Earthquakes, floods, epidemics, mass dislocations: the scale of human suffering caused by disasters prompts many of us to ask, “How can I help?” When disasters strike, here’s how to help communities respond and build back better for long-term resilience.
What counts as a disaster?
According to the International Federation of the Red Cross, a disaster “is a sudden, calamitous event that seriously disrupts the functioning of a community or society and causes human, material, and economic or environmental losses that exceed the community’s or society’s ability to cope using its own resources. Though often caused by nature, disasters can have human origins.”
The Center for Disaster Philanthropy further categorizes disasters into three types: complex humanitarian emergencies (think Syrian refugee crisis), natural disasters (Hurricane Harvey in Houston or Nepal earthquake), and man-made (Flint water crisis). Disasters can also be categorized by severity: catastrophic, major, declarations of emergency, and elevated.
Disasters may involve human negligence or be a by-product of human actions, but in general are not the primary intended consequence of human actions. Although similar in some ways, disastrous events that result from intentional human action (e.g. terrorism and mass shootings) generally fall into a separate category from disasters.
Disaster relief accountability: organizations ensuring effectiveness
Keeping track of organizations and their effectiveness is challenging, especially since the chaos of disasters can invite corruption or misuse of donor funds. Three nonprofit organizations that can help include: Accountability Lab, The Disaster Accountability Project (DAP), and The Center for Disaster Philanthropy.
Accountability Lab partners with local NGOs around the world to promote greater accountability and responsiveness of government and other institutions. After the Nepal earthquake, for example, Accountability Lab partners set up citizen “help desks” to co- ordinate relief efforts and serve as a conduit for on-the-ground information about what was and was not working.
DAP, meanwhile, has various reports investigating the effectiveness of agencies operat- ing in a range of locations, including Haiti, Nepal, and New York after Superstorm Sandy. It also offers resources such as the Disaster Policy Wiki, which contains more than 1,000 post-disaster relief policy recommendations designed to improve management systems. And DAP’s SmartResponse curates “how to help” lists after disasters to support organizations that are local and more transparent.
The Center for Disaster Philanthropy tracks and provides information on various disasters, helps foundations and corporations come up with strategies for their disaster-related giving, and creates pooled disaster-related funds for which it helps vet grantees. The funds can be used flexibly to respond to changing conditions on the ground.
How does the Center decide what disasters to cover?
The Center covers disasters both in the U.S. and overseas. Most disasters we cover are classified as catastrophic.
In the U.S., we cover disasters where local capacity to handle the situation has clearly been overwhelmed, and where even the addition of federal and state resources is insufficient to address the problem effectively and in a timely fashion. Examples include the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Super Storm Sandy, and Hurricane Harvey. We will also consider covering a disaster connected to a subject area we have done specific work in and which we know affects more than one community, such as lead poisoning.
With regard to disasters overseas, we consider both the magnitude of the disaster and the country’s ability to cope using its own resources (Italy’s capacity for recovery, for example, was much higher than Nepal’s with regard to earthquakes in 2016 and 2015, respectively). We are in a better position to cover a disaster in geographic regions where we have in-depth knowledge of organizations on the ground, and whose expertise we can help donors access more quickly.
How Can I Help?: Blog guidance in chronological order, covering a range of disasters
Media coverage of disasters often includes the names and contact information of organizations that are responding.
- The Center for Disaster Philanthropy
- International Federation of the Red Cross
- The Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System
- The US Department of Health and Human Services Disaster Information Management Research Center
- MSF/Doctors Without Borders: a well-regarded international nonprofit and often among the first on the scene of multiple international disasters
- United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction: an international coordinating body promoting disaster preparedness and mitigation strategies among members.
- Disaster Accountability Project