Saturday, July 7, 2012

Responding to Emergencies with Cash not Goods

Have you seen those AllState ads about the fires in Colorado? They say "We didn't just show up with cold water and checks..." and then continues about how they brought teddy bears to help children get back to normal. Good child protection practice, hopefully they're doing more for kids, but beside the point. Your house burns down and someone helps you access clean water and money to help you get back on your feet. That makes sense. That's what I'd want. So why isn't that what we do in other countries? Why can't we give people cash when their homes are destroyed by war or disaster? Why do we feel the need to give them the things we think they need? 

If I experience hardship, I know better than you do what I need. Maybe my home has been washed away in a flood, but I don't want you to build me a new home, because I was going to move anyway, or my family is growing, or you build crappy houses. Maybe my family does need food to eat, but I need cash to buy medicine for my baby, and you're just bringing me food from your country that I don't know how to cook, nor will my children eat. Maybe you think my children need recreational activities, but I need them in the field to replant after the crops were destroyed, but I can't replant until I buy new seeds. People are resilient, but they are only able to employ their resiliency when allowed to make their own decisions. 

My first response to this AllState ad was that we must not trust poor people. People in Colorado will obviously use the checks you give them to repair their homes (yes I know they are home insurance checks, but it occurs to me that we have home insurance in case of disasters, whereas countries in the global South often rely on humanitarian aid for similar support) but for some reason, people in other countries won't know how to spend the money? Are we worried they will spend it improperly? That happens where we live too, corruption and misuse of government funds is often connected to disaster. Is it because we feel the need to help, and writing a check isn't as exciting? 

In many places, especially in urban settings, cash is sometimes being used, so that both the economy and the population can start to rebuild. I won't argue that the only answer is cash grants. Sometimes the needed supplies aren't available during or after a complex emergency. Steps have already been made toward ensuring that food and supplies are well used by (often) giving them to women to ensure that the goods go to support children and to be sure that female headed households receive goods.. But giving food and tent supplies to people in refugee camps doesn't restart lies, it simply sustains them during an emergency. Helping people rebuild and recover takes more than that, and if your world got turned upside down, wouldn't you hope that people trying to help would trust you to identify your own needs?