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Supporting Social Change After Disaster


In the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe like the earthquake in Haiti, you're focused on one question: How can I help? It's the right question, but the answer isn't always what it seems. Many people assume that donating to a large relief agency is the surest way to help meet the overwhelming need. People trust a name-brand; and in fact, these organizations do have a critical role to play, especially where government doesn't or can't assume full responsibility for disaster relief.

The problem is that most big relief operations are designed to swoop into a crisis, deliver services and leave. And when they do leave, people are no more knowledgeable, self-reliant or resilient than they were before. To promote positive social change, we need disaster relief programs that build community capacity to respond to the next disaster and ultimately, move toward real development. 

Here's how you can help.

  • Support organizations that reinforce–rather than replicate–the activities of existing community groups. Too often, big international agencies temporarily set up shop and inadvertently undermine local organizations by attracting their best staff, driving up rents and ultimately weakening the very organizations that communities need for long-term recovery.
  • Support organizations that understand the role that women play in disaster relief efforts. Women are commonly portrayed as passive victims. In reality, they are critical first-responders. Relief efforts should also recognize that women are the primary care-givers of those who are most at-risk in a disaster and supply women with resources to meet the needs of children, the sick, the disabled and others in their care.
  • Support organizations that recognize local expertise and leave skills and resources in the hands of community members. The "victims" may not have the resources to address the disaster, but they know first-hand what they need to recover and rebuild.
  • Support organizations that talk about root causes of vulnerability in a crisis. An earthquake is a natural disaster, but there's nothing natural about families living in shacks without disaster plans or government services. Understanding what makes people vulnerable is the first step in building resiliency.
  • Support organizations with a history of work in the country. Having local roots, speaking the language and being culturally sensitive go a long way towards getting things done in a crisis.
  • Support organizations that view themselves as accountable to the communities where they work. A country hard-hit by disaster needs relief efforts that are going to strengthen that country itself, not efforts that pride themselves on funneling most of their money back to foreign corporations.
  • Support small organizations. It may seem that a large-scale crisis requires a large-scale response. But many big aid operations are bureaucratic, slow and inefficient. Often, the best response to tremendous, urgent need is to replicate successful small-scale models of aid delivery rather than try to get a giant operation moving quickly.
  • Support organizations that will stay in the country after the news teams and big agencies leave. Long-term projects keep people thinking about the future, helping to ensure that aid is delivered in a way that builds lasting solutions.

By Yifat Susskind, MADRE Executive Director