No matter where you are in the world, by now you’ve heard of the horrific damage wreaked by Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean in the past few days. The storm slammed into islands from Antigua all the way to Florida, leaving thousands homeless and without vital services like running water and electricity. The island of Barbuda is virtually uninhabitable. The streets of Havana are waist-deep in water. An international Hurricane Irma relief effort is under way.
This is a humanitarian crisis right on our doorstep. And for many North Americans — and Europeans too — there’s a personal side to the tragedy. The Caribbean is a popular vacation spot for northerners, and many of us have spent time in the places where Irma made landfall. For some, they’ve become a home away from home, a yearly winter retreat.
Now these places are in need, so it’s only fitting for the travellers who’ve enjoyed their hospitality in good times to give them a hand in bad times. But how? There are some good ways to do it — and some not-so-good. Here’s a short primer on how to go about giving help.
The first rule is, give cash, not supplies. It may seem like a good idea to send clothes, blankets and other necessities to help the people on the islands. But according to an article in The New York Times, there’s often no practical way of distributing them to the people who need them. One aid worker describes seeing “warehouses filled with stuff that people give, just sitting there.”
So, the best way to help is to make a cash contribution. But the world is full of aid organizations, and not all are totally trustworthy. Even if they have good intentions, they may not be well enough organized to get the money where it’s going; much of the cash raised by the famous Live Aid concerts was unspent years later, or lost to corruption. As well, some organizations spend too much of the contributions to fund their own operations.
In order to do the most good, you need to contribute to an organization that’s considered trustworthy and has the resources to turn the money into food, shelter and reconstruction projects. Here are a few choices:
The Red Cross Probably the world’s best-known aid organization, the Red Cross is already acting to get aid to the islands that need it. As well, its American arm is working to help Florida victims of Hurricane Irma and those affected by Hurricane Harvey in Texas. The Red Cross has been criticized for mistakes in past relief efforts, but is generally well regarded. Canadians can give to the Canadian Red Cross, while U.S. residents can give to the American Red Cross.
Oxfam Oxfam’s website says it’s been working in the Caribbean for more than 30 years and has expert teams in the region, with local contacts to help get the resources where they’re needed. Oxfam is British-based, but has chapters around the world. You can contribute to its Canadian, American or British chapters, or go to the Oxfam.org website.
GlobalGiving This crowdfunding organization collects money for local relief organizations, and has been vetted by charity watchdogs such as Charity Navigator. GlobalGiving has a Hurricane Irma relief fund set up, with a dedicated page where you can contribute.
World Vision This religious organization is known for putting help on the ground in isolated regions, and has been working in the Third World for decades. It has been criticized for its administrative costs, but gets a passing grade on Charity Navigator’s site. World Vision has a dedicated page for Hurricane Irma relief donations.
Those are some of the better-known organizations involved with the Hurricane Irma relief effort. You may know of others that you trust: if so, give to them. And if you have skills and equipment that could be of use and you’re willing to travel to the Caribbean, consult your local police, fire department or an aid organization that’s organizing a help mission. But authorities advise against just showing up: you could end up adding to the confusion.
Travel is about enriching our lives by seeing new places and meeting new people. But it should also be about giving something back to those people. So when a disaster like Hurricane Irma happens, it’s time for travellers to do what they can to help.
Top photo Hurricanes Irma and Jose By NASA / SNPP / VIIRS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Saint Maarten after Hurricane Irma By Ministery of Defense, Netherlands – Defensie met hulpgoederen naar Caribisch gebied, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62283042