Tsunami: Where Should Your Money Go?

How can you ensure that your contributions are put to best possible use?

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As the world's hearts go out to the victims of the tsunami disaster, countless people around the globe are eager to do what they can to assist relief efforts. So, how can you ensure that your contributions are put to the best possible use?

The World Health Organization says up to 5 million victims lack the basic necessities, such as medical supplies and sanitation facilities, to stay alive. Relief efforts are moving at full speed. But more money doesn't necessarily equal smart money. Whether the aid is effective will depend on how it's distributed and whether it can be sustained beyond the initial crisis stage.

Scores of organizations--some well established, some created in the aftermath of the tsunami--are accepting donations to assist in the relief pipeline. The international aid agency Doctors Without Borders has sent more than 40 workers and 110 tons of relief materials to the region. The multicountry charity CARE is delivering food, water-purification tablets, shelter materials and basic medical supplies to the hardest-hit areas. The International Rescue Committee has airlifted more than 40 tons of water-storage tanks and other emergency materials to survivors. In the region, national disaster funds include the Indian Prime Minister's Relief Fund, Indonesia's National Coordinating Agency for Natural Disaster and Refugees Relief, Malaysia's Asian Tsunami Disaster Fund and Thailand's Office of the Prime Minister.

The U.N.--despite all the controversy that regularly surrounds it--is the go-to agency during an international disaster like this. UNICEF, for example, has already established 200 relief sites and is delivering water-purification systems to arrest the spread of diarrhea. The agency's speed and effectiveness owes partly to the fact that it had people in the affected countries before the tsunami hit.

For global relief efforts to succeed, however, it's critical that they continue to receive funding. The impulse to do something now is commendable, but the process of saving lives and rebuilding communities in a dozen countries will take years. Past calamities have shown that no matter how large the initial contributions, follow-up resources tend to be scarce. That was the case after an earthquake wrecked the Iranian city of Bam in late 2003. "The initial outpouring of relief was generous and swift," says U.N. spokesman Brian Grogan, "but it tapered off as the year went on." Most of the city's 100,000 residents remain in temporary housing (in some cases, tents), and 20 million tons of rubble still must be cleared. Government officials report that of the $1.1 billion in pledged foreign aid, only $17.5 million has arrived, slowing the reconstruction of schools and hospitals.

So if you want to give but haven't yet decided how, that's fine. The precise needs will be clearer perhaps as early as this week, when the U.N. agency that coordinates relief--OCHA, or the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs--compiles the first of its comprehensive assessments of how much money will be needed and what it should be spent on.

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