When I first saw the devastating images of the city of Tacloban destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan my immediate response (apart from fighting the to urge cry) was to mentally catalogue the items in my house that I could send their way. But my mum (what a wise woman) reminded me that as well-wishing as this might be, the best thing we should be giving is our money.
This took me aback. I thought, “Why give my money when I have so much stuff in my house that I don’t need but they would?!” But as I considered the situation, I began to wonder just how practical it would be to box up all my old clothes or shoes (and that of my husband and one year old son) and send them, along with bottles of water and canned goods, on a plane to Manila. I realised the logistical nightmare of having to transport, unpack and inspect those heavy packages before getting them through customs, let alone actually transporting them to the areas that actually need relief. And that’s assuming that what I put in those boxes was actually useful. All that, while aid workers fight to get much needed medical help and clean water to families struggling to stay alive and prevent water-borne diseases brought on by today’s rainfall.
Then I had an awesome friend of mine send me this article on slate.com by Jessica Alexander, who articulated so perfectly what I know deep down but probably don’t want to admit:
I don’t know what these people need. I don’t know the best way to get them the help they need to get back on their feet and put their lives back together again. But there are agencies that do. And I will happily give my money to them, knowing full well that providing emergency relief to those in need is the thing they do best.
Sure, boxing things up and sending off big packages makes me feel like I’m giving something tangible because it’s a physical exchange of material things, unlike the online giving system which makes transactions virtually. After I pledge my dollars I don’t know where it goes. But as hesitant as I am to give my hard earned cash to someone else – what with all the possibility of them using it for something other than providing relief – the reality is flying a few boxes of unwanted goods or donations that slow or distract the efforts of those who are equipped to provide immediate medical or nutritional aid is just as ineffective.
As Alexander puts it:
Consider what happens when planes full of unwanted donations is competing for runway space with planes carrying needed medicines and food items. Someone has to unload those donations, someone needs to sort through them for customs, someone needs to truck them to affected areas which are hard to reach anyway and where there’s a limited supply of fuel. When old shoes and clothes are sent from the U.S., they just waste people’s time and slow down getting lifesaving medicines and food to affected people.
There is one simple way that people who want to help can help. Donate money—not teddy bears, not old shoes, not breast milk. Give money to organizations that have worked in the affected areas before the storm—they will be more likely to know and be able to navigate the local context and may be able to respond faster, as it won’t take them time to set up. Give money to agencies that are able to articulate what the actual needs are and transparently tell you how they are responding. Give money to agencies that are procuring items locally to help the rebuild the economy. Give money to agencies that are working with the government to ensure that their response is aligned with the national response.
And so I choose this tangible way to help: I will donate my money – the same money I would normally spend to buy the things that would normally fill my closets/house/belly – and instead of doing what I would normally do today, I will give money I’d normally spend to the people who can help those in need.
That surprise deposit the ATO made for this year’s tax return that I didn’t think I’d get? I don’t need it. But someone else does. That $30 I could spend eating out tomorrow night? Eat in, and give the cash to Caritas. The $4.50 I could spend on today’s latte? Forego those for a week, and send that cash to Red Cross. That $140 I could spend on new shoes? I don’t need more shoes (my husband will vouch for that). But I could give it and help these guys reach their $10,000 in their 48-hour appeal.
When I started volunteer work for the Gawad Kalinga movement in the Philippines, one of my favourite things was their slogan: Less for self, more for others, enough for all.
It’s a humbling mantra… and truth be told had it not been for Typhoon Haiyan I would let that sit in the back of mind, gathering dust, as many other ideals tend to do when one gets caught up in the fast-paced rat race.
But I love that slogan because it’s simple. So, so simple. But effective. Give less to myself, give more to others – and then there will be enough for everyone.