On the ground

When bad things happen in the world and the social media channels are clogged with news reports, photos, and tales of loss and devastation, my first thought is usually: Thank God I’m not there. This is followed almost immediately by sympathy for those who are, and in quick succession, consideration of what I can do to help.

Along with all the reports of the devastation wreaked by the earthquakes in Nepal came a veritable deluge of appeals from international aid agencies looking for money to help those who had been made homeless as a result of Mother Nature’s latest onslaught. Lacking patience and wanting to act immediately, I was tempted. All I needed to do was to give my credit card details and key in an amount. Or use PayPal. Or make a bank transfer. I could do all three. But something held me back.

I have an innate distrust of big aid agencies. I don’t doubt for a minute that they are a necessary thread in the fabric of our society; that they have a role to play in trying to mitigate the effects of natural disasters; that they are staffed with very qualified, able people who work hard on the ground to make a difference.  But…

I begrudge the 35% or so of my donation that would be spent on fundraising and administration and yet I know that marketing is necessary in order to attract more donations.  I know that for the most part, the professionals in charge deserve the salaries they receive; they’re professionals. The plush offices though – those I can’t rationalise. But it’s not just about the agencies themselves and how they operate, it’s the scale on which they do so.

I’ve heard stories of supplies being held at customs, while the plight of those affected worsened; stories of corrupt local officials who take their cut, getting rich off the generosity of some and the misery of others.  So I shy away, keeping my money until I can find someone on the ground that I can trust to spend it – all of it – in the best way possible.


Nepal was difficult. It took me a while to track down Mr B. My friend who introduced us said she’d trust him to the very core of her DNA. And I trust her. Ergo, I trust him. He’s in the tour business, the son of a Tibetan, and lives with his family in Nepal. His staff in the villages outside Kathmandu have lost their homes; they have nowhere to live. Monsoon season is just months away and if they’re to be rehoused, they need help – fast. He described the latest quake as if ‘somebody was trying to pull our office building from its root (underground) and was going to throw it’. I cannot begin to imagine what that must be like, but I can sympathise and I can help.


It took a week of emails back and forth to get the right bank account details – the IBANs and the BICs – and then to figure out how to word the transfer so that he wouldn’t have to  pay VAT. But we sorted it. The money is en route. He wrote to ask me how I’d like him to spend it. I told him to spend it as he thought best. Who am I to tell him what needs doing?  I’m not there.  I’m living in Budapest, on the other side of the world, a city on which Mother Nature has so far cast a rather benevolent eye.

First published in the Budapest Times 29 May 2015

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3 Responses

  1. This article (http://www.tampabay.com/topics/specials/worst-charities1.page) tells you more than you ever wanted to know about the 50 worst US charities. Congratulations, Mary, for finding a way to make your donation count. It’s not easy. Even with the best of intentions, containers of food, clothing and medicines can sit in the hot sun and rot while waiting, sometimes months, or even years, to be delivered to needy people (mismanagement, politics, theft, and more). By then, of course, the products are irretrievably spoiled, and the donator organizations are often out the price of the container (the ‘box’), which has not been returned to the shipper. My current preferred method is probably not the best, but is not the worst. ‘Pay it forward’ to an individual or family can often be the most immediate and effective way to help someone, even if it’s not the neediest person in the world. What are others doing?

  2. From Anon – too interesting not to share:

    Today there was an earthquake in Japan. At 8.5 It was approximately one and a half times the strength of the earthquake that hit Nepal (7.8). Nobody died.
    The earthquake in Chile in 2010 was even stronger (8.8) and 550 people died. The earthquake which struck Chile in 1960 was the strongest ever recorded (9.5) and somewhere between 2,000 and 6,000 died. This 1960 quake released about 4 times the energy of the Nepali quake. The difference in the casualty figures between the two quakes is interesting. The two earthquakes were roughly in the same area although the 2010 quake hit a larger city. The reason for the reduced casualties reflects the actions of the Chilean government regarding building and construction standards.
    Building standards cost virtually nothing to write, implement and enforce. Moreover it is not always the case that construction costs are greater. The key is engineering (already done) and education.
    In 1960 the population of Nepal was about 9.5m. Today it is about 28.5m. It follows therefore that some two thirds of the Nepalese population are likely to live in buildings constructed since 1960. Earthquakes are not new and Nepal / India suffered a similar earthquake in 1934 ( magnitude 8.0 and >7,000 dead) and the spire of Calcutta cathedral fell over.
    Earthquake deaths are usually as much the result of human failure to learn and adapt as they are to mother nature’s efforts.
    By the way what happened to Pest in 1836? Mother nature AKA the Danube washed over half of it away.

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