Haiti earthquake 2010: When disasters hit third world, speed up your donations

Developing nations typically don't have emergency supplies stockpiled for disasters like the Haiti earthquake.

Xing Guangli/Xinhua
A man waits near the collapsed headquarters of the UN Stabilization Mission in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Thursday. The headquarters of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti and other UN buildings in Port-au-Prince collapsed in the quake, and around 150 UN workers are buried under debris.

The divide is as stark as can be: In the developed world, the economic cost of natural disasters is rising as the human toll falls. In the developing world, the fatalities remain unacceptably high.

That's why, when a disaster hits the developing world like the Haiti earthquake of 2010, donors have to shift their giving strategy. If you want to give, give now.

"It is important to give quickly in the Haitian quake because that nation does not have the resilience of prosperous developed nations," says Richard Sylves, a professor of political science at the University of Delaware. "Responders will have to attack the devastation with military zeal. Medical workers will have to be largely self-supportive as they will have to import the vast majority of the equipment and supplies they need to provide even elemental emergency medical aid."

There are many places to give that are organizing this emergency response. The trick is to give to groups that can distribute the aid most effectively.

"The question is whether we can get it to people, given the poor infrastructure," says Carol West, director of the Center for International Business Education & Research at the University of Florida.

Mr. Sylves, who like Ms. West has studied the economic impact of disasters, suggests sending money to nongovernmental aid organizations that were already working in Haiti because they'll have the most knowledge about how best to distribute aid. (Click here for some suggestions.)

And if you want to have quick impact, vet the organization you're giving to thoroughly. And then give cash instead of goods.

"The need is critical and the need is for people to act fast and so we do number one recommend cash," says Ken Berger, president of CharityNavigator.org, a website that rates charitable groups. "There are such problems with transportation and distribution [to move donated items around Haiti]. The most powerful way to act is through cash because the organizations can turn that into whatever is needed on the ground."

The fact that the earthquake occurred near Haiti's capital may make it easier, in some ways, to reach people than if it had occurred in a remote area that is difficult to access. By the same token, the devastation in the capital may have so damaged local charities' facilities that it impairs their ability to respond.

Thus, international organizations with the capacity to bring in supplies quickly from outside may be in the best position to help. (Click here for some suggestions.)

Monitor correspondent David Grant contributed to this report.

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