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Why "giving help" doesn't always help

Two days ago I read a plea from the Polish government asking that people please stop sending clothes for refugees fleeing Ukraine. Two days prior to that, I warned a heartwarmingly well-intentioned travel website that allowing people to publish private details regarding housing and transportation needs of fleeing Ukrainians would soon draw human traffickers who prey on vulnerable people like refugees -- people between state protection mechanisms, unfamiliar with the language, unable to meet basic daily needs of food, water and shelter. And I was right. And they appreciated the advice and created security measures.

In the humanitarian world, expertise is often incredibly undervalued by the public, the media and by donors. Instead, we read stories about young people from Harvard building housing apps (with the same problems as those in the above paragraph), we are encouraged to donate our money to organizations making big promises, and we are made to feel that if we are not helping, we are hurting.

Sometimes, however, the opposite is true, and our help -- no matter how well-intentioned -- is hurting. And the only way to tell the difference is to do the research and build a relationship with an organization you trust: to get the job done, to deliver what they promise, and crucially to understand whether what they promise is legal or moral or just or problematic or even hurting the people they purport to help.

When I worked on evacuations in Afghanistan, I was astonished to see organizations make tens of millions overnight on social media, after promising to fly in charter planes and "extract" Afghans. The donors to these entities did not stop to ask themselves whether private citizens could (let alone should) negotiate landing and take off rights (not to mention landing rights once they left Afghanistan), in an active war zone, with people engaging in massive human rights violations. In fact, they couldn't negotiate those things, and moreover, they should not have tried. I was interviewed about my myriad encounters with people "operating" in Afghanistan just after the Taliban takeover, who knew nothing about Afghanistan, knew nothing about how their actions actually hurt the people they professed interest in helping and did not seem to care once they were so informed. They should not have asked for donations, and donors should not have given them without a modicum of due diligence - not if they wanted to help.

This problem has existed since humanitarian aid and donor solicitations has existed. When I worked in Bosnia not long after the war, my office was next to a warehouse full of expired pharmaceuticals that had been sent, unsolicited. The UN agency I worked for had to pay to store the drugs for years because, not only were they of no use, but they couldn't be safely disposed of. The money spent on warehousing those useless donations could have been spent on actual needs of actual people.

When I worked in Chad, I was often invited to sit on "stools," when I visited the homes of neighbors. The "stools" were cookstoves, purchased with money from LiveAid. Millions of dollars were raised, with little thought about how to distribute the funds, to whom, and how it would help. So stoves for outdoor use had been purchased and delivered to homes all over the Sahel. The idea behind the stoves was wonderful - they were efficient, in terrain with little available wood. The problem was that not a single woman, the people who predominantly did the cooking, had been asked whether they would use such a stove. Had they been asked, they would have said that they needed fires burning inside their homes to keep out insects and snakes, and that they never would have used a stove designed for outdoor use. But they weren't asked, and they were too polite to decline the "gift."

Not all gifts are gifts. And not all well-intentioned giving helps. Shortly after volunteers were arriving in Poland and Slovenia and Romania to help Ukrainians as they fled, each government issued pleas for people to stop coming; there was too much congestion and they were making the already 60 hour lines to enter even longer. Police were called to buildings in Poland where foreign entities, once again, had taken children from their home countries without appropriate permissions, claiming that the children were orphans with no proof of the fact, and seeking to relocate the children to third country host families. This might be well-intentioned, but it is also illegal and incredibly dangerous and problematic. Nevertheless, the organizations engaging in the activity raise millions of dollars to carry it out, because of the desire of good-hearted people to "do something to help."

What is needed in places like Ukraine and the bordering countries to which people are fleeing is logistical expertise -- people with years of experience organizing supplies in and adjacent to war zones. What is needed is humanitarian expertise -- people with years of experience triaging the needs of refugees and adapting to their ever changing needs. What is needed is legal assistance for people seeking to move from one country to another, even as countries shift their border and national security and visa restrictions change daily.

Give, but do research before giving. Give, but be thoughtful in your giving. Assist, but assist experts who need your support to engage in the work they have undertaken for years. Give, knowing that your "gift" is, indeed, a gift.

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