Rethinking Aid

Why does so much emergency and food aid fail?

Our hearts and wallets open up when emergency strikes—whether natural or by the hand of man. Yet so much humanitarian aid fails the most basic standard: do no harm.

In the face of crisis, too often we abandon our principles of what we know makes for good community development and human rights work: Local, representative organizations with deep community roots. In crisis, understandably, we focus on the service-delivery—food rations, medicines, shelter—rather than on the service deliverers.

But at Grassroots, as we deliver critical humanitarian and rehabilitation aid, we keep in mind that aid is power and that our donations—and yours when you entrust your donation to us—affect the relative power of different groups in a crisis situation. When the crisis is over, we seek to leave behind strengthened community institutions, those able to address or avert crises in the future.

Here are a few guidelines we use in our work:

  1. Support agencies that build local capacities and institutions.
  2. If possible, support institutions whose involvement pre-dates the crisis.
  3. Support privately funded initiatives rather than official US aid - USAID brags that for every dollar it spends on aid for countries like Haiti, 84 cents come back to the U.S.
  4. Small is beautiful – We seek deeply-rooted local partners operating at modest scale.
  5. Medical aid in a crisis is often more important than food aid – Food can often be sourced locally, thus helping revive an ailing local economy.
  6. Think beyond the immediate crisis – Where possible, look for groups that will stay with the issue and the people after the headlines (and the funding streams) die down.
  7. If you find a good agency, consider making a long-term commitment to it – Crisis-driven funding makes nonprofit aid agencies difficult to manage. If we like the work during the crisis, we tend to like the agency’s other work as well.
  8. Last (but usually first on donors' minds) support agencies that make effective use of funds – Overhead is not the only issue here, or the most important. We seek a track record of accountability, the capacity to carry out what’s being promised.

Through our partnerships with the Via Campesina and dozens of other organizations and social movements, Grassroots International has long-standing relationships with on-the-ground organizations in places where emergencies and disasters occur. We raise critical funds for organizations with deep community ties and in the U.S., spark discussion on the resource rights inequities—eroded hillsides that can’t stand up to hurricanes or political struggles over scarce water—that lie beneath almost all disasters and emergencies.