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The Challenges And Limitations Of Disaster Donations


The UN, as well as private charitable groups, are deploying an army of humanitarian aid workers to the areas hardest hit by the typhoon and the need is massive. Agencies say they will need millions to rebuild. Many of us want to know, how can I help? Should I send money, clothes and to whom? Will it reach the people who need it the most?

We're joined now by Bob Ottenhoff of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy to offer some practical guidance. Hi there, Bob. Welcome to the studio.

ROBERT OTTENHOFF: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So we're seeing people posting on social media networks about fundraisers and drives to gather clothes and used goods for the Philippines. But from your vantage point, what do the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan need most at this time?

OTTENHOFF: The issue today is logistics, you know, how can we get badly needed food and water and emergency shelter to the people that need it? And so we've still got troubles with airports being shut down or not working properly. We've got lack of communication, and so logistics are really necessary before we can get emergency aid to the people that need it.

CORNISH: So what does that mean for someone who wants to make a potential donation? That makes you feel like, well, I can't really do much about this.

OTTENHOFF: I know. It's frustrating because what's so amazing is the generosity of American people and their eagerness to do something. So this is a moment where I think it's important to support those that do emergency relief every day. So that means sending cash, most of all. This is not a time for hiring your own plane and sending over a pallet of water.

CORNISH: You know, people are looking back at other disasters, for instance, the earthquake in Haiti, and in that situation Americans donated more than $1.4 billion in relief and later on, there were revelations about corruption or waste. What lessons are being learned from that experience or others?

OTTENHOFF: I mean, Haiti is, in many ways, such an unusual case. I think we, as donors, sometimes don't realize what was going on in that country or that situation before time. Haiti had lots of challenges before the earthquake hit: a large poor population, housing problems, sanitation problems, and so the disaster didn't cause all those problems. And so I think donors sometimes have an unfair expectation of what their donation will do. Yes, it may provide some emergency food or shelter, but it isn't going to solve all the problems that Haiti had before the earthquake hit.

CORNISH: There's also, you've said, a perception that once you've kind of given in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, to kind of walk away from it as an issue.

OTTENHOFF: You know, about 90 percent of all giving to disaster philanthropy happens within 90 days of an event. So there's this huge rush of cash, this huge rush of other kind of voluntary support, and then we tend to forget about it. People move on in their lives. Media coverage moves on to other sorts of things and so that long road of recovery, that long struggle of resettlement tends to get very few dollars and tends to get very little support.

CORNISH: Now, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy actually started after Hurricane Katrina, I understand. And talk about what lessons you had taken from Katrina that you were trying to address.

OTTENHOFF: Part of what we're trying to do with the center is to get people to focus more on planning and preparation and mitigation, because after all we can't just keep pouring money into emergency relief. We've got to make some fundamental changes in how people prepare, where we spend our dollars. So planning and preparation has become a major part of our effort, as well as focusing on recovery, rebuilding and resilience.

CORNISH: Bob Ottenhoff, he's president of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Thanks so much for coming in.

OTTENHOFF: Thank you for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.