Disaster Relief


The catastrophic earthquake and tsunami is south Asia resulted in worldwide shock and then an outpouring of aid. It wasn�(tm)t difficult to write a check, nor was it difficult to find relief agencies eager to accept donations.

Money poured in, in some cases overwhelming the beneficiaries. Doctors Without Borders announced two weeks after the tsunami that it had received all the money it could use for tsunami relief and urged donors to contribute undesignated funds to general disaster assistance. The Red Cross, although still accepting money for tsunami relief, has also set a cap for those donations.

Following the similarly catastrophic tragedy of the Sept. 11 attacks, the “September 11th Fund” was quickly founded and also quickly inundated with donations. Four months after the event, in January 2002, the fund announced that it had received all it needed to accomplish its goals (more than $500 million) and encouraged future donors to give to other charities.

Our generous response to those horrifying tragedies illustrates how quickly our hearts and wallets can be opened, but it also brings into question our charitable goals when equally great – or greater – needs exist. Giving in response to catastrophe is compassionate and morally sound. But the total ethics of our charitable giving needs examination when transient, spectacular tragedies are overfunded while ongoing and endemic tragedies are often ignored.

The sudden devastation of catastrophe demands an equally quick response. Unlike poverty or hunger, we could respond to the tsunami now – but not years from now. Because the number of people affected was large, we responded generously. But because the number was small, relative to other tragedies, and limited (the tsunami would not strike again) we felt confidant that our donations would actually make a difference.

Because tragedies like war and disease are so pervasive and intractable we despair at their solution. We cope with their presence by becoming numb. Our compassion is stirred, our hearts break, but our emotional numbness prevents action. We sew up our wounded hearts and move on.

As my friends and I wrote our tsunami checks in the last few weeks, many of us expressed the concern that our donations actually reach the people in need. But what most of us didn�(tm)t pause to consider is why we were giving now, to this cause and not at other times to other causes? In the hands of an ethical charity our checks would eventually ease the pain of the tsunami victims. Yet the pain of other sufferers elsewhere in the world was no less great for them having been victims to non-catastrophic tragedies that hadn�(tm)t captured our attention.

What we need is an ethic of charity that motivates us to give to ongoing, endemic needs as much as our natural horror motivates us to give to catastrophic relief.

Biblical examples of giving see charity as automatic and constant: a spiritual act based on gratitude for our own blessings, not prompted by particular needs in the community. Abraham gives one-tenth of the spoils of war (Genesis 14:20), Jacob makes a similar vow (Genesis 28:22) and Leviticus tells us, “A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord” (Leviticus 27:30). Maimonides advises the ethic of giving not in response to need but to prevent need. He writes as the highest step of the golden ladder of giving, “Anticipate charity by preventing poverty” such as by teaching a trade.

Giving in response to catastrophic need will always be a spiritual urge above and beyond our regular charity. Here�(tm)s how I suggest catastrophic need doesn�(tm)t become our only impulse to charity.

• Begin by naming the core values that guide your life. If you can�(tm)t do this, examine the values revealed through your life choices: where do you work, where do you spend your free time, what stories tug your heart, what activities give you the greatest satisfaction?

• Next, name the causes you wish to fight (poverty, hunger, disease, war) or support (education, freedom, human rights). The causes should flow from your values.

• Research organizations working on these causes and select a few as beneficiaries of your charity.

• Create a personal budget by approximating your yearly income and expenses. Challenge yourself to set aside 5 to 10 percent of your income for charity and divide that amount among the organizations you�(tm)ve selected. You might designate a portion of your charitable budget as “catastrophe relief.” If it hasn�(tm)t been used by the end of the year you can write an additional check to your main charity.

When a catastrophe occurs, you can then use your budget to fit your response within a reasoned, values-based, system of giving. Instead of reacting emotionally merely to relieve your own horror you can base your response on questions such as, “Does providing this relief support my values? Will writing this check reduce the amount I give elsewhere and is that OK with me?” Following that internal discussion even a decision not to write a check can be a morally legitimate response.

All giving relieves both the giver and the receiver. Giving should make us feel good and relieving our own emotional suffering is as good a reason to give as any. But healing the world demands more than an emotional response to catastrophes; it demands a generous, considered response to all instances of suffering.