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Then there is the help that is no help at all. After the 2004 tsunami, aid poured in from all over the world. But it included tons of outdated or unneeded medicines that Indonesian officials had to throw out. People sent Viagra and Santa suits, high-heeled shoes and evening gowns. A year later, after an earthquake in Pakistan, so much unusable clothing arrived that people burned it to stay warm. It may make us feel good to put together children's care packages with cards and teddy bears--but whose needs are we trying to meet?
Money is fleet and nimble. The very thing that makes it unsatisfying to give makes it powerful to deploy. It can turn into anything--a water bottle, a prefab house, a tetanus shot, a biscuit. It lets relief agencies buy locally whenever possible, supporting local markets for products that are culturally and environmentally right. In the past decade, accountability has become a watchword of relief agencies around the world, with new guidelines to help donors know that their aid won't be wasted. Give money, Presidents Bush and Clinton implore, and by implication, leave the rest to professionals.
If you can't feed a hundred people, Mother Teresa used to say, then feed just one. There are slow-motion disasters everywhere. The Red Cross is doing heroic work in Haiti, but it is also doing it around the corner, when a house burns down. It may not feel glorious, but often the greatest good is accomplished quietly, invisibly. The choice is not either-or. We can give globally and help locally. Either way, the same principle holds in helping as in healing: First, do no harm.