Monday, January 18, 2010

Beyond "pushbutton philanthropy:" Helping Haiti in the long run

Stand With Haiti

Haiti is in all of our thoughts right now. The most moving coverage that I have heard was through today's episode of The Story with Dick Gordon, sharing first-person accounts of "The Rescue Effort."

What makes me really sad is knowing that the most powerful prevention of so many deaths would have been better building codes, to put up buildings that would not pancake in 15 seconds. On The Story, one man talked about how fragile the cinder blocks were, that you could kick them and they would crumble. And there was not nearly enough rebar reinforcement in the buildings. The San Francisco Bay Area Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 was about the same magnitude and resulted in only 63 deaths, 42 of which happened due to one incident in which a double-decker freeway in Oakland collapsed.

I have had my doubts about our government lately, but this tragedy reminds me to be grateful for our secure infrastructure, and mindful that we need to work to keep it that way.

I am torn by the myriad of fund-raising efforts that are cropping up. If First Lady Michelle Obama says to text to donate money to the Red Cross, then I guess I can get on board with that. But I feel like this is such a huge relief job that our government itself should come up with a relief plan and contribution on behalf of the American people, and make sure that the money goes where it needs to go, and logistics are handled by people who know what they are doing, such as the United Nations. Maybe we should all still chip in some money in the meantime, the New York Times has an article about how to give safely and efficiently, but I worry about our reflex for push-button philanthropy. Will we still be interested and engaged six months from now? And how much does that matter, if our immediate giving does help? I guess my question is, how much more effective could our giving be if we put more thought into it?

I encourage everybody to do something substantial to learn about Haiti, in addition to participating in immediate relief giving. I plan to read the well-regarded book about Dr. Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains. Dr. Farmer co-founded Partners in Health (PIH) in Haiti, which is apparently one of the only health care operations that is functioning now--it certainly sounds like a valuable organization to support.

Here is Dr. Farmer's January 17th piece about how to really help Haiti in the wake of this disaster.

This tragedy has provoked a response in me that may sound counter-intuitive. I had the opportunity to hear the director of our local Interfaith Council for Social Services speak at our church on Sunday. I had been wanting to learn more about their work here in Orange County North Carolina, and after his talk I said I'd like to come by his office and meet with him again in the near future. His organization is taking a comprehensive approach to work to mitigate poverty and homelessness here in my home town. I can be honest and acknowledge that Haiti is probably not going to become my number one cause in the long run, but I hope that I can help there in some small way by donating to Partners in Health and One Great Hour of Sharing (to support my church's effort), and also take my own advice to delve deeper into all the philanthropy I need to engage in, starting at home.

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