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Disruption for social good: disaster relief

Posted by Chad O'Connor  October 7, 2013 11:00 AM

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In many disasters, millions of dollars are donated and governments pledge millions to support relief efforts. As a result, you would expect supplies to be plenty and survivors to have what they need, right? After volunteering in and going to various disasters areas, all I could say was the truth is often much worse than what is reported.

Why do we fail? In every disaster, unsolicited donated supplies, often unused and abandoned, can create chaos and extra work for the relief workers, creating a bigger "trash" issue in areas already full of debris. There are also horror stories of people donating soiled clothing or expired food, which clearly serves no good end.

On the field, the large organizations sometimes fail to provide enough baby food, heating oil, flashlights and sanitary pads. Sometimes, people just need fuel to get to where their relatives live.

The lack of empowerment of the field operatives often causes a delay in the delivery of aid or ability to react to situations; the bigger the organization, the slower the response. Bureaucracy creates unnecessary paperwork, red tape and rules — inefficiencies that should not be present in these crucial situations. It is not surprising that there are always criticisms on the slowness of response by organizations and governments. So are there ways for these organizations or donations to be more effective and efficient?

In 2012, after Hurricane Sandy, I was in New Jersey at Hoboken and the Rockaways. To my surprise, survivors avoided many of the large shelters as there seemed to be a lot of rigid regulations for the occupants. Instead, many people got supplies from Occupy Sandy Relief, which provided for "specific requests," like diapers and tampons, from survivors through the Amazon.com registry. As Occupy Sandy Relief was not a registered nonprofit the donations were not tax-deductible; yet, it proves to be a more effective and efficient model of relief. A survey of the people who donated through the Amazon registry indicated that while nearly 40 percent also gave cash to the relief effort, knowing “the specific nature of the donation” — donating flashlights or a pack of diapers in response to a specific appeal — was more rewarding and tangible.

Relief 2.0 is a non-profit organization focused on running the last mile of disaster relief, gathering the needs of the survivors and trying to get specific requests fulfilled by either supporters’ online or local volunteers to complete these unique tasks. Tasks include organizing survivors to sort out donated clothes, redistributing heating oil to all the different shelters and simply getting information that survivors are safe to their friends and families through the Internet.

May people do not trust new organizations as there are of course scams which happen; however many do not know that scams actually involve even the established organizations. The New York State Attorney General is questioning prominent relief organizations — including the Red Cross—about why, eight months after Hurricane Sandy, these organizations have still not disbursed nearly $250 million in contributions to help the victims.

A lot of established charities also do not spend the donated funds on the disaster areas, and would spend funds locally then ship the required help over. In a time of recovery, the economy of the disaster area needs a lot of support. Survivors need jobs, not pity. In many cases, it is the conventional relief model that turns survivors into refugees.

You make life and economic decisions for others when you help. Funds used the wrong way may even create harm to the local ecosystem. Angelina Jolie brought a million dollars worth of mosquito nets to Haiti in 2010, harming the local mosquito net manufacturing and repairing industry, and thus putting people out of work. There are many more examples where helping does more harm, as funds flow to companies providing services from overseas.

The new "disruptive" processes and charities are changing the way charities should work — like it should. Relief 2.0 promotes collaborative disaster recovery with dignity, inclusion, generation and distribution of wealth; focusing on 4 principles, "Engage, enable, empower and connect." In a disaster, there cannot be full recovery without economic recovery. Most charities focus on giving people things they need, but one thing they often miss is dignity. Survivors need opportunities to rebuild their lives. Most want to work and earn their own living. When volunteers work for free, it is hard to get a job.

Relief Enterprise is an initiative to empower disaster survivors as entrepreneurs before they get turned into refugees by the conventional relief system. Survivors are resourceful and capable people able to fend for themselves and generate wealth if given the opportunity and proper support. The physical infrastructure may have been destroyed, but not so the social structure. The buildings might be gone, but the professionals and the skills of the people are intact, ready to be put to good use.

Even after the cleanup is done, shop owners need to fix up their stores. They are powerless if banks do not give them the much needed loans, and they need to wait for the government or various organizations before they can restart their business. Each day they wait is a day without income. Instead of waiting, Relief B2B records videos of the shop owners who are unable to get loans, talking about their businesses and sharing their experience during the disaster. Events are created in nearby cities, and other business owners can provide interest bearing loans to support the survivors to restart their businesses after watching the videos.

There are a lot of new innovations in disaster relief, some from people without much experience. There is a lot of coverage on these innovations, yet no relief organizations have adopted any of these new processes and ideas; there is much resistance to change. Recent disasters have shown the need today as ever for disruptive innovation in disaster relief.

Will you be part of it?

Robin Low is the co-founder of Relief 2.0 and the Civil Innovation Lab.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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