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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.

mepal3Along 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.

Nepal1Nepal 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.

nepal2It 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