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Mobile is Changing Everything – Except the Direction of Where Donations Go

Aug 29, 2012

By Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Officer

In January 2010, a devastating magnitude-7 earthquake struck the Caribbean island of Haiti whose epicenter lay just west of its capital, Port-au-Prince.

Within hours, photos and videos of the devastation – entire neighborhoods wiped out, mangled bodies everywhere, a partially-collapsed Presidential Palace and so on were the main story for the world’s news media.

Yet soon after, a second news media narrative began taking shape and this one far more positive. Within two days of the crisis, Americans alone had raised $5 million for the Red Cross’ relief efforts in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country…by sending in small donations via text message.

At the time I praised the work of relief agencies and felt that if there was any relative “good news” (a very relative term considering the level of disaster) it was that Haiti, possibly for the first time, and without question on the largest scale to date, demonstrated to the world the power of mobile giving and how millions of SMS messages containing $10 donations added up. One week after the quake, the Red Cross had raised $22 million through texting alone.

But as the Atlantic hurricane season began unfurling its wrath late last week with tropical storm – now Hurricane – Isaac, media briefly returned to the impoverished land and beamed back disturbing images. In the 959 days since the historic temblor, as the world has been consumed by an onslaught news both serious and silly, I was disturbed to learn that some 400,000 of Haiti’s 9.8 million citizens remain in abysmal tent cities and unimaginable squalor following the quake – not to mention the island nation’s non-earthquake-induced entrenched poverty.

Images like the ones we’ve been treated to again cry out for an answer: why do we as decent, caring and law-abiding citizens allow such poverty to exist? Why can some buy iPads or microwave frozen dinners and why must others survive in shantytowns and consider electricity a “luxury?” More pragmatically, the still-battered landscape and still-battered people deserve another question answered. Where was all that money spent and what good has it done?

Thankfully, all is not bleak. Objective new reports have repeatedly found that much good has come from the relief effort and the money raised. In January of this year the Huffington Post produced an excellent infographic that broke down the numbers. Here are some big ones as of that article’s writing:

  • 50% of earthquake debris has been removed and 20% recycled
  • 100,000 received homes from the Red Cross
  • Of the $4.6 billion pledged by donors, only $2.38 has been spent

This all suggests significant improvement. But the article was equally quick to point out that millions of dollars alone were also spent on advertising campaigns “telling people to wash their hands.” Other news outlets like Global Post attributed the siphoning of funds to Haiti’s notorious black market, proving once again that for many, crime pays. So for all the good mobile donations have done, it seems it did very little in changing human nature, and if anything, exposed in all its gruesomeness, how a survival of the fittest mentality can take on such inhuman qualities.

Two years and seven months after the Haiti earthquake a new threat from Mother Nature is bearing down on New Orleans –a city once brought to its knees by hurricane Katrina. You can be sure as in Haiti, mobile donations will figure prominently there too. But perhaps, we can all learn an important lesson. Money coming in via text, like a torrent flood water, must be controlled so that rather than inundating areas in confusing, haphazard (and dangerous manners) it flows to where it’s needed most, giving government and watchdog organizations time to monitor those who seek to game the system.

Here’s a suggestion: what about SMS giving integrated with social media and photo identification – someway to demonstrate that money that was texted actually goes to a specific person, city, town, or group?

Is this a bulletproof idea? No. But at least it proves that we’re trying and that we’re continuing to find new ways to use new technology. Levee-like controls on mobile giving are a good way to start, even if such safeguards have done little to help Haiti’s 400,000 virtual homeless. But as hurricane Isaac sets course for the Crescent City, another real-world test might be hours away.

Louisianans and Haitians both deserve we get this right, finally.

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