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Principled Giving in Times of Crisis


A core principle of effective compassion holds that the best type of assistance is that which puts those most affected by disaster back on their feet and in charge of their destinies in the shortest period of time. All good charity is local.


Conservatives tend to give on principle rather than reflex. But amid the circumstances of the overwhelming death toll and the incomprehensible destruction in Asia, are principles of accountability and effectiveness even relevant?

Yes, and not least because of the massive inflow of giving that is headed for the tsunami-disaster area. A core principle of effective compassion holds that the best type of assistance is that which puts those most affected by disaster back on their feet and in charge of their destinies in the shortest period of time. All good charity is local.

This truth is drawn from Catholic social teaching and the principle of subsidiarity. Protestants often refer to the same principle as sphere sovereignty. Subsidiarity holds that the tsunami victims should not become dependent on the international community or even their own governments, but in fact, are working to provide for themselves once again. In practice, that means that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization that can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom.

And as the nature of the tragedy changes, subsidiarity changes. The immense current need mandates that complex, international activity be the immediate rather than the last response.

Government, by nature, is bureaucratic. And this is not a desirable quality when survival depends on fast and efficient response. Large sums from governments worldwide are necessary, certainly, but the same bureaucracy that provides the money also can impede its use.

Monday's Wall Street Journal reports that five U. S. Navy Seahawk helicopters loaded with aid for Sumatra's devastated coast sat on the tarmac, unable to get permission to take off. Although at least 18 governments had provided C-130s by Friday, an Associated Press report noted that "bureaucratic delays, impassable roads and long distances were blocking much of the blankets, bottled water, plastic sheeting and medicines from reaching the needy."

Corporate relief has been swift and generous. Pfizer, for example, donated $10 million in cash and $25 million worth of company healthcare products. Before the end of the week, Pfizer organizations in Asia had already begun donating medicines and discussing logistical support with local health and relief officials. Pfizer employees with the needed medical and technical skills are available to assist, and the Pfizer Foundation Matching Gifts Program will match U S. employee contributions to nonprofit organizations assisting in the relief effort.

Private charity and mission organizations already active in the affected areas for years maximize donation effectiveness. By Thursday, December 29, International Aid was shipping a portable health clinic, the first of IA's $3 million effort; Federal Express donated the cost of the first shipment.

While some international relief organizations scramble to understand maps, go through import procedures, and find trustworthy assistants in the disaster zone, Mission India has linked up with long-time, local friends. Such assistance from agencies already in India is critical; the WSJ reports that India is following a long tradition of rejecting foreign assistance, insisting on taking care of itself and relying only on such established in-country organizations.

With unprecedented corporate and individual donations, Mission India is assembling survival kits, and Mission India staff is distributing kits to survivors literally living along the road near their former villages. "As the nature of disaster relief changes, almost hourly, we are becoming the first agency to go to depressed people along roads and in many of the tsunami refugee camps.... Our kits will provide these people with the basic necessities so they can sustain themselves in their devastated villages again."

Unique indigenous resources have proved more helpful than heavy equipment. Phuket, Thailand is using elephants, who work better in flooded, muddy, and hilly areas to remove debris.

International Aid and Mission India, based in Michigan, are among multiple members of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability sending aid for tsunami relief. Assurance of high financial-accountability standards is one hallmark of effective charity and is no less important in the face of overwhelming international tragedy.

As recovery continues, increased local activity will increase. Humanitarian aid should facilitate the process as national, local, neighborhood infrastructure is rebuilt and family and individual self-sufficiency are possible.

Give principally, even in the midst of unparalleled tragedy, with the following in mind: (1) Subsidiarity, responding at the level that most helps victims long and short term; and (2) Donation to organizations that demonstrate transparency, financial accountability, and have well established, long-term relationships with indigenous peoples.



Karen Woods. "Principled Giving in Times of Crisis." National Review (January 4, 2005).

Reprinted with permission of the Acton Institute.

The Author

Karen Woods is director of the Acton Center for Effective Compassion in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Copyright © 2005 Acton Institute
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