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GlobalGiving Founder on Haiti: ‘When You’re Poor, Everything Becomes Harder to Recover From’

By Tom Watson on February 11, 2010No Comment

As the incredible depth of devastation in Haiti became apparent the first day, the response online grew rapidly. Haiti and various related topics trended all day on Twitter, blogs and websites were filled with links to nonprofits working in Haiti, and ubiquitous calls for cell phone text-to-give campaigns flooded the RSS streams. Like others, I turned to an online-based organization whose work I know and whose promise to get aid to those in need quickly and effectively I trusted.

GlobalGiving has been a marketplace for charitable projects since 1997 and has a history of supporting programs on health, poverty, agriculture and the environment in Haiti – and the site swung into action at the first news, working with key on-the-ground partners to rush medical supplies and emergency aid to the stricken nation. As the GlobalGiving team raced to direct resources to Haiti, I spoke briefly with Mari Kuraishi, the co-founder and president.

What’s GlobalGiving’s perspective on what Haiti faces during these terrible days?

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, and in 2009 ranked 149th out of 182 countries according to the UN’s human development report. That’s to say that one in five Haitian children is underweight for their age and GDP per capita is $1,155 — 2.5% of US GDP per capita ($45,592). This is a country that is least able to recover from a natural disaster like a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. On the one hand, that seems obvious. When you’re poor, everything becomes harder to recover from, because you just don’t have any slack in the system.

What do you think philanthropy’s role will be?

We don’t know the scale of the losses yet in Haiti. While it’s impossible to compare, the cost of the 1995 Kobe earthquake (a 7.3 earthquake) has been estimated at $100b in property and infrastructure damage. Human losses in Japan were 6,400 killed and 15,000 injured. The cost of recovery in Kobe? As of 2006, $3b in insurance losses, and $9b in long-term private finance to rebuild.

Most Haitians don’t have access to formal credit markets — even at a fraction of the Kobe earthquake costs (huge amounts of productive economic assets were destroyed in the Kobe earthquake), the resources they need will not be coming from the capital markets. Philanthropy and official foreign assistance will have to fill the gap for Haiti. And given the weakness of the government in Haiti, I think official foreign assistance can only go so far to help — the role of NGOs becomes even more important. That’s where I think the generosity of the American public and the power of NGOS that have long experience in Haiti, from Partners in Health to the Lambi Fund, will come into play.

How can the outpouring of online concern, donations, and activism translate into real relief on the ground?

At GlobalGiving we’ve dealt with massive disasters like the tsunami in 2004, and more localized disasters like the Szechuan earthquake in 2008. We’ve observed that disasters, more than any other event, mobilize a huge swath of the American public to give. What’s more, corporate partners of ours—from Liquidnet to Gap to Nike to Hasbro —  have all responded immediately that they will match donations, some for their employees, others for the public in general. So I have high hopes. As of 2pm today (Jan. 13), we were coming up close on matching the number of donations on the first day of the China earthquake disaster.

Longer term we MUST focus on increasing resilience of the poorest countries to disasters like this. While earthquakes are not climate change induced, we know that climate change will increase the frequency of weather related disasters. And it turns out that while it’s possible to invest to a certain extent in “disaster preparedness,” actually one of the most important things you can do is invest in female empowerment, specifically education.

To this point, David Wheeler at the Center for Global Development has just published a very interesting paper that touches on extreme weather events and countries’ ability to adapt to or recover from them. The fact is that the cost of a disaster is not just borne by a country in the abstract, they are borne by real people. And data from weather related disasters suggests that women suffer disproportionately from natural disasters — David quotes Oxfam pointing out that “In the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone … four times more women died than men.”

What can we – should we – learn from this?

Haiti has long been a “fragile” state. We’ve known this for a long time. We also could have known, if we’d thought about it, that it was incredibly vulnerable to external shocks precisely because it has so little slack in the system. It’s a time bomb that’s gone off, and honestly, it’s not the only one. All the climate scientists tell us that extreme events will increase — so I think while the current disaster is a human tragedy that the world will be tested to respond to in anything resembling a timely fashion, this should be a wake-up call to look into what we can do to defuse future time bombs.

To assist Haitians in their hour of need, please visit:

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