When an international disaster strikes, we soon begin to hear stories of the devastation and the suffering of those affected. They have lost loved ones, livelihoods and homes. The pictures we see are gut-wrenching, and we can't help but think about how we can help. We have so much, and they have so little. The least we can do is help, right?
The next thing you know, schools are collecting shoes for children, houses of worship are collecting clothes for families, and neighborhoods are collecting teddy bears for those who have nothing. The local radio station is announcing locations to drop off donations of items that might be needed, and everyone pitches in to make a difference by bringing supplies from the pantry, the closet, the garage, and wherever else to help the cause.
What most people never see is what happens to that goodwill on the other end in the disaster-affected area. I work for USAID's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, and it is our job on behalf of all Americans to manage the U.S. government's response to an international crisis. I am usually deployed to major international disasters, and I do get to see what happens to the spontaneous donations.
First, you should know that most spontaneous in-kind donations never even make it to the disaster zone. This is usually because of the sky high cost of moving the goods from the states coupled with the lack of a group to accept and distribute the donations to those in need. And if the supplies do make it to the disaster-affected country, the supplies are often an inappropriate match for what is needed. I cannot forget the winter coats and prom dresses we saw piled on the airport tarmac after the 2004 Pacific tsunami. I can't help but think how generous the donors were, but their passion was uninformed. As we saw in Indonesia and every international disaster before and since, these spontaneous donations often clog the pipelines that are providing life-saving medical supplies, food, shelter and hygiene materials, and other assistance to the very people everyone is trying to help.
Everything we have learned over the years has taught us that if you really want to help those in need, you should make a cash donation to a reputable humanitarian organization working in the disaster-affected area. Nothing will get there faster or help more. And the cash donations will allow experts to buy -- often in the struggling local markets -- exactly what is needed.
To better inform those who want to help, USAID works with the Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI). CIDI holds an annual competition for college students to create public service announcements (PSA) that help spread the message that cash donations are best.
To enter the competition, students submitted print and radio PSAs that explained the importance of appropriate international disaster response and build support for international disaster relief work done by well-established, U.S.-based organizations. Now in its sixth year, PSAid is highly regarded among the nation's leading university communications programs. Approximately 60 entries were received from students this year. The 2011 winners were announced on April 21 at www.psaid.org.
Please take a moment to visit the PSAid site and help spread the message that cash is the best way to help. On behalf of all of us who see so many donations with the best of intentions languish in ports, on runways, and in warehouses in countries affected by disaster, thank you for helping us better inform your family, friends and communities.
Editor's Note: This entry first appeared on USAID's Impactblog.