THE BLOG
09/23/2014 11:38 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

You Can Provide Comfort, Care to Those Affected by Humanitarian Crises in Africa, Iraq

When we talk about international disasters, many of us think first of natural disasters like earthquakes, typhoons and wildfires. Media coverage of these events usually includes unforgettable images of devastated communities and urgent pleas for help. Recently, we have watched with alarm as images from West Africa and Northern Iraq fill the newscasts and are reminded that people affected by other disasters -- these complex humanitarian emergencies -- require support just as much as those affected by natural disasters.

On the heels of major natural disasters come the public service announcements on our televisions, the text-to-donate notifications on our phones and news updates in our social media feeds. Concern and generosity toward people affected by disasters runs deep in our culture, and Americans are quick to respond to entreaties for help. A survey we conducted with Harris Interactive in 2013 found that 63 percent of Americans had donated in support of disaster relief in the prior five years. We are a caring country.

The response to complex humanitarian emergencies is often very different. These disasters can extend for months and years -- long after the cameras are gone -- and they often lack the urgent calls for help that inspire many of us to give. Where sudden natural disasters are straightforward and responses to them seem understandable, complex emergencies can be densely layered and confusing. They may start with breakdowns or changes in local governance, followed by lawlessness and violence that may lead to food and other scarcities that may be exacerbated by natural factors like drought or floods. Complex emergencies may start slowly as non-emergencies, so that by the time they evolve into full-blown crises, the timeline, the number of actors and the circumstances for affected people can bewilder even the most experienced donor.

As someone who has worked on humanitarian responses for both natural and complex emergencies, I understand how perplexing the latter can be to those who wish to alleviate the suffering. While their circumstances are very different from those of people affected by natural disasters, their urgent needs can be very similar.

Recently in Northern and Central Iraq, clashes between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), its allied militias, the government of Iraq and Kurdish regional government security forces have driven thousands of people from their homes. Since January 2014, an estimated 1.8 million people have been displaced by violence in Iraq. Their brutal circumstances are confounding, but their need for medical services, clean water, food and shelter are not very different from the privations of people affected by natural disasters.

Four thousand miles from Iraq, a protracted outbreak of the Ebola virus continues to wreak havoc across Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone. As of this writing there are more 5,335 and 2,622 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Widespread population loss has threatened fragile local economies and has left many children parentless -- two of numerous factors that will have ramifications long after the disease is contained.

The humanitarian emergencies in West Africa and Northern Iraq are different, but the best way to help those who suffer is the same -- through cash donations to reputable organizations working with communities on the ground. Even small financial donations combine to make a huge difference in the lives of people affected by disasters. As is the case after natural disasters, donors who make the most positive and enduring impacts give monetary support to relief organizations working in affected areas, initially and over time. Unlike unsolicited material donations -- those not requested by organizations working in affected communities -- monetary donations enable immediate support to communities.

As situations evolve quickly in complex humanitarian emergencies like these, cash allows relief organizations to respond to changing needs quickly; enabling them to deliver essential supplies that are fresh and familiar, a huge comfort in these tragic circumstances. Most important, monetary donations empower those in the hardest hit regions to rebuild their communities, as those impacted will need support for years after the crises ease and the world's attention turns elsewhere.

If you're interested in helping communities affected by these or other humanitarian emergencies, I encourage you to visit the resources on our website, including:

How to Help: Ebola Crisis in West Africa

How to Help: Conflict in Northern Iraq

If you decide to offer support, I hope you'll join us in practicing what we call "Smart Compassion" by giving cash to trusted, experienced relief and charitable organizations. In doing so, you'll allow response workers to deliver exactly what's needed when it's needed -- turning your good intentions into great outcomes.

Juanita Rilling is Director of the United States Agency for International Development's Center for International Disaster Information (USAID CIDI), which was created in 1988 to inform Americans about the best ways to help people affected by disasters overseas. For more information about USAID CIDI and helping international disaster survivors, please visit www.cidi.org.