Harnessing Generosity Hastens Post-Disaster Recovery

In the crucial days after a disaster, donations in cash have been found to be the most useful for recovery, as documented in an APEC case study into member economies’ disaster responses. With the Asia-Pacific region bearing 70 per cent of the world’s natural disasters, this analysis now gives APEC economies an opportunity to channel people's desire to help into effective and appropriate relief efforts.

“In the aftermath of a major disaster, the challenge lies in guiding the urge to help in ways that deliver the best results,” said Karen Gruebnau, co-author of a year-long analysis of disaster responses and donor strategies in China; the Philippines; Mexico; and the United States. This APEC-sponsored case study sought to develop practical guidance on how to best harness the generous spirit after disasters strike.

Often, people donate clothes and other goods, but others also give inappropriate items like pageant gowns and high-heeled shoes. As a result, some 60 per cent of in-kind donations is unhelpful to post-disaster aid. Volunteers are required to sort through and store these products, which take critical resources away from the people that need help during these crucial days of recovery.

"Our study reveals that through cash donations, humanitarian groups can give what's required at ground zero,” said Gruebnau, who is also senior communications manager with ICF, the firm commissioned under the United States-APEC Technical Assistance to Advance Regional Integration (US-ATAARI) project to undertake the study on behalf of APEC’s Emergency Preparedness Working Group.

Cash and transparency

Responses to major natural disasters on both sides of the Pacific were analyzed. These are the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake that left 4.8 million people homeless in China and the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan (local name Yolanda) that killed thousands and displaced 4.1 million people in the Philippines. The case study on Mexico looked at both Tropical Storm Manuel on the Pacific coast, and Hurricane Ingrid on the Gulf Coast. In the US, two disasters that happened in 2013, a two-mile wide EF5 tornado that hit the small town of Moore, Oklahoma and the Colorado floods that brought USD1 billion in damage, were studied.

“Where possible, local disaster relief agencies should consider cash-for-work programs,” said Tara Hamilton, co-author of the study and communications strategist at ICF. “The Philippines experiences an average of 20 typhoons each year, and the relief agencies frequently make cash transfer payments to affected citizens.”

By injecting money directly into disaster-struck communities, aid agencies help local producers and retailers to keep their businesses open. Local markets should continue to function throughout the recovery period because fewer people leave disaster-affected areas. Most often, communities suffer less dislocation, and victims can swiftly re-establish their livelihoods.

Gruebnau also found that to maintain public confidence, relief agencies should take a transparent approach to cash donation campaigns and spending.

“Analysis of the responses to China’s Sichuan earthquake showed the Chinese civil society encouraging people to donate to vetted organizations. These organizations were, in turn, urged to publish their implementation plans and budget sheets," she said. "Establishing transparency in donation programs is essential to sustaining donor confidence."

Social media

The report also identified social media as a vital medium to get this important message across to stakeholders in the aftermath of a disastrous event.

“Social media gives a tremendous opportunity for the donor community to reach as many people as they can in the shortest amount of time,” said Hamilton. “Relief organizations need to understand that social media is now a primary communication tool. It also gives the opportunity to monitor their campaigns in real time.”

According to Hamilton, an analysis of Sina Weibo activity after the Sichuan Earthquake showed that close to 1,300 government agencies and more than 2,000 media outlets shared information on this platform. Messages related to recovery and appropriate donations peaked immediately after the earthquake.

This analysis led the study to recommend that organizations and agencies should engage in social media strategies as part of domestic disaster-preparedness measures.

“Success depends on ultra-fast response times, high-impact messaging and great graphics,” said Hamilton. “It also involves getting stakeholders to use pre-agreed hashtags. Additionally, pre-designing online assets like graphics will help agencies create information materials quickly.”

During an appropriate donations workshop held in Lima, Peru in September 2016, the Philippines shared its social media strategy before, during, and after a typhoon hits. At one point in 2014, the government succeeded in rolling-out a unified hashtag for major news organizations, citizens, and government agencies to use. This unprecedented cooperation among private and public bodies effectively led to the consolidation of all information about a typhoon under one keyword search.

Messaging toolkit

The case study yielded a communications toolkit that guides economies and organizations in communicating post-disaster messages to a broad audience in the critical days after a disaster. The kit includes templates for outreach materials to help campaigners reach out to media and relief agencies, as well as sample public service radio scripts and press releases.

“This toolkit brings together the best ideas and planning assets from across the Asia-Pacific region,” said Hamilton. "All the practical tools that agencies need to respond quickly are in one place. When disaster strikes, people are compassionate. With these tools, organizations can implement the most appropriate – and effective – response suitable to the needs of the hour.”

For more information:

Ma. Lizbeth Barona-Edra |