The Best Way to Help Haiti

The Best Way to Help Haiti

Our hearts are with Haiti.  The 24-hour news coverage is arresting, but at the same time, it is difficult to watch.  For each glimmer of hope – each miraculous rescue more than a week after the initial earthquake – there is the grim reality of despair, desperation and dire need.
 
The world is coming together for Haiti, hoping to fill that need.  Individuals, community groups, civic organizations and corporations are displaying levels of interest, compassion and generosity not witnessed since the South Asian Tsunami five years ago.  People are marveling, and rightly so, at the seeming speed and ease with which the Red Cross has received more than $22 million for Haiti relief efforts via text.
 
That $22 million is indeed amazing, encouraging, and critically important all at once.  One of the most important lessons the world learned from the Tsunami is that cash donations are the best way to help the victims of a disaster, especially in the initial aftermath. Cash is immediate, it is flexible, and it provides for culturally and geographically appropriate support. Most importantly, it allows disaster relief organizations to purchase exactly what is needed, and to procure materials near the affected area, which cuts down on transportation time and cost, supports regional economies, and speeds the rebuilding process.
 
One of my clients, the Center for International Disaster Information, has been tracking and advocating for responsible and appropriate disaster response for more than 20 years.  Over that time, they have witnessed some incredibly insensitive, culturally inappropriate, inefficient, and even harmful responses.  Simply put, when individuals, groups or companies send stuff that is unneeded, supply chains get clogged, boxes must be unloaded and warehoused eating up precious time, personnel and storage space. Haiti is a powerful case in point for this, as there are extremely limited points of entry for the critical relief supplies being brought in by experienced agencies.
 
Worse still, many people send items apparently without any thought.  Believe it or not, people have sent winter coats to disaster victims in tropical climates; companies have sent stale cookies and long-expired medicines; canned ham has been shipped to predominantly Muslim countries and canned beef to predominantly Hindu areas; in one shipment of donated supplies, a relief agency found used tea bags; party decorations were mailed to disaster victims who had just lost their homes.  And, in perhaps the worst instance of inappropriate disaster response ever, one company sent a shipment of breast implants. However well-intentioned, it often seems that some companies and organizations don’t take into account the full impact of their donations.  They are in such a rush to act, that they forget – or just plain fail – to think.
 
That’s why in the midst of this tragedy, I am encouraged by the thoughtfulness and innovativeness of corporate response, not to mention the sheer volume of companies expressing an interest in helping.  Some companies, because of their unique capabilities, core competencies, knowledge and expertise, and product and service offerings, are in great positions to bring those things to bear after a disaster.  This is especially true when they establish long-term relationships with relief organizations, and invest in preparedness and contingency planning. Think of the logistics and transportation know-how of Fed-Ex, UPS and DHL – or Motorola or Qualcomm’s ability to restore and operate critical communications infrastructure for first responders.  In the past week alone, I have read about and learned of some truly responsible and wholly appropriate ways for companies to do their part for the people of Haiti.
 
  • First and foremost, companies are giving cash – lots of cash – and they are directing it to the experienced, credible relief agencies that are already on the ground, the ones in the best position to help and to help quickly.  For example, the Avon Foundation’s $1 million donation is being split evenly between the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.  Donations tied to Avon’s product sales are also being planned.  Many companies, including Morgan Stanley, which is also donating $1 million, are actively encouraging employee giving through matching and incentive programs.
  • Western Union is waiving all fees to wire money from the U.S. to Haiti for a full week; MoneyGram International is making a similar concession.
  • Royal Caribbean Cruise Ships operates a private beach on Haiti’s northern coast, and while this is far from the center of devastation in Port-au-Prince, the revenue it generates is critical to Haiti’s economy, and will be vital to the country’s recovery.  For this reason, the ship line has decided to resume and maintain calls on Haiti.  In addition, company ships are helping to transport relief supplies and personnel.
  • Timberland is redirecting funds that were earmarked for a reforestation project on Haiti to basic humanitarian relief efforts.
  • While Abbott, McKesson Corporation and UPS are making significant cash contributions, they are also making in-kind donations of products and services specifically requested by relief organizations already on the ground, including the Red Cross, World Vision, Direct Relief International, CARE and UNICEF.
  • Apparel retailer TJX Corporation (T.J. Maxx, Marshalls) is in a unique position to provide clothing to families that have lost everything, but first, they are donating cash to the Red Cross.  They are waiting for more details on what, specifically, is needed, where and by whom in terms of their planned in-kind donation.
  • Target and Wal-Mart have each made $500,000 donations to the Red Cross, but owing to their unique core competencies, they are also providing foodstuffs to be delivered in close coordination with relief agencies on the ground.
  • The nation’s wireless companies – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon – are waiving standard text-messaging fees for their subscribers’ donations to the Red Cross.  No doubt, this is helping to drive that $22 million.  More than that, they are transmitting the funds to the Red Cross in advance of collecting them via their customers’ monthly bills.
  • My own company, in addition to making financial contributions to the Red Cross and Water.org’s Haiti relief fund, is making information and resources available to all employees offering assistance locating family members in Haiti, tips on how best to contribute to relief efforts, guidelines for talking to children following natural disasters, and tips for coping with traumatic events.
 
There are many other great examples of companies not only doing the right thing, but responding in the right way.  The bottom line is that sending cash donations is the very best way to help the people of Haiti, especially right now.  CIDI and the State Department are directing people and organizations interested in helping to InterAction, a large coalition of U.S.-based international non-governmental organizations. 
 
Haiti has a rich history and an equally rich culture.  The country’s flag includes the motto (in French), Strength through Unity.  That will serve as a fitting national mantra in the difficult months and years ahead.  In the center of the flag, is a palm tree – strong and tall, fresh and full of life.  The world will watch and pray as the people of Haiti work to get through this epic challenge.  Let us hope that they re-emerge from this tragedy as a stronger nation – and like the tall tree on their flag, proud and full of life.
 
Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Hill & Knowlton, Washington D.C, and writer for the Hill & Knowlton Blog, ResponsAbility.

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