting…

Agencies or projects that are mainly focused on importing stuff from far away. Sometimes it is necessary to import material (tarpaulins for shelter, basic foodstuffs, etc.) into a disaster context on a limited basis. But “on a limited basis” should be the operative phrase. Be wary of those that only do this.

Agencies or projects that involve active partnership with military or military-like entities. For a range of reasons it is extremely important that humanitarian aid be provided by civilian, non-military organizations and personnel, and that the distinction between these two types of entities be made very clear to everyone in the disaster zone.

* * *

Once again, I hope this is helpful. And as usual, your comments and discussion are most welcome.

16 Responses to “What To Do II.1: The Donor Edition – Emergency Response”

  1. Mo-ha-med 6 August, 2009 at 11:31 pm #

    Great list.
    May I perhaps add — try to donate to an organisation that is already operating in the country?
    The most vulnerable countries probably benefited from some sort of assistance before the emergency occurred. Organisations that have a local structure will be more rapidly reactive than those who will have to deploy people and material (and ship their pretty white 4x4s from overseas…)

    Also bear in mind that international NGOs and local branches are often separate entities (so donating to the ICRC and to the Red Cross Lebanon is not the same thing).

    I do have to discuss – sorry, I can’t help it🙂 – the issue with military-like entities. After the Summer 2006 war on Lebanon, a large part of both the emergency aid and the recovery/reconstruction was conducted by Hezbollah, which had pre-existing networks that allowed it to reach the aid beneficiaries.
    Problem is, attempting to circumvent them – by creating a lame multidonor fund or by direct implementation of projects by the donors – was a complete waste of time and money…
    What to do then?

    • J. 7 August, 2009 at 8:35 am #

      Thanks for those comments. As for the first – donate to an org. with established presence in-country… I cannot believe that I left it out, it’s so basic and obvious. I’ll most likely update the post (with due credit, of course).

      As for the second – the issue of partnering with military-like entities… You’ve picked the best example of an exception that comes to mind (and the one I was hoping no one would mention😀 ). What to say? In my opinion, this would be an exception to a still-valid overall rule. In case any donors actually read my blog (sadly doubtful), what I think should not be supported are orgs/relief programs that actively seek to engage military/military-like entities to directly assist humanitarian aid work in the presence of other options… NGOs using partisan military transportation and logistical support to provide aid to a group that has been oppressed by that same military; NGOs co-implementing infrastructure development through formal partnerships with military groups… etc.

      This subject is probably worth it’s own post or set of posts as some point…

  2. Mo-ha-med 7 August, 2009 at 5:49 pm #

    ….. which I would love to read here!!🙂

  3. Chasing Carly 10 August, 2009 at 1:54 am #

    I’m so glad you included accountability to beneficiaries, as I think it’s such an important part of aid work that isn’t practiced as well as it could be. There has been a lot of work done by the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International to help NGOs improve in this area and I highly recommend anyone interested in this area check out their website (www.hapinternational.org), particularly the 2007 Standard.

    • J. 12 August, 2009 at 8:37 am #

      Thanks for commenting Carly. Indeed, accountability to beneficiaries is something that every aid agency should be building into relief work. HAP International is a great coalition (they have a Facebook group, too, in case “Disaster Junkies” is too technically softcore…).

      Not so useful for donors, but for practicioners I’d recommend becoming acquainted with The Good Enough Guide: Impact Measurement and Accountability in Emergencies for some practical guidance on how to “do” accountability.

  4. Saundra 12 August, 2009 at 3:19 pm #

    Thanks for covering this topic, I was glad to see that Mo-ha-med asked about donating to only local organizations as that was the same comment I was going to make. With each disaster this is a good thing to repeat. Although an aid agency or foundation says their helping with the response, unless they are already in country, or have a well developed relationship with an organization in country, it can take too much time for them to send staff, set up their operation and purchase goods. Often these donations go to the rebuilding stage instead.

    Unfortunately, it can be extremely difficult to find local aid organizations as their is often no database or other information source. I’d also like to reiterate another comment made by Mo-ha-med that international branches are often separate entities from the local branch and donating to the international branch slows down how quickly money can be accessed and increases administrative costs because the international unit must monitor the spending and projects of the local unit.

    As far as rebuilding goes, I feel it would be far better if people would wait to donate until a needs assessment has been done and a coordinated recovery plan initiated. As it is hundreds of aid organizations jump in to raise funds immediately because the bulk of the money is donated within the first week or two. Thus aid organizations are far less likely to coordinate or work together because they’ve already committed to their donors. This may mean that aid agencies may raise too much money for the actual needs or donations may be spread over too many organizations so that they are competing with each other for cost efficient or photogenic locations.

    Thanks for bringing up the topic and I look forward to follow up posts.

    • J. 12 August, 2009 at 3:35 pm #

      I actually read Mo-ha-med’s comment to mean that donors should support organizations who are present in-country, but not excluding INGOs. So, for example, you don’t support Inepd International to do flood response in Chad if they don’t already have presence in Chad. Instead, you should choose to support someone who is present (Mo-ha-med, speak up if I’ve misunderstood that part of your comment).

      I would completely agree with notion of supporting only organizations with actual pre-disaster presence in-country. I’m less convinced that supporting local NGOs, to the exclusion of INGOs with established presence and capability on the ground, is the way to go with disaster response.

  5. Saundra 12 August, 2009 at 4:08 pm #


    So we’re all in agreement that the aid agency, be they local or an INGO, should have a presence on the ground before the disaster to be able to respond in a timely and efficient manner after the disaster.

    I don’t think that INGOs should be excluded from the disaster response, but would like to see more of the immediate funds go to local aid agencies or local branches of international aid agencies so that they have the funding and voice to have a larger role in the relief efforts.

    I’m interested in how you see INGOs and local aid agencies working together currently after a disaster as well as how you think it could be improved. But that too is probably a topic for a different posting.

    I’m also interested in following up on the idea of supporting aid agencies working with the military after a disaster. I can definitely see the point of not wanting to support or cooperate with a government that suppresses it’s people, but not all governments do. For instance, would you fault an aid agency in the US for working with the national guard? It may be one of those gray areas that vary by country and situation.

    • J. 12 August, 2009 at 4:18 pm #

      Very good to have you back, Saundra🙂 So many interesting angles to blog about, so little time… I’ll see what I can do.

  6. Alison Craig 17 January, 2010 at 11:24 am #

    Doesn’t it depend on the scale of the disaster? When it’s so big the local infrastructure is wiped out, the big international agencies have resources and experience that local groups probably do not, so both are valuable. Likewise, in these circumstances, unfortunately, the military can serve a purpose.

  7. Mike 21 January, 2010 at 3:02 pm #

    I am a teacher at an alternative school in St. Paul, MN called High School for Recording Arts. We serve some of the most marginalized students in the country. I have had them following the tragic events in Haiti and they produced a song and video that implores others to donate. I find it especially appropriate for this blog.


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