British system is a better way to raise disaster aid
The outpouring of donations for victims of the Asian tsunami may well become the most generous response of all time to a natural disaster. The Red Cross, dozens of international relief organizations and UN agencies have been surprised by the tens of millions of dollars they have received for the arduous task they face. In fact, however, the response differs from others only in the level of giving.
Other aspects, including the scramble of advertising, the confusing plethora of agencies asking for help and the uncertainty of donors about how much of their gifts will ever reach those in need, have characterized earlier mobilizations for Liberia, Haiti, Hurricane Mitch, Darfur and other recent emergencies.
This may seem an inappropriate moment to question the world’s response mechanism for international emergencies, but it is, in fact, one of the few times when ordinary citizens have an opportunity to consider the bigger picture and to make personal decisions about how they might assist. There is so much competition for funds that many people simply turn off and make no donation at all. An overwhelming proportion of potential givers think that too much is spent on administration and advertising.
A frail creature
In the 1990s, almost two billion people were affected by disasters, 90 percent of which occurred in developing countries. The humanitarian response to each one was similar: an international alarm, sudden appeals, pictures of relief supplies being loaded onto aircraft, and then, a few weeks later, silence. In fact, the international response mechanism is like operating a volunteer fire brigade—except that the volunteers have to acquire the fire trucks, the pumps and the water before they can leave for the fire.
In Britain there is a much better system. The 12 major British charities are members of a Disasters Emergency Committee. When a major emergency arises, they go into collaborative mode. The BBC and ITV organize a broadcast appeal that is made available to local as well as national radio and television stations. The national and local press provide free advertising. The British Bankers Association coordinates the establishment of dedicated bank accounts. The post office sets up a single post office box number for mail-in donations, and British Telecom sets up a national telephone system with a single toll-free number.
The disasters committee was not formed out of the goodness of the hearts of charitable organizations. It was born in 1963, when the BBC told emergency organizations it was tired of competitive fund-raising and myriad appeals from organizations whose bona fides it could not verify. Relief groups were ordered to create a coordination mechanism. It worked—to the benefit of the organizations and their contributors, but more important, to the benefit of disaster victims.
The time has come for a disasters emergency committee in the United States.
Ian Smillie and Larry Minear are with the Friedman School’s Feinstein International Famine Center, where Minear directs the Humanitarianism and War Project. They are the authors of The Charity of Nations: Humanitarian Action in a Calculating World (Kumarian Press, 2004). This piece appeared in the January 17 edition of The Boston Globe.