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If you're inspired to head out to the afflicted areas, it's probably better not to. Aid experts say untrained individuals, however well intentioned, only add to the chaos. And if you have seen pictures of victims lacking basic needs like bandages, it probably isn't helpful to donate a big box of gauze pads. Nongovernmental-organization officials say it's often prohibitively expensive to ship such products halfway across the globe. And many of the necessary supplies are available locally. In the hard-hit southern Indian village of Velankanni, for example, there's plenty of medicine. The key, aid workers on the scene say, is making sure it gets delivered to those who need it.
Should you still prefer to send goods, be sure they're appropriate to the region. Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, recalls that after a 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh killed 139,000, "the French were sending frozen croissants and frozen dinners, and there was an American shipment of peanut butter. No one in Bangladesh really knew what it was, and people ended up feeding it to their animals."
If you're worried about the credibility of relief agencies, try to exercise some due diligence. Fraud can occur in the aid field. The major relief agencies tend to be well monitored and respected. So if you want to give to a less known group, make a call or do an Internet search to ensure that it has a track record. And above all, remember: much as they need help now, the millions whose lives have been upended by the earthquake and killer wave that followed will still need help years down the road. Maybe a worthwhile New Year's resolution would be to send a check in 2006 too. --By Bill Powell. With reporting by Neil Gough and Hanna Kite/Hong Kong; James Graff/Paris; Carolina A. Miranda and Deirdre van Dyk/New York; and Alex Perry/Madras, India