THE BLOG
03/18/2013 08:12 am ET Updated May 18, 2013

What's Become of International Relief -- 34 Years Later

In mid-July will be the 34th anniversary of Operation USA's inaugural relief airlift to 44,000 Vietnamese refugees huddled on a water-less, tree-less offshore Island in Malaysia. No different than most contemporary start-ups, the germ of an idea for a relief effort to aid some refugees has now grown into a much-lauded international disaster relief and development organization which has worked in 100 countries. If you look at www.opusa.org, you can find the group's history. It has never had more than 12 employees.

What is different about Operation USA from most of the international and local relief agencies with whom it works side by side or from the much wider consumer products and retailing worlds is that what began as a philanthropic impulse on the part of a very few people (including the legendary actress Julie Andrews) has stayed that way. "Give and it gets there" is the group's simple mantra.

Much prized these days, however, is growth for growth's sake... raw numbers, growing financials or beneficiaries or number of water wells dug or micro-loans made populate the algorithms so prized in modern nonprofit work. Charity watchdog sites rate charities on their financial growth and on the transparency of their publicly-shared information... but have yet to be able to meaningfully measure the quality or usefulness of their programs. Some really awful groups have high ratings based only on the above criteria.

I feel it is more important to emphasize a set of operating principles which include the following:

1. Keep philanthropy privately funded, which maintains its freedom of action and freedom of choosing places to work. This avoids becoming a government aid contractor, which is the engine or Mother's Milk of the modern relief field and its explosive growth and attracts a very different group of people to its ranks;

2. I laud our government's successes in international arenas such as its belated but welcome efforts to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS, its investments in basic agriculture, its medical research on tropical diseases, its improving disaster response efforts - and I condemn its mis-allocation of vastly greater sums on making war, imposing trade and aid embargoes and in providing military aid to far more places than is necessary to maintain world peace or regional stability. Internet-connected computers and software should long ago have surpassed bullets and bayonets as the currency of international diplomacy.

3. While we should not question what motivates good works and an unwavering commitment to doing good, there are far too many faith-based charities which in reality are more like faith businesses whose purpose is to raise money and numbers of converts -- local cultural and religious traditions be damned. Sometimes, if a diamond mining concession can be tossed in by the locals, so much the better and the Reverend's precepts and sanctimony are quickly put aside! Here's one sub-area of international work crying out for the good faith-based groups tossing out or publicly condemning the sketchier ones, some of whom are very large and influential.

4. "Smart-Aid" is not all that hard to do. In 1979, Year One for Operation USA, then known as Operation California, there was not a single university course in international development, nonprofit management or other areas necessary to underpin the development of effective international aid and development efforts. Now, 34 years later, thousands of newly-minted graduates from dozens of universities go forth wanting to work in the international nonprofit arena. They are well educated and lack only the field experience necessary to become a help rather than a hindrance to people in need. Peace Corps volunteers and military veterans re-purposing their acquired skills and experience are valuable additions to this internationally-oriented group -- which has never before existed in such impressive numbers.

5. The several billion dollar a year non-government organizations, or NGOs, and major foundations are held up as exemplars of global impact, effectiveness and sustainable organizational growth when in fact the smaller ones are usually the innovators whose models are followed by the rest of us -- this is true in water resources, alternative energy and micro-credit. The larger groups copy or co-opt the smaller ones, hopefully in most cases to everyone's benefit.

I ask you, Dear Readers, to respond to some of these thoughts in the space provided below.

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