Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Haiti Earthquake of 2010, Charity, and Transformation

I was in Taiwan recently when an earthquake hit that island, and measured 6.4 in Taipei. Although my hotel shook a bit and I knew immediately what we were experiencing, life seemed to go on quite normally outside my hotel window. In fact, a colleague that was attending the International Conference on NPO Accountability 2009 hosted by Taiwan NPO Self-Regulation Alliance and the National Taiwan University, with me was out shopping at the time and did not even realize that there had been an earthquake until he read about it the next day in the local newspaper.

The following day I had the opportunity to visit Taipei 101 and go to the top observation deck. Life was quite normal and busy for that time of the year, just a week before Christmas. Until the new building in Dubai, Taipei 101 was the tallest building in the world. How could such a structure have survived an earthquake of the magnitude of the one which just hit Taiwan the night before? Had there been damage, my guess is that the direction of the conference on NPO accountability might have changed.

Now, just three weeks later, on 12 January 2010, an earthquake with a catastrophic magnitude of 7.0 hit Haiti, causing unimaginable damage and loss of life. The world woke up and the compassion and panic to do something quickly came to life. Governments sprang into action. The third sector spang into action, soliciting donations, primarily in the form of money, and sending relief workers to Haiti. Pictures in the newspapers and on television all over the world settled in with appropriate seriousness calling for sober reflection.

And, lest our attention flag, once again today, 20 January, another earthquake hits Haiti, once again sending frightened people out into the streets. As if there was not enough damage from the first quake, this one produced a little more damage, reminding people of the perilous situation in the country and the need for help. All the time, there have been smaller earthquakes striking Guatemala, but apparently not causing significant damage.

One of the principal concerns with the devastating loss of life and destruction of property, was the lack of access to Port-au-Prince because of the damage to the airport, the resulting inability to rescue those buried under the collapsed buildings, and to dispose of the bodies of those who had been killed in the earthquake before the onset of disease and contamination of the surrounding area and panic.

Upon arriving in Oxford, England this past weekend, I was reminded Sunday of a similar, although far more devastating earthquake, of many years ago. It was the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. That earthquake was followed by a tsunami and fires that caused virtual destruction of Lisbon, and indeed of the Kingdom of Portugal. Eighty-five percent of Lisbon's buildings were destroyed, and 30,000 to 40,000 people in Lisbon with its population of 200,000 were killed by the earthquake, fires, and tsunami. An additional 10,000 were killed in Morocco, although the estimated number of dead is hard to determine,

Although we moderns always immediately look to governments and the third sector to quickly mobilize for relief efforts, many of the same questions occur with each major disaster, whether the result natural disasters, such as the earthquake in Haiti, or human caused disasters such as the attack on 11 September 2001.

Part of the significance of the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 was that it struck on Sunday morning, 1 November, a major religious holiday, All Saints Day, and destroyed almost every church in the city killing thousands of worshippers and causing much confusion and distress among the citizens of the Roman Catholic country.

Theologians, church leaders, and philosophers speculated on whether this devastating earthquake was a manifestation of the anger of God brought about by a city that was filled with sin. Voltaire who witnessed the quake, paradied this line of thinking in his satirical novel, Candide. Many found it difficult to reconcile the scope of death and destruction with the idea of a benevolent God. The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 was something of a watershed in European theological reflection of the time. Candide was Voltaire's way of grappling with the problem of suffering and evil, and, proclaiming that the philosophy of "Optimism," the Church, and the reigning order of France, and Europe generally, were all deficient and callous responses to the human condition.

But, even for us moderns in the beginning of the 21st Century, the questions persist although we are quick to recognize that the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 gave birth to the modern scientific understanding of earthquakes and the development of seismology. For even now following the tsunamic in South Central Asia in 2005, many suggested that it was the punishment of God as a result of human failure: fighting among the Muslims in Ace Province of Indonesia, insufficient devotion among the Hindus and Buddhists in the area, the presence of morally lax Europeans on holidays on the beaches of South Asia. Similar questions have been voiced with respect to the earthquakes now in Haiti this year. For example, are these earthquakes in Haiti, and particularly the earthquake of 10 January 2010, the results of God's anger and punishment for some agreement the Haitians made with the Devil to get out from under the rulership of France a century ago. For many, this simply gave the opportunity to mock those with religious beliefs that could even raise such a question.

Joseph Haydn's "The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross" is a marvelous instrumental piece of music, consisting of seven movements, each matching the text of each word of Christ on the cross, and the final movement, Il Terremoto (Earthquake), based on the text of Matthew 27:51ff. According to this text,

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open . . . . And when the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened,they were terrified . . . .

Much of the work was contemplative and consolatory. But, Haydn had marked this last movement, Presto e con tutta forza, to represent the supernatural divine intervention, closing the piece with a fortississimo, the only such marking in the entire work. As one reviewer put it, this sense of upheaval is given its most palpable expression in this final movement depicting the earthquake. Jagged unisons, cross-rhythms and obsessively repeated motivic material create the impression that the natural world is reeling, pulling apart under the weight of humanity's sin and loss

Surely Joseph Haydn was well aware of the Lisbon Eartquake of 1755 when he composed this orchestral work. And indeed, a number of commentators have suggested that he had this in mind when he composed this last movement. That he recognized that suffering is a reality which we cannot escape, and that it is through its transforming nature that we are able to express our compassion for others who are suffering, that it focuses our attention on what is really important, and that it teaches us how to live with suffering.

Over the past week I have received a number of queries from news services, and have observed that more people and organizations have visited my posts of 11 September 2009, 23 September 2009, 1 October 2009, and 22 November 2009 than for any prior post. My only guess is that the catastrophy in Haiti has prompted considerable humanitarian interest in the role of the third sector in addressing the crisis in that country. My noting these references to those particular posts, and responding to electronic inquiries have caused me to go back to those posts, particularly the post of 23 September 2009 and reflect on what I wrote.

On reflection, I also cannot help but wonder if what I wrote then seems a little cynical to me now. It was not my intent to be, nor my intent, to sound cynical when I raised the question whether much of giving in the case of natural disasters is impulse giving based on the images we see on television and in the print media, and wonder whether our concern for transparency and accountability on the part of the sector is of little importance to our giving decisions. Perhaps I should have expressed my question a little more sensitively and perhaps correctly. For example, could it be that our compassion overshadows our concern for charity accountability as long as we feel that we are not being scammed or defrauded.

One of the queries I received from a news service raised three questions. For the pupose of this post, the third question seemed most pertinent. Speaking about severe earthquakes and major natural disasters, the question was: Should one's giving strategy be different for these regions? For example: Is it more important to give to victims in Haiti than, say, Europe or the US? Do the dollars go further?

Writing the post of 23 September, my discussion was in the abstract. There were no immediate major natural disasters that attracting international attention. The question then, as it is now is how much giving to major disaster relief, such as that which we have seen in Haiti over the last two weeks, is based on intelligent decisionmaking with respect to whether particular charities are accountable to the public generally, and accountable specifically with respect to the projects addressing a particular natural disaster and the need for immediate aid and assistance to the victims of such a disaster.

Without ignoring or diminishing the importance of accountability and transparency, my sense is that we become transformed by the sight of what we observe in the devastation, the loss of life, the magnitude of the injury, and the apparent lack of hope on the part of the victims, and we experience a level of compassion quite different from that which we experience on a daily basis toward those less fortunate that us.

This raises, it seems to me, a number of interesting questions. First, the words "accountability" and "transparency" are really quite vague and overused. Both are terms in Google searches that are used more frequently than almost any other word or term. Indeed, they have become so overused in so many contexts that one wonders whether perhaps they have lost, or are losing their meanings. But, that is the subject of further discussion on future post.

My point here is that we feel an outpouring of compassion in these situations, and our giving which is mostly impulse giving, goes to charitable organizations with which we are familiar and which are generally recognized to be credible, accountable, and responsible charitable organizations. For most of us, we assume that the donation is safe and is used for the purpose for which it was solicited. We might worry about percentages that are allocated to administrative and fundraising expenses. However, seldom to we seek financial reports from the charities to which we might give just to determine how much of our dollar will go to the specific need that drew our attention to the reason for giving.

A word we frequently hear in the context of giving to charity, or in the context of the responsibility of charity to be accountable is the word "Stewardship." Although widely used in connection with fundraising and the management of nonprofit organizations, the word has a distinctive religious connotation. It describes our responsibility for what has come into our possession, and indeed our responsibility to care for the earth, as one in which we are stewards, or trustees for that which has been entrusted to our care. Thus, we as individuals, may have a moral responsibility to care for the safekeeping of our resources and maybe to use them wisely for the care of and compassion toward those around us who are suffering or in need. But, for the charitable organization engaged in providing relief and care to those in need, such as those who are victims of the Haiti earthquake of 2010, that charity has a moral responsibility as a steward of those resources which have been entrusted to it for the relief of suffering and the restoration of hope to those who have been so adversely affected by the earthquake.

It seems to me that it is at this point where the role of charity monitoring agencies and organizations becomes important. While we may not have the details regarding the transparency and accountability of the charity to which we give for the emergency disaster relief, we should be able to act on our compassion if we give responsibly to known charities that are on the site of need and that have submitted themselves to some form of accreditation or are accredited or approved members in a self-regulation, or independent monitoring organization. The question, it seems, is how we determine whether our impulse to give arises out of true compassion or out of some momentary emotional impulse. Perhaps this should be a subject for another post and for feedback from those reading this post.

It would be a pity were we to be immobilized and unable to give simply because we were too concerned about the accountability and transparency of the charity soliciting money without really understanding what that meant or whom we could trust for recognition of the acceptability of that organization.


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