In response to the extraordinary needs of their city after Hurricane Harvey, Houston philanthropists John and Laura Arnold first gave $5 million to the “Greater Houston Community Foundation’s Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund,” aka the “Mayor’s Fund.”
Following that gift, however, the couple made a second $5 million gift to an atypical organization named GiveDirectly one that had neither previously operated in the United States, nor had worked on natural disasters.
Through their philanthropy, the Arnolds are posing an important question – what’s the best way to deliver resources to a hard-hit community after a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey? We won’t necessarily all agree, nor is there just “one way,” but it’s an important question to keep asking.
Before Harvey, GiveDirectly had only worked in East Africa. Their mission is to give money, unconditionally, to the most poverty-stricken people in the world. They don’t do “development work” the regular way by building clean-water wells, or houses, or hospitals, or give goats or chickens or food or clothing or solar-powered generators. They do “unconditional cash transfers” (UCT), and they trust the recipients know best how to use it to alleviate their own poverty.
GiveDirectly’s operation in Texas following Harvey is a test of whether that theory of “unconditional cash only, not stuff” could apply to disaster-relief in the United States.
As John Arnold explained to me, he and his wife’s thought process for supporting GiveDirectly was as follows:
First, the private sector can do a great job with the logistics of delivering needed goods and services to Texans, even in the face of catastrophic flooding, as occurred following Harvey. He marveled at watching ten fully-stocked Wal-Mart tractor trailers arriving early after the rains, ready to supply Houstonians.
Second, the missing piece for many people hurt by the storm is simply: money. Wal-Mart, Arnold reasoned, will figure out how to provide the right stuff, as long as people have money in their hands to pay for that stuff.
Third, the best relief is probably a group that can just deliver money into the hands of people who need it.
“Everybody’s highest priority is different,”
Arnold told me.
“Some people’s car was damaged and they can’t get to work. Others had their work interrupted and they just need temporarily help to cover next month’s rent.”
So the Arnolds chose GiveDirectly for their $5 million.
Funded by the Arnolds and other donors, GiveDirectly set up a plan to deliver pre-loaded Visa debit-cards with a $1,500 value to impacted households in Texas. In Rose City, a badly-flooded town next to Beaumont that I wrote about last week, GiveDirectly arrived in October to deliver $1,500 to each one of the estimated 210 households, without conditions.
Rose City Mayor Bonnie Stephenson confirmed working with GiveDirectly to reach substantially all households in her town, holding town meetings and community gatherings to help get the word out. GiveDirectly reports successfully distributing 180 cards to the intended 210 households, according Catherine Diao, Communcations Lead for the organization.. In a few households, says Diao, they simply could not locate eligible recipients despite multiple efforts to do so.
GiveDirectly next expanded its giving to the Lakewood area of Northeast Houston. As of now they have handed out and estimated total of 1,200 pre-loaded cards of $1,500 each, with the intention of distributing up to 3,000 total.
Their methods are still evolving. In Rose City, the cards were meant to be “universal,” meaning that everyone with a household address in town qualified for the funds. In the Northeast section of Houston, GiveDirectly is attempting to target the $1,500 pre-paid Visa cards to only those who have demonstrated property losses.
As John Arnold explained, a classic problem of relief is to design a system that is restrictive enough to prevent fraud, but not overly restrictive that it prevents delivery of resources. It’s safe to say no system is perfect.
The normal model of disaster relief is that a combination of the federal government (primarily FEMA), big organizations like the Red Cross, and state and local officials coordinate major resources, while more locally-focused groups fill in the gaps with stuff at hand, like food, water and blankets.
Problems plague each of these responses, of course. One recurring problem with the smaller “stuff at hand” solution is that the stuff may not reflect what people actually need most, at any given time. The appeal of UCT is that recipients decide exactly what they need, not donors.
At the larger scale, FEMA and Red Cross have far more capacity than local groups to deliver resources. But one recurring complaint about the bigger organizations is whether the big infrastructure and big dollars are efficiently spent. In addition, qualifying for substantial FEMA grants, or even $400 Red Cross payments, involves engaging with a bureaucracy that may seem confusing or overly strict, a bundle of “red tape,” to use a word I heard repeatedly from folks in Rose City, including Mayor Stephenson. GiveDirectly’s attempt with UCT is to make delivery simple.
GiveDirectly, by their own estimation, regards their efforts in Texas as exploratory, but in line with their dual purpose of giving relief and pushing for more efficiency among relief organizations.
As President and co-founder of GiveDirectly Michael Faye wrote me,
“Recipients prefer cash and are frustrated with the opacity and efficiency of the traditional options, and want a direct giving alternative. With donors wanting it, and recipients preferring it, why shouldn’t it exist? At worst, it’ll help people rebuild their lives, and at best, it will force a conversation and potentially shift the [philanthropic] sector.”
John Arnold also explicitly called out the dual purpose of his gifts. First, there’s the charitable reason, which he defined as just providing help to people in Texas who need it the most. Second, there’s the philanthropic reason, which he defines as attempting to be thoughtful about solving problems at their root causes. The combination of charity and philanthropy, I gathered from our conversation, is why GiveDirectly appealed to him and his wife.
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