How to ensure that your contributions to Pakistani flood relief go to the right place.

Advice on how to make the world better.
Sept. 15 2010 10:27 AM

No Flood of Relief

How to help the Pakistani flooding victims.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

Slide Show: After the Pakistani Floods. Click image to launch.

Dear My Goodness,
I feel very sorry for the people in Pakistan who've lost their homes in the flood, but I'm worried about sending money. Could my donation end up in the pockets of corrupt government officials there? Could my money even somehow benefit terrorists?

—Jan in Schenectady, N.Y.

Dear Jan,
Giving from individual Americans is lagging way behind the need, and it may be because others, like you, are understandably hesitant to give to a place that is far away and seems in many ways alien. Most of us know Pakistan through our news sources as a place that spins off misery—suicide bombings, political assassinations, the 2005 earthquake, and now the Indus River flooding.But it is also simply a place where millions of our fellow human beings have lost their homes and need clean water, food, and shelter.

There are two ways to give that will make sure that your money goes to help some of the nearly 20 million people affected by the flood. No part of your donation will go to the government of Pakistan, the Taliban, or al-Qaida.The first option is to let our State Department send the money on behalf of the citizens of the United States.

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The second is to look for a group with a high rating for efficiency and integrity from one of the charity watchdogs.My own response was to give to Doctors Without Borders, to help prevent epidemics, and to the International Rescue Committee, which was fast off the mark to distribute clean water, hygiene kits, food, and shelter. Mike Young, the International Rescue Committee's regional director for Asia and the Caucasus, said that the IRC has worked in Pakistan for about 30 years and knows and trusts its largely Pakistani staff. As a further safeguard, every individual the IRC hires and every vendor from whom the relief group buys supplies or services is checked through an anti-terrorism compliance database.

I looked at Islamic Relief USA, which has received the most money for Pakistan aid of any U.S.-based humanitarian group (close to $5 million), much of it from some of the 2 million-plus American Muslims.But I was sorry to learn that though they get a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, a similar rating group, CharityWatch.org, has yet to rate the charity. Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, which runs CharityWatch.org, says the group rates a question mark so far. "I would love to have a rating for them," Borochoff told me, "But they haven't responded to our requests for information." Hopefully that'll be cleared up soon: After I sent an e-mail query Monday to Islamic Relief USA about its status, someone from the group contacted CharityWatch.

Within weeks of this year's other great natural disaster, the earthquake in Haiti, Americans gave generouslymore than 30 times as much as they've given to Pakistan, according to this account. The January quake was sudden and shocking, and killed an astounding number of people. Estimates differ, but it may have been as many as 90,000.

Unlike an earthquake, one drastic day followed by aftershocks, a flood is quite literally a rolling disaster, spreading over weeks.It has taken a while for the world to absorb the scale of the damage in Pakistan. The flood has, so far, a low death rate by comparison with Haiti's—fewer than 2,000 fatalities.But about one-tenth of the country's total population of 173 million has been displaced and is now facing disease, famine, and the harshness of winter.One-fifth of the country is underwater; 1.4 million acres of cropland is ruined.Mud homes dissolved, schools were washed away, and at least 200 hospitals and clinics are buried in mud.

Pakistan is half a world away, and Haiti is nearby. The Caribbean country's disaster received extensive media attention in part, frankly, because it was relatively easy for reporters to get there.There were celebrities involvedsinger Wyclef Jean, actor-director Sean Penn, and former President Bill Clinton. For better or worse, we have a sort of parental feeling toward that unlucky island, perhaps a leftover from the Monroe Doctrine.

Pakistan is not only far away, but it is also a country with a shaky government.The United States and Pakistan misunderstand and mistrust one another. We don't trust the current Pakistani government, and Pakistanis don't trust that government, either. According to a Pew Research Center poll, two-thirds of Pakistanis disapproved of the job being done by their president.

Finally, though we're also in an economic slump and likely to be cutting charitable spending in general, you have to wonder whether our ignorance of Islam is a factor. Pakistan has the second-largest Muslim population in the world, after Indonesia. Most of us in the United States know very little about the Muslim faith, and our ignorance has led to fear and some bizarre misconceptions.

This has all reminded me of another religion and another flood in the wheat-growing plains of another continent—the 1997 Red River flood that nearly destroyed Grand Forks, N.D.As a young(ish) reporter, I wrote about the work of the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief team there. The team, mostly retired men from Kentucky with extensive experience mopping up after repeated Ohio River floods, slept on cots in the basement of the local Baptist church and spent their days cleaning up the awful mess in people's homes, for free. (One family had a dead cow float through the living room picture window.)

This was a much less devastating flood than the one in Pakistan. Most of the city's 72,000 residents had to evacuate, but almost all returned; 11 people died.I spent a couple of days shadowing one of the Baptist crew, a 74-year-old former contractor who had not only worked at numerous floods and two hurricanes in the United States, but had also spent a month with a church group rebuilding houses after the 1988 earthquake in Armenia. I asked him whether he would suggest that the woman whose basement he was disinfecting with bleach come to Baptist services the following Sunday."No. She has her religion and I have mine," he replied.Isn't part of the Baptist faith that you should bring others into the fold? His answer, which he said in a matter-of-fact and completely un-pompous way: "My hope is to make my life an example."

—Constance

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

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Constance Casey's "Doing Good" beat for the Newhouse News Service focused on charities, the politics of nonprofits, and finding good solutions to bad problems. She has written on gardening and revolting creatures for Slate.

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