Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

Posted by Tessie San Martin - Plan International USA CEO

The scale of destruction caused by Typhoon Haiyan is sobering: thousands dead, millions displaced. The response to this disaster is now part of our daily news. Front and center in the evolving story about disaster recovery is how Americans are responding.

When disaster strikes, the world still tends to look to the United States – whether it be the US Government response (and the USG response is broad and generous – including an immediate $20 million from the United States Agency for International Development as well as the arrival of the USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier re-directed to the Philippines to support relief operations) or how individual Americans are stepping up to give through a broad range of charities. Sluggish economy notwithstanding, Americans really some of the most giving people in the world.

And as we are now called to action to support disaster recovery in the Philippines, the question inevitably emerges: what is the best way to give? The impulse is to give anything, because there is so much need. But that is not quite right.

An excellent article on Slate.com about the best way to donate to the Philippines makes the point that this is no time to give SWEDOW (Stuff We Don’t Want). The “stuff” we don’t want or need here is often not wanted or needed elsewhere either. Scott Gilmore makes a similar point with his SWEDOW Flow Chart. The point is, there could be a time and special circumstances when giving those 1000 tents you have collected from your community is a good idea, but ensuring these “gifts” have a positive impact takes a lot of thought, analysis and logistics support. Most of the time giving SWEDOW is really counterproductive.

The bottom line is that designing and executing effective assistance programs (whether these be focused on immediate relief after an emergency or on longer term development efforts), requires data, careful analysis, good processes and excellent monitoring and evaluation capabilities, to ensure continuously learning and adaptation. When you are evaluating your giving options, look for organizations that are demonstrating they can do that.

Finally, I will also highlight Vijaya Ramachandran and Owen Barder’s recent piece in The Washington Post,“Let’s help the Philippines - but not like we Helped Haiti”; they make a powerful argument for investing in improved data sharing on the response. By the way, this takes time and effort, and perhaps event diverts some resources away from immediate emergency relief. But it is critical. Simply getting money and stuff out to the field quickly is not enough.

As you consider your options, I will ask you to consider supporting Plan International USA's relief efforts. Plan has been in the Philippines over 50 years. All our communities have been affected by this disaster. We, along with every other relief agency working in the Philippines, are facing multiple challenges, including an obliterated transport infrastructure and an exhausted staff who in many cases have seen their own families gravely affected by the Typhoon. Ian Wishart, Plan’s National Director for Australia and part of Plan’s team of first responders in the Philippines, noted earlier today:
“The next week is going to be a mixture of small successes for Plan and other NGOs but a lot of frustrations as [there] are logistics choke points everywhere…A 13km tail back for one ferry alone. We are solving problems but…logistics are still challenging….Remember Plan will be there for the long haul. These are our communities. We know them and they know us. This trust will mean that in the long term our response will be better designed and suitable.”
Getting food, clean drinking water, medical supplies and shelter to children and families remain our immediate priorities. Whether you give to Plan or to another organization, do consider giving. And as you do so, also understand that building-in better reporting while scaling up to meet the immediate needs of the disaster also takes resources, energy and time.

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