Monday 18 November 2013

A Xmas gift that's so good

Get into the festive spirit by helping the thousands of typhoon victims in the Philippines
By Jessica Cheam, The Sunday Times, 17 Nov 2013

This Christmas, as many of us in Singapore gather in dining rooms to enjoy roasted turkey and wine, 800,000 or so people in the Philippines will be homeless after the devastation of Super Typhoon Haiyan.

Hopefully, in a month from now, the victims of the biggest natural disaster in the Philippines in recent years may at least not be hungry.

Media reports have detailed challenges in getting food, water and medicine to remote areas cut off in the aftermath of the storm, and some desperate survivors have started to loot neighbours' homes, shops and warehouses.

But the international community is responding quickly by sending aid, with the United Nations launching an appeal to raise US$300 million (S$374 million) in emergency aid funding, and countries such as the United States, Britain and Japan and corporations such as Sweden's Ikea are donating millions of dollars to the relief efforts.

At times like these, you ask what can we, located thousands of kilometres away, do to help?

Well, plenty. But there are some ways of giving that are better than others - just like investing.

Calls for old clothes and shoes, for example, have been making the rounds on social media pages.

But relief workers have highlighted that unwanted clothes and items often end up as waste in the streets of the disaster areas, as in the areas affected by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

Access to the affected people is also extremely limited and should be reserved for supplies such as medicine, tents and food items.

The simplest way to help, say experts, is simply to donate money - not unloading your unwanted items.

My husband said simply to me a few days ago: "Your Christmas present this year has gone to Oxfam's efforts in the Philippines. Hope you like your present, sorry I didn't ask you what you wanted."

Encouraged by his gesture, I thought that instead of spending money buying gifts we don't need for Christmas, wouldn't it be great if we all donated the money instead to the aid efforts this year?

This year, my group of about 20 close friends - who usually practise the tradition of Secret Santa where we would buy one another gifts with a budget of $20 - have decided to use the money for buying the presents for one another (and more) to make a donation instead.

Then came the question: Whom should we donate to? It was worth some time researching.

Who you give money to is as important as where to invest your money. They each have a different "return of investment".

According to humanitarian aid experts, there are some guidelines for choosing which organisations to give to.

Organisations that have a local presence and connection are more likely to be more effective in navigating the local areas and responding faster.

Agencies which are able to articulate transparently how they are responding to the crisis and exactly what your money will be spent on should also give you more confidence.

Those that buy items locally as much as possible to help rebuild the economy are also preferable to one that buys from overseas suppliers.

My group of friends looked at local and international organisations and shortlisted a few. Local bodies include Singapore Red Cross, Mercy Relief, Habitat for Humanity and World Vision, and international ones include Oxfam, Unicef and the UN refugee agency.

Different organisations spend a different percentage of each dollar you donate on items such as administrative or campaigning costs.

For example, according to Oxfam's website, for every £1 (S$2) donated, 36 pence goes to emergency response, 43 pence to development work and the rest goes to support, running, fund-raising and campaigning costs.

For the UN refugee agency, 10 per cent goes to administrative costs and 90 per cent directly to victims.

The World Vision website states that in the 2012 financial year, 78.8 per cent of its donations was used directly for programmes and the remaining 21.2 per cent was used for communication with donors and public education, and for administration.

The Singapore Red Cross said in response to a query that it recovers no more than 5 per cent in administrative fees for all fund-raising campaigns or public appeals for overseas relief.

We chose to give to the Singapore Red Cross in the end, partly because property developer Oxley Holdings committed to match public donations to its Typhoon Haiyan Relief Appeal, dollar for dollar, up to $1 million.

Since the Singapore Red Cross issued its appeal for donations on Nov 11, it has received more than $145,000 in donations from the public and $200,000 from the Singapore Government. Hopefully by Christmas, this amount would have increased exponentially.

After all, Singapore is a nation that depends heavily on Filipinos to run our country - as maids at home, nurses in hospitals and staff in our services sector and other aspects of the economy.

We should be leaders not only in being the most developed, wealthiest nation in Asia, but also in giving to our neighbours when the need arises.

Relief efforts steered by needs of those affected

WE THANK Mr Peter Loon Seng Chee for sharing his thoughts ("Merely offering cash not enough"; last Thursday) on how aid could be better delivered to the intended beneficiaries.

The Singapore Red Cross (SRC) is mindful that in every disaster, saving the lives of those affected is of paramount importance, and all donations received must be used effectively to alleviate the suffering of the affected people and communities.

Our humanitarian action is hence dictated by the needs of the affected people and our ability to meet such needs.

We work closely with our sister Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies and other reliable partners in the afflicted country to ensure that aid reaches those who need it most, without any discrimination.

The Tidal Waves Asia Fund (TWAF) for the great Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 raised almost $89 million.

About $5 million was utilised for emergency relief supplies.

The remainder was used for early livelihood recovery and rebuilding projects in the affected countries, initiated and undertaken by the SRC, as well as other voluntary welfare organisations and civil groups.

In order to ensure the funds were optimised, a special committee (the Tsunami Reconstruction and Facilitation Committee), comprising SRC and non-SRC members, was formed to approve funding for each project.

At the closure of the TWAF, 69 projects ranging from housing, schools, kindergartens, orphanages, medical clinics, hospitals and community centres were completed.

These efforts are illustrated in a book, Beyond The Tsunami - Rebuilding Communities, Touching Lives, which was widely distributed to our partners and the public.

Following Typhoon Haiyan, the SRC immediately contributed emergency supplies to the Philippine Red Cross for distribution.

A team from the SRC has been in Cebu since last Thursday, delivering food and non-food aid to the affected population.

The team has also been in Ormoc to pave the way for the deployment of our medical teams from Wednesday this week.

Much more aid would be needed both for immediate relief and for the rehabilitation of the devastated communities.

We are heartened by the outpouring of compassion by the Singapore community, which has responded generously.

Every effort in the recovery process requires meticulous planning to ensure that aid goes beyond getting the survivors back on their feet again.

Our goal is to ensure that our recovery efforts empower the survivors, and that the affected communities be self-sustainable again.

Benjamin William
Singapore Red Cross
ST Forum, 18 Nov 2013

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