| Apr 13, 2011
In the days immediately following the earthquake in Japan, our Japanese disaster-response partner received a package in the mail from a donor in the U.S.
The package cost $200 to mail. When volunteers in the office opened the package, they found two boxes of toilet paper.
On the one hand, I understand what motivated this gift. The donor had probably seen television news reports of stores closed and shortages of key items in the disaster area. On the other hand, what the donor didn’t know was that toilet paper is easily available outside of the disaster area. For much less than $200, our partner can purchase toilet paper locally and distribute it to those who need it.
More important, the shortage of toilet paper in the disaster area lasted for only a very short time. Stores opened again as soon as electricity was restored. Purchasing toilet paper from these stores helps to support local businesses. Bringing in items like toilet paper from outside the country actually undercut the viability of local businesses.
No one would question the heart of the donor in this case. But, effective giving takes more than a good heart. It takes an understanding of what is really needed. That understanding is best defined by those who are on the ground. They know the real needs. They also know the best way to respond.
In addition, effective giving helps to build up local capacity, not undermine it. Whenever possible, it’s best to find local people to do the work and local sources of the assistance that’s needed. This pumps money into the local economy, gives people jobs and helps to facilitate the rebuilding process.
Finally, effective giving avoids creating dependency. A gift of toilet paper, medicine, food or shelter may meet important needs, but the way in which the gift is given is important. Whenever possible, people affected by a disaster need to participate in deciding what they need. They need to be engaged in the process of meeting their own needs. Even when they are given something, it needs to be done in a way that maintains their self-respect and their sense of responsibility for their own well-being.
If this isn’t done, giving often will create dependency. People will stop trying to help themselves. They will simply wait for others to come and help them. Dependency is one of the greatest obstacles to people recovering from a disaster. To avoid dependency, it may be necessary to say “no” in some cases when people ask for help. And, it’s important for people to return to caring for themselves as quickly as possible. In many cases, the longer they receive help from the outside, the more difficult it is for them to rebuild their lives.
Effective giving meets real needs, helps to build up local capacity and avoids creating dependency. That’s what Medical Teams International is doing in our disaster response in Japan. That’s what we try to do in all of the work we support around the world.
Thank you for trusting us with your gifts. We’ll do our best to use them wisely and effectively as we carry out our work of demonstrating the love of Christ to people affected by disaster, conflict and poverty around the world.