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God Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise…

January 2011

Those living on the margins have very little wiggle room for survival even in good times. But when disasters happen – be they natural or human made – simply not falling off the face of the earth takes Herculean effort.

Disasters happen, and the proverbial creek does rise. But which type of disaster (flood, war, famine, tsunami, etc.) and when remain anyone’s best guess. That’s why planning for a disaster is nearly impossible in the specific, but it is absolutely necessary in general.

At Grassroots International, our disaster strategy mirrors our overall grantmaking strategy. Whenever we deliver critical humanitarian and rehabilitation aid (as in Gaza after the bombing in 2009 or Haiti following the earthquake in 2010), 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 community-based 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. Foreign food aid may offer some short term relief but, in the process, wreak havoc on long term food sustainability.
  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.

Grassroots International has long-standing relationships with on-the-ground organizations in places where emergencies and disasters occur. Our partnerships with dozens of organizations and globally with the Via Campesina enable us to identify community-led solutions. When the [inevitable] disaster strikes, we can mobilize networks to support local responses.   God willing, and the creek don’t rise, we focus on building stronger community organizations to create a more sustainable future, and to win the human rights to land, water and food.  This also means taking steps to protect from potential disasters, like planting trees to stop run-off and building cisterns to collect water that can be used in a drought. But when the creek rises, the same groups of peasants and family farmers, women and indigenous communities play critical roles in making sure aid reaches those most affected.

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