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High-impact giving
Syrian refugee camp.

Disaster Relief

Where to begin and how to help.

Earthquakes, war, lead-poisoning. The scale of human suffering seems overwhelming these days with all sorts of natural and man-made disasters calling for humanitarian aid. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy categorizes catastrophes into three types: Complex Humanitarian Emergencies (think Syrian refugees), Natural Disasters (Nepal earthquake), and Man-made (Flint water crisis).

All disasters prompt many of us to want to "do something." But different crises bring different needs. And, the only thing for certain is that the needs not only vary by crisis, but are continuously changing. What's more, there are different phases of relief. While media and donor attention is highest early on, needs remain long after the camera crews are gone.

For philanthropists, it's crucial to remember that disaster relief involves four distinct phases: Response, Recovery, Preparedness, and Risk Mitigation. Funding is needed well beyond the initial phase, and offers a huge opportunity for philanthropists looking to make a greater impact.

Important note about public response to disasters

Initially, when a disaster hits, our first instinct is to mobilize—usually with collections of goods. However, such collections of food, water, or clothing may not be the most effective way to provide support. Large donations can create added transportation costs, complicate logistics, and use up volunteer time moving and storing goods that aren't a priority. If there's an efficient way to get specific necessary goods to victims in your local community, do it. In most cases, though, the most effective way to help is to donate money to organizations that are on the ground providing relief.

Still, however, the desire to organize collections remains strong for some. In such cases, at least work with a relief group with direct ties to the affected areas—organizations that can verify the need for certain goods and provide deadlines for delivery.

Disaster relief accountability

Keeping track of organizations and their effectiveness is challenging. Therefore funders should support groups with systems to account for spending, as the chaos of disasters can invite corruption and misuse of donor funds. The Disaster Accountability Project (DAP) and Accountability Lab are two nonprofits working to make sure aid groups and governments are being held accountable for serving affected communities.

Accountability Lab partners with local NGOs around the world to promote greater accountability and responsiveness of government and other institutions. (See description in Nepal section). DAP has various reports investigating the effectiveness of agencies operating in a range of locations including Haiti, Nepal, and New York after Superstorm Sandy.

DAP also offers several resources, including the Disaster Policy Wiki, which has more than 1,000 post-disaster policy recommendations designed to improve management systems. And, DAP's Relief Oversight Initiative focuses on improving the transparency of the humanitarian aid community. More on CHIP's disaster relief guidance here.

Disaster relief is an especially difficult area for giving partly due to the inherent chaos in the immediate aftermath. Here are three examples of disasters and relief agencies working in the specific areas.

Disaster type: complex humanitarian emergency

Syrian refugee crisis

The war in Syria has led to the worst refugee crisis since World War II. An estimated 4.8 million Syrians have fled the country, and another 8.7 million are estimated to be internally displaced. More than 7.5 million Syrian children need humanitarian aid, and 2.6 million are no longer in school. Life expectancies in the country have fallen dramatically, and an estimated 60% of Syria's public hospitals are damaged or out of service due to targeting of physicians and medical facilities. Though media attention has focused primarily on refugees entering Europe, neighboring countries have taken in the most refugees. Turkey now has over 2.7 million Syrian refugees, and Lebanon has over 1 million.

While the scale of the crisis requires the intervention of governments and international agencies, philanthropy can play a critical role in key areas that larger public funders cannot easily address. Funds donated by governments sometimes don't reach on-the-ground nonprofits that are often better able to support their local communities.

Private philanthropy can fill this gap. There are a number of organizations providing critical relief on the ground, both in Syria and in countries where refugees have fled. A sampling of those groups is below. You can donate any amount via the groups' website addresses listed:

  • Médecins Sans Frontières operates six, and provides support to approximately 150 medical facilities in Syria.
  • Mercy Corps provides food, water, sanitation, hygiene, and shelter. It also builds playgrounds, sports fields, and other places for children to play and provides psychosocial support programs to help kids deal with trauma.
  • Oxfam International provides clean drinking water, cash, relief supplies, and connection to medical, legal, and support services. Oxfam has also built shower and toilet blocks in refugee camps, informal settlements, and on deserted routes used by refugees.
  • Save the Children provides food and medicine, helps maintain schools, repairs water systems, distributes hygiene kits, and provides safe spaces for children.
  • UNICEF delivers immunizations, clean water, food, education, physical protection, and clothing to children.
  • UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) delivers rescue kits (thermal blanket, towel, water, food and clothing) to survivors arriving at refugee camps; runs reception centers where refugees can be registered and receive medical care; provides temporary emergency shelter; and provides specialist support and care to children traveling alone.
  • World Food Programme provides food for approximately four million people monthly within Syria and is also providing cash for food for refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq.
  • The White helmets (Syria Civil Defence)1are 2,900 volunteers from local communities who provide search and rescue services and medical aid in response to daily bomb and mortar explosions—often risking their own lives in the process.

Governments historically have barred refugees from working, starting businesses, and supporting themselves. Therefore, the amount of humanitarian aid needed is great.er because countries taking in refugees have done little to help them rebuild their lives. For donors interested in investing in more sustainable long-term solutions, a few groups are working to change laws.

Asylum Access works to change legal frameworks in refugee-hosting countries so refugees can meet their own needs. It provides assistance to help refugees gain legal status and work permits. The International Refugee Assistance Project provides legal aid to refugees who wish to resettle from their first countries of refuge to the U.S. Refugee Rights Turkey2, which U.S. donors can support via the US-based refugee Solidarity Network, provides legal aid to refugees seeking asylum in Turkey, and advocates to improve Turkey's laws so refugees there can access their rights.

Disaster type: natural

Nepal earthquake

More than a year after a devastating series of earthquakes killed almost 9,000 people, Nepal is still struggling to rebuild. Before December 2015, when Nepal’s National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) was established, little to no progress was made towards long-term recovery by either the Nepalese government or humanitarian NGOs. In March 2016, the NRA started signing housing reconstruction grants with displaced families, and continues to expand its presence in the 14 most affected districts to begin distributing government-announced funds. In August 2016, the government released a small first payment of grants to survivors who lost their homes. However, a lot still has to be done, as the NRA has only spent about 10% of its total budget to date. Currently, more than 200,000 families are still internally displaced.

Recovery and reconstruction have been hindered by the lack of concrete government policy, and exacerbated by factors such as lack of access to banking and difficult geography. As a result, a key challenge has been the inadequate and uneven distribution of aid to those who need it most. Organizations on the ground have pointed to a need for involving earthquake survivors more closely in the recovery process and, ultimately, improving public accountability in a country where corruption is an endemic problem.

Funders interested in supporting the rebuilding in Nepal should look for organizations with strong community ties. You should also seek out reliable data on the status of recovery, and support activities that contribute to sustained development, such as training and technologies for local organizations. Several organizations are addressing the need for transparency in Nepal and promoting the use of data and information to rebuild responsibly and effectively. In addition to those mentioned below, Global Giving has a helpful list of funds and organizations for Nepal:

Disaster type: man-made

Flint, MI water crisis

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan has renewed national interest in lead poisoning and its harmful effects to humans, especially children. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that more than 500,000 children in the U.S. between the ages of 1 and 5 have lead levels high enough to damage their health. States, however, are not required to submit lead surveillance data to the CDC, and not all states mandate testing lead levels in kids. Therefore, the full scope of the problem nationwide is difficult to gauge.

Yet, even brief exposure to lead can have profound detrimental effects, especially among children. There is, in fact, no such thing as a "safe" blood lead level. Decades of research have linked lead exposure to brain damage in children, resulting in ADHD, learning disabilities, conduct disorders, behavioral deficits, impairments in vision and hearing loss, plus lowered IQ.

Flint's story illustrates how vital nonprofits and philanthropies can be when government systems fail to protect the public's health. Flint residents are still struggling to access clean water. The day-to-day reality is that affected families need water for the cooking, bathing, and general consumption that most of us take for granted. As with most crises, the human reaction is to help by purchasing and sending goods. But unless you talk directly with relief agencies and confirm what's needed, the best way to help is to give money to organizations that can bulk-purchase water or other goods according to need and available space to house it. The United Way of Genesee County's has a Flint Water Fund and Catholic Charities of Genesee County's has Flint Water Recovery Efforts.

What's more, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint has created the Flint Child Health & Development Fund for long-term support of health and mental development in affected children and families. Save the Children also supports childcare providers, families with young children, and pregnant mothers by providing resources such as nutrient rich food to combat the effects of lead.

For the latest on how to help Flint, visit the Flint Water Recovery Group, a partnership of more than 120 local organizations working together. And for more on how to prevent lead exposure in your own home & community, see the CDC's website.

Funding for disaster recovery, preparedness, and risk mitigation is needed well beyond the initial response, and offers a huge opportunity for philanthropists looking to make a greater impact.

Please note that this article does not represent all the organizations that support disaster relief efforts. Fidelity Charitable does not endorse these organizations and provides this list for reference purposes only. All grant recommendations are subject to review and approval by the Fidelity Charitable Trustees.

1 This organization is not a 501(c)(3) public charity and cannot receive donor-recommended grants from a Fidelity Charitable Giving Account. However, the organization may be eligible to receive grant recommendations through an international intermediary program. Please contact Fidelity Charitable for more information.

2 This international charity has an affiliated U.S.-based 501(c)(3) public charity that may be able to receive donor-recommended grants from a Fidelity Charitable Giving Account.

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