Questions To Ask

Laurence R. Simon, Ph.D
Brandeis University
  1. Send cash. In disasters of this magnitude, every seaport and airport in the region will quickly be jammed with relief supplies, many of them of marginal value at best. The airport at Colombo, Sri Lanka is already nearly paralyzed. Cash is needed by relief agencies to purchase needs locally (e.g. clothing). They do this to bolster local economies rather than hurt them with imported supplies. Where supplies are not available (e.g. medicines), they are purchased abroad and flown in by the military or at significant expense. Sending clothing, baby bottles, food, etc. at this time would not be useful. At worst, it will block critical supplies that cannot be procured locally.
  2. Contribute for reconstruction and development, not just relief. The emergency period will be over in the next couple of weeks. Many of these needs are being met by international organizations, donor countries, and by the thousands of local volunteers. While the emergency needs are great, even greater, far greater, will be the need for funds with which to help rebuild communities and livelihoods. Unfortunately, many of the relief agencies that flood into countries after major disasters do not stay beyond the emergency period. This is why it is important to contribute to agencies and earmark funds for reconstruction and development in the affected communities and to select agencies that will be there for the long haul.
  3. Select agencies that know the countries. Many of the relief agencies that are listed or advertising for contributions have never set foot in Sri Lanka. Unless they are very specialized agencies (e.g. Doctors Without Borders), many will waste time and money trying to figure out how to operate. The best chance to help is to support those organizations with local offices already operational.
  4. Consider local organizations. Most Americans will prefer to contribute to known US or European organizations. That is fine. If you wish, you can contribute directly to local organizations in the countries affected. The difficulty however is knowing which organizations are reliable and efficiently getting the money to them. Most do not have Internet sites set up for contributions like the major US and European agencies. Sending checks or wiring funds is unreliable at this time. Where you can contribute directly, the money will go a long way though you will not get a US tax deduction for it unless they have a US-based 501(C)(3) non-profit channel. Also, I would suggest not contributing directly to the Sri Lankan government�s direct appeals or the Tamil Tigers. There is no question as to their dedication to the relief of suffering in this emergency, but non-governmental and non-political organization will be better stewards of the funds for long term development.
  5. Most importantly, contribute to organizations that aim to lessen vulnerability, not just help rebuild poverty . While rich tourist beach hotels were also inundated, a large percentage of those affected are poor people living on flood plains, poor fishing communities, or coastal slums. It is not enough to help people rebuild shanties. Every ‘natural’ disaster is also an opportunity to help communities lessen their vulnerability. The most progressive international relief agencies (e.g. Oxfam, American Friends Service Committee, Mennonite Central Committee, etc.) know the conditions that bred such vulnerability and will work with local government and people to change those conditions.