5 Dos and Don’ts of Humanitarian Responses in Africa

Over a year after the height of the Ebola outbreak, we are drawing upon the lessons learned to carve out the dos and don’ts of helping affected communities in times of emergency. The urge to act immediately is strong, especially when the damage is too close to home. Yet, doing it right matters even more than simply doing anything. Here are some of our tips on how you can actually be of help:

1) Don’t rush to go
Resist the urge to give by going to the place of emergency and volunteering your services. If you’re not an expert on the issue, country, or trade; don’t speak the local language(s); or aren’t employed by a local or international aid organization, your presence is most likely not needed. In fact, it will become a distraction and can crowd out the space for the people with requisite skills and experiences. There is usually enough human power on the ground to meet the needs of labor. Better to save those airfare costs and send them to an organization of your choice.

2) Give money, not stuff
People know their needs and can procure products and services locally. Access to cash also makes it easier to acquire materials quickly, and to support and strengthen local economies. In-kind donations take up space, require additional logistical support that takes away from the emergency response, and can get in the way of more essential supplies and services. After most disasters, about 60% of donations are non-priority and non-essential items. Sifting through and processing these donations takes time and resources away from more essential and relevant help. This is not the time to get rid of unwanted items in the pantry or the closet –give what is needed and wanted—which is often cash. If you’re going to donate, make sure the donations are essential, directly linked to the materials needed. Also consider finding an easy way of getting the essential items to the location without burdening and straining your local contacts and networks.

3) Do your research
Whether it is international or local, make sure you give to an organization that has history and existing programs in an affected country. It is difficult for organizations or individuals to start working in a new place during an emergency- they won’t have the local knowledge and relationships necessary to move their work forward. When considering a donation, do your due diligence to understand the organization’s emergency response, including what services it provides, how these services are provided, and where they are offered. Ask about the organization’s prior work in emergencies and the effectiveness of its previous responses. There are charity guides like GuideStar and Charity Navigator for US-based organizations that offer basic information on organizations. However, these official public records are often not enough to understand the depth of an organization’s work and impact.

If you can, assess the organization’s programs in an affected community, leadership structure and composition, and values. Review the organization’s finances and see how much of its resources go to programs and how much to overhead. Don’t be afraid of overhead; organizations need capable people to run well. In fact, provide general (unrestricted) support so the organization can cover its needed expenses without having restrictions towards specific activities or projects that often limit an effective, adaptable response. However, make sure not all the money goes to overhead, and also assess institutional equity if you are giving to international organizations. For example, look at how much international staff get paid compared to local staff; consultants and overseas expenses vs local spending.

4) Give always to local organizations
During the Ebola crisis, frontline responders received less than 2% of the over $3 billion allocated in international aid. Local organizations often get only a fraction of emergency funds, while the evidence shows they are the most effective and responsive. They know the affected community and have pre-established trust and credibility. They have experience working in the particular community and can navigate social, political, and cultural spaces easily. They have needed relationships to facilitate a quick and culturally appropriate response. For example, in Haiti, one of the Red Cross’ mistakes was hiring foreigners with no local language capacity or work experience in Haiti. Local organizations are also invested in their communities and stay long after the emergency, an important component to ensuring that resources are well spent and communities recover and rebuild. Upon further reflection of the Ebola response, the international community agreed the turning point in stopping the outbreak was the role of local communities. However, resources and support to strengthen these local structures and efforts were initiated long after the infiltration of the outbreak. In the future, as you think about what organizations to give to, consider supporting local efforts directly. If you can’t reach them directly, you can support them through foundations that have local relationships like IDEXGlobal Fund for Women or Global Fund for Children.

5) Invest in long-term recovery
An emergency may take a few hours, days, or months. The aftermath lasts much longer and it is during that period the resilience and recovery of affected communities is tested. Be sure to support efforts that not only provide immediate needs like food, shelter, and clothing, but also longer-term needs like livelihoods, counseling, family reintegration, or health care.

While these tips are not an exhaustive list of what works in responding to a humanitarian crisis, they do disrupt inactive conventions. In most cases, good intentions are helpful in driving action, but are not enough to produce sustainable outcomes. Time is sensitive during humanitarian emergencies; but, calculation is not a compromise if we are serious about creating meaningful, local driven solutions.