GlobalGiving :- Agile approach to the Japan Earthquake Disaster, and international development

On March 11, 2011 at 5:46:23 UTC, Japan was rocked by a magnitude 8.9 earthquake. Six days later, the magnitude of the disaster is still unclear, as some sort of radioactive cloud is likely to spread across Japan and the Pacific. Over 10,000 lives are already lost. Yet could have been much, much worse. Had this occurred in California, where at least one nuclear reactor sits just 5 miles from a fault line and was only built to survive a 7.0 earthquake, millions of lives would already be lost.

An 8.9 earthquake is 80 times more powerful than a 7.0, and a 9.0 is 100 times more powerful – because earthquakes are measured on a logarithmic scale. Nature can overwhelm the best modern engineering – and our modern way of life depends on some inherently risky technology. Risk is reality, and how we react to these risks determines our successes and failures. This is true in a crisis just as it is in the 60 year old effort we call “international development.” This presentation is my attempt to connect the dots between the three parts of a disaster response to what we can already see happening in the world in the first five days following this disaster. I’ll also explain how it also applies to organizations running non-disaster response projects.

Phase 1: Raising money

Massive natural disasters always a trigger an outpouring of support worldwide. The victims are clearly in need, and images create an overpowering emotional connection that dwarfs all other concerns.

The worldwide response to this disaster has been enormous. Here is a summary of our globalgiving website and facebook activity in the first 5 days:By the weekend, people and businesses started offering a portion of their profits from sales to the cause:Day 3: More celebrities get involved (On day 1, via twitter – Captain Sulu calls: We Answer! Kirk says, “Today we are all Japanese.”) And the disaster fund has almost as many fans as our GlobalGiving Facebook page has ever gotten since 2005. Tens of thousands of people are promoting the Fund using Twitter:

Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund@GlobalGiving

Eventually, by Tuesday hundreds of people were offering anything they could think of – sending goods, holding benefit concerts, and even offering their homes to the victims. Our website was running at 10x normal capacity, and starting to break. We had to turn off some server-heavy features.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011 was GlobalGiving’s all time busiest day, collecting over $650,000 for projects all over the world. My heart goes out to the people of Japan, and at least this is a good start towards rebuilding.

Raising money when there is no crisis:

Organizations spend most of their time raising money to implement projects. 80 percent of their time, according to some Ugandans and Kenyans I’ve met. It takes a lot of asking, and from the right people. In the absence of a crisis situation:

People give when someone they know and trust asks them to give.

I visit and train organizations on how to build relationships, earn trust, and inspire the people who could potentially support their projects. Strong trust, an emotional connection to the beneficiaries or the cause, and clear information dictate whether a person gives. When a city is not on fire, lack of trust is the main hurdle for projects for get funding.

Phase 2: Implementing

In Disaster Relief

Finding the right people on the ground to support in a crisis is hard to do during a disaster. GlobalGiving relies on partners that we’ve worked with in past disasters, and talk to the people and organizations we trust to identify new ones.

Seven days after the earthquake, GlobalGiving sent an email/facebook/twitter update to over 20,000 donors. This is how the first $750,00 was divided among six organizations:

The rest of the report described what each organization was doing, and why GG split the fund up the way they did. First example Japan Platform got the most because they support 18 additional smaller, local NGOs who are providing short-term food aid, medical assistance, and tents, while planning a long-term response. GlobalGiving’s rationale is further explained in a blog post linked to the update.

In International Development

Organizations often define the project they want to implement, so this is the least complex phase of a development project.

Connecting the dots: GlobalGiving lets each organization define the problem and propose their solution on their own terms. All that we require is for that all organizations provide progress updates about how that problem/solution is unfolding on a regular basis to all donors. This, over time, should provide all NGOs with greater opportunities for learning – and may one day provide useful fodder for trying to tackle phase 3.

Phase 3: Finding out if what you did helped the people in need

After a disaster

Attributing the effect of each organization to the overall response is nearly impossible after a huge disaster response. Money moves very quickly, faster than many organizations and governments can coordinate. Random citizens hop planes to help out, often adding to the chaos. InterAction’s “haiti aid map” looked at hundreds of organizations after the 2010 earthquake, and the results are muddy – but most watchers have already moved on without learning lessons. In fact, eight months after the quake, Haiti had only received one fifth (19%) of the money promised by governments and big organizations! All promised money should have arrived within weeks.

After implementing community projects

This task is only slightly easier for organizations that have completed one of thousands of international development projects. Regardless of their size, all projects have effects that extend beyond the edges of formal monitoring systems. They are often as socially complex as nuclear reactors. My work is to figure out what works, listen to organizations as they explain which information helps them learn something they didn’t already know, and do something they wouldn’t have otherwise done.

So far, most of the organizations that appear to be a hit with their target communities in our globalgiving storytelling project also seem to already have some mechanism for learning what communities think.

As my presentation mentions below, our project helps people collect stories. People are asking their friends and neighbors to talk about a time when a person or organization trying to do in their community, and then map the what, the who, and the where of this in ways that help organizations navigate through thousands of stories down to the ones that matter to them.

Here is my presentation from March 17, 2011 at the iHUB:

This is a very modest start to tackling these big problems. I don’t know if it will work, but too often what we are already doing (such as labeling nuclear power plants as “earthquake proof”) is based on flawed thinking.

I welcome your comments. It’s tricky to talk about a disaster as it unfolds, but I wanted to get my thoughts down before they slip into the aether.

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