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Making your charity count: Along with Haiti, donate to "silent tsunamis"

Haiti, January 21, 2010

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Susan Nielsen

The Oregonian
January, 2010

Nearly half of Americans say they've already donated to Haiti relief efforts or intend to give soon. The money is sure to pour in on Friday, when George Clooney and other celebrities will host a multinetwork charity telethon. (Who could say no to Clooney?)

The generosity is both staggering and necessary, considering the devastation in Haiti after a catastrophic earthquake this month. Yet it can be all too easy to donate reactively and neglect the world's other aching needs -- the "silent tsunamis."

So here's a suggestion to make your charitable donation go further:

Give as much as you can to Haiti. Then for every dollar earmarked just for Haiti, give an additional dollar to the charity of your choice in what's called "unrestricted giving." That way, humanitarian aid groups will be more prepared for the next natural disaster -- and more empowered to help the people who suffer outside the media spotlight.

Americans gave more than $300 billion to charity in 2008, according to the Giving USA Foundation. Most of that money came not from corporations or foundations, but from private individuals, one handwritten check or online click at a time.

The money flows faster after major disasters, when people respond to a specific humanitarian emergency -- an earthquake in Haiti, a tsunami in Southeast Asia, a hurricane along the Gulf Coast. People see a problem and want to help solve it, true to the American ethos. So they join a campaign and earmark their money for a precise cause.

This style of giving is both a blessing and a challenge for charitable organizations, as past disasters have shown. Nonprofits are happy to get the money, of course, but too many restricted funds can warp their mission and make them less nimble.

Here's an example. The great tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004 prompted an unprecedented flood of earmarked donations to the Red Cross and other aid groups. These donations saved lives and helped communities rebuild, but they also "exceeded the absorption capacity of an overstretched humanitarian industry," leading to waste and inefficiency, according to a 2006 report by the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition, a group funded in part by the United Nations.

The tsunami highlighted the arbitrary nature of humanitarian donations, the group's leader wrote in a follow-up report. The uneven and inequitable flow of money "encourages neither investment in capacity nor responses that are proportionate to need."

Translated into English? Heaving billions at some emergencies while leaving pennies for others doesn't make financial sense.

It doesn't make ethical sense, either.

The international medical aid group Doctors Without Borders recently published a list of the Top 10 humanitarian crises of 2009. These crises include chronic diseases and child malnutrition, as well as violence against civilians in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere. These problems don't make regular headlines, despite their death tolls.

This is why Doctors Without Borders solicits unrestricted funds: They need to go everywhere, especially the forgotten places. This is also why Portland-based Mercy Corps tries to drum up public awareness about many global problems, rather than just the latest ones.

"You get all these 'silent tsunamis,' as we've come to call them," says Jeremy Barnicle, vice president of marketing and communications for Mercy Corps. The areas with chronic and complex problems don't always capture public attention, he added. "People don't understand the suffering involved."

Mercy Corps reported $6.7 million in Haiti-specific donations as of Wednesday. If those donations track normal patterns of private giving, about one-quarter of the money came from Oregon. On the national level, Americans had given more than $220 million toward Haiti relief efforts by midweek, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

These donations truly are essential. Considering the state of Haiti, it's hard to imagine any amount of money that would suffice.

Yet the uncomfortable fact is that the suffering in Haiti -- the lack of food and shelter, the absence of infrastructure, the children lacking basic medical care -- mirrors the suffering in other parts of the world. Haiti's problems are simply newer, more epic and far better publicized.

Forgetting those who live beyond the spotlight's glare, with no telethon in sight, would be uncharitable indeed.