Cash is King for Disaster Donations?

A donations food drive feels like a real way to support people in need. Donating cash at a checkout line, or on a website doesn’t usually give that same feeling. In contrast, it feels depersonalized, uncertain.  Where’s the money go from there-  what’s the impact?  Where’s the feeling of solidarity and support?

Collecting donations is something real. It feels like you are already making a difference.  This past holiday season my employer did this, and the pyramid of cans  that we collected was a visible, in your face display of our solidarity with those who needed that food.  The can drive collected food to donate to a nonprofit that handles the logistics of distributing it to a flooded community. It was a great team project, it brought us together, and it felt like we were helping this community. Over the course of a couple weeks, we pilfered our own pantries, cleaned the shelves of the surrounded supermarkets- drove all those cans back to the office and lugged them to the 3rd floor where we made a pyramid of them. You could see this monument to charity before your eyes.

Beyond our office- what was the impact in the flooded community ? We can’t say for sure, but we do know what happens to a flooded neighborhood.  Perhaps no water or power, kitchens largely out of commission, people living in hotels or shelters or out of their car-  and those in greatest need lacking the ability to cook and prepare food.  Even not in a disaster, cans are usually only a small part of the food source for families.  The greatest problem- we don’t really know what happened to the food we donated and if our goal was not just to come together as a company, but to impact a flood-stricken community- then we should care as much about the cans as much as the cash.

In the months after a disaster, interviews with surivors relay a common response:  somewhere in that flooded community was a warehouse full of cans- perhaps still is.  It’s called the “second disaster” to those in the disaster recovery community- the challenge of making well-intentioned donations available and useable to the community.

The point is that we have to differentiate between feel-good projects, and those which make a difference. Mayne we can zero in on other goods that are essential. Like diapers, medicine, tarps.  Maybe outsiders have no idea what that “short list” of useable donations is, on any given day. That sort of analysis would best be conducted in the locality.

This, then, provides a useful intersection of the survivors and the supporters. Survivors provide the analysis, the certainty of what the feel-good support project ought to be- and the supporters do the can drive. Or the diaper drive. Or whatever the case may be.  Here there are two issues:

  1. Efficiency- get the rights resources to the right place at the right time, with the right distribution and support.
  2. The Story- give supporters a reason to support. An understanding of what the other person is going through and why a diaper drive has such an impact to that community. You can’t do this with numbers alone. Something as tangible as a pyramid of canned goods.

Sometimes cash is the better donation- it supports the community’s ability to decide for itself what needs are most urgently met.  Sometimes those needs can’t be met with cash- and well-intentioned volunteers should be ready to listen for those requests- for time, labor, and other resources they may be able to provide.

Ready to go Bikes, part 2

We spoke with Dave Schweidenback of Pedals for Progress about his model of collecting good used bikes to send to regions that could use them. In the Pedals for Progress bike-donation model folks who want to donate a bike must also make a cash donation to cover the cost of shipping the bikes.

That way two things happen 1) folks don’t donate junk bikes just to avoid a trip to the scrap yard, and 2) the best bikes are also sent overseas rather than being auctioned off at home to help cover shipping costs of the worst bikes. There are a lot of different models out there for collecting and sending bikes from the USA to different regions of the world, each holding to varying standards of ethics and accountability. The concept itself of sending used bikes, good ones or not, treads on “aid” territory dangerously close to what has been termed SWEDOW (Shit WE DOn’t Want).

This is a term that has been used to describe the tendency for donors to think of others as having lower standards than themselves and thus thoughtlessly sending used crap to other people with an expectation that those poor folks elsewhere ought to be grateful for anything, whether that be our used tea bags or our used bikes. This is an important thing for those sending bikes overseas to think long and hard about, and is equally important to consider in disaster response efforts. A key way to avoid sending SWEDOW is to listen to communities and follow their lead, working as their allies, rather than arrogantly assuming that our ideas are best and therefore worth implementing.

So as we talk about how to get bikes to folks in the aftermath of a disaster, lets start with the caveat that sending bikes is only appropriate if communities have identified this as a need and a valuable recovery resource in their own context. If survivor communities are not asking for bikes then it is probably not appropriate to be pushing bikes on folks and potentially sending them our junk. If survivors are asking for bikes, then sending good bikes in a timely way is something we need to figure out how to do.
– Bjorn

Here’s an idea…

So here’s an idea: survivors of catastrophic disaster need to be able to lead the recovery process and bikes are a tool that can help make that happen. Therefore, bikes need to be more central to disaster response. After some time in Biloxi, Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina, we saw this need for a more central role of bikes in disaster recovery. In fact, it was Kryzra Holmes, an East Biloxi community member and leader, who noted that it was unfortunate that bikes were not more available as a way to involve survivor youth directly in the recovery rather than seeing the youth as a nuisance.

Some bikes were eventually delivered to the area for the survivors by at least one group, in addition to the few bikes we were able to borrow from the police station’s stash of impounded bikes. There are a number of organizations like Pedals for Progress and Cyclo Nord Sud (and many others) that store up containers full of bikes and send them to other countries for “third world development” projects, but none of these initiatives are geared directly toward immediate disaster response.

Another organization, World Bicycle Relief, helps to set up bicycle manufacturing in regions affected by catastrophic disasters, but again, these bicycles are not available soon enough to be part of the initial recovery process. So the question remains, how can bikes be delivered to survivors in the immediate recovery phase – within days of a disaster occurring? Along with medical help, water, food and blankets, how do we get bikes, as a versatile and fuel-less means of transportation, to survivors in settings where they would be useful?
-Bjorn