On Giving Well


In this second of three posts about our time spent helping with cyclone relief efforts in the Shepherd Islands of Vanuatu, I’m going to get on a bit of a soapbox about offering assistance in the event of a large-scale disaster: specifically, things one can do to be most, and least, helpful to a disaster relief effort. We learned some valuable lessons during our time interacting with Vanuatu government officials, NGO’s (non-government organizations) both large and small, health care providers, and the victims of Tropical Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu. We feel compelled to pass along information that could be useful to you, as donors wanting to give what you can to help with a disaster relief effort in the future.

But afterwards, we’ll lighten things up by giving you a brand new cocktail recipe! Sound like a deal?    I thought so.

When we decided to undertake this little project, our idea was that our boat might be of use transporting supplies and/or personnel to those islands and villages that are more remote, especially knowing that many of the vessels in Vanuatu had been damaged or lost during the storm. We went in search of an organization that could make good use of us. We solicited suggestions and explored web sites, eventually finding a good fit with a U.S. based organization called Sea Mercy. Their mission involves using sailing volunteers and their vessels to deliver disaster relief and medical care to island nations in the South Pacific. They requested a minimum one-month commitment from us, which was around our maximum time available, so that worked.

We hated to leave Fiji without supplies on board, especially after hearing the villages were drastically lacking in the materials needed to repair their homes and water supplies: namely, roofing nails, corrugated metal roofing sheets, and fasteners for rain gutters that they use for fresh water catchment. But we were told that those supplies existed in the capital city of Port Vila, they just weren’t making it out to the remote hard-hit islands. Moreover, Vanuatu needed our cash in their economy. So we brought money instead, donated and personal, and purchased the supplies in Port Vila when we arrived.

Sea Mercy organizes its volunteer boats into ‘mosquito fleets,’ clusters of three or four cruising yachts who focus their weeks of service on a small group of islands or villages. The previous set of three boats, having a couple of physicians among their crew, made a medical rotation in the southern islands, conducting medical clinics in various villages.

Our rotation was not a medical one; rather, our mission was to make assessments, deliver and install equipment for the World Health Organization, deliver needed supplies within the province on behalf of Vanuatu’s Disaster Management Office, and meet whatever other needs we could as they arose. Our focus was the Shepherd Islands, roughly in the middle of the Y formed by the islands of Vanuatu.

The small capital, Port Vila, was swarming with relief workers from various NGO’s both large and small, and naturally, government officials from the provinces. Also attending the party were Greenpeace’s s/v Rainbow Warrior, and m/v Dragonfly, the super yacht owned by Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Our week in Port Vila was one of controlled chaos, as the grapevine hummed with which organization had what supplies that needed to somehow get to wherever, and which vessels were in a position to take them. We filled our boats with what would be most needed, then topped off with various supplies donated via charitable groups from Australia.

This is where we hop on our soapbox. The donated goods included, on the medical side, things like sets for intravenous blood transfusion. But here is one of the clinics we visited:

Maternity Ward, Emae Island
Maternity Ward, Emae Island


The Surgery, Emae Island
The Surgery, Emae Island

There are three wards (room with a bed) at this clinic, which serves the whole island of Emae and its ten villages: one room for sick patients, one for surgeries, and one for maternity. They do not give blood transfusions here, nor anywhere in this island group. And this clinic was one of the best ones we saw. Many had no refrigeration even prior to the storm. Let’s just say we would not want to be in need of medical care there. Expired and nearly expired medications are not useful. Nor are medications labeled in languages that the health care providers do not understand.

On the household goods side, we had some items that would have been embarrassing to take to the villages. Strappy stiletto heels with sequins? Really? And do folks truly need massage oil to recover when their homes have been lost to a cyclone? Even food choices were often misguided. Flavored drink mixes (“Delicious chilled!”) are worthless; the people are in need of drinking water, in some cases urgently. Flavoring their drinking water is not a concern. Likewise, foods like pasta that require lots of water for cooking are a poor choice. You get the idea.

The intentions are good. And we all want to give ‘stuff’ rather than cash. It feels more personal, and we don’t worry so much about our donated cash being misspent, or ending up in the pockets of someone corrupt or greedy. But giving ‘stuff’ in the case of a disaster, especially one in another nation, is a mistake. It’s far worse than simply not being of value, because it actually clogs the supply chain, preventing or delaying the things that truly are useful from being delivered. All those donated goods get shipped in shipping containers better occupied with what is really needed, as decided by those professionals whose jobs are to make those assessments. The World Health Organization and Save the Children know far better than you or me which medical supplies are lacking, or what to feed a household in a primitive village in Vanuatu. It all must pass through customs, and the very few customs officers spend their time sorting through boxes of pasta and drink mixes, while hundreds of kilos of precious seeds needed for replanting of crops have to wait until tomorrow or the next day.

So, is there a local food drive in your community? By all means, donate your food. Is there a local charity that operates a thrift shop selling used clothing and household items? Perfect. But when people far away from your community have lost their homes due to some disaster, give money and only money. Any charity asking for goods in such a situation is misguided, because unless they have boots on the ground qualified to assess the situation, they don’t know what is needed. Cash is king. American citizens give only 5% of our charitable contributions overseas. This means that, without increasing our giving by one dime, if we shift just 5% of our donations to international efforts, our contributions abroad would double. If you are concerned about screening a charitable organization to which you are considering donating, as well you should be, Give Well is an excellent source for evaluating the bang for your buck. If you’re really interested in the philosophy of giving, and how to be the most effective in your charitable contributions, read this article in The Atlantic.

If, on the other hand, you’re done with all this preaching and ready for a drink, then I have a recipe for you. By the end of our rewarding rotation in the Shepherds, I was determined to come up with a cocktail I could name the Sea Mercy, after the charitable group with which we aligned ourselves for this ‘mission.’ But we had almost no spirits aboard; selections in Fiji and even in the capital of Vanuatu were quite limited.

Fortunately, our buddy Sarah Dashew happened to e-mail me with an original recipe of hers to try. She agreed to let us christen it and here it is:

Sea Mercy

1.5-2 oz Reposado Tequila (Herradura or Casamigos)

Sprig of muddled mint leaves

½ cup pomegranate kombucha *

Ice cubes

Mix ingredients, diluting with water to taste. Shake and pour, baby!

* Kombucha is a slightly fizzy drink made from fermenting tea. Pomegranate kombucha can be bought in a health food store like Whole Foods, or if you’re really ambitious you can make your own. There are plenty of recipes on Google.

Since I can’t make a Sea Mercy yet, here’s a picture of Kombucha Mama’s ‘purple hippie’ cocktail, ‘borrowed’ from EugeneWeekly.com, as a stand-in!


Next up: an account of Buffalo Nickel’s activities in the Shepherd Islands of Vanuatu, with tons of photos.

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