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Know your aid: Common pitfalls

Helpful principles to ensure your willingness to help others does more good than harm.

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In an earlier post of this series, we discussed the different types and stages of humanitarian aid. Knowing when to apply these different aid-types ensure that our efforts lead to positive outcomes.

Unfortunately, we don't always apply aid correctly and misapplications can lead to a variety of unintended, negative outcomes. Fortunately for many of us, myself include, we learn best from our mistakes. What's most important is knowing when we have committed a mistake and persevering until we find more effective solutions. The aim for this post is to help us discover those solutions faster by avoiding two of the most common pitfalls in humanitarian aid.

Pitfall #1: Sending the Wrong People and/or Materials

Tens of thousands of donated stuffed animals.
Tens of thousands stuffed animals sent to Sandy Hook, CT; a town of eleven thousand citizens. Photo Credit: Chris Kelsey,

There are two main areas where good intentions get emergency/relief aid wrong: 1) applied when not needed (explored later in this post) and 2) sending the wrong type of materials. This latter issue is known among first-responders as "The Second Disaster." This is when large quantities of unneeded donations are sent to the disaster area, usually at high shipping costs, and over-burden the relief workers when trying to manage it all. Scott Simon with NPR has this excellent article walking through some of the relief aid tragedies of recent past. These tragedies include boxes of donated winter jackets blocking the landing strips of medical supply airplanes in Honduras to $300,000 of bottled water that could have been obtained locally for $300 in West Africa.

Pitfall #2: Applying Relief Aid at the Wrong Time

The most common mistake committed by modern humanitarian aid efforts is applying the wrong type of aid at the wrong time; mostly, involving wrongly applied relief types of aid. Figures 2-4 are adaptations of a timeline outlined in When Helping Hurts modeling the ideal stages to apply the different types of aid (Figure 2) and (2) common aid pitfalls (Figures 3 & 4).

Figure 2. Ideal stages of aid

Mistaken Aid: Continued Relief

A mistake mostly seen in developing country relief aid efforts is the failure to identify when the "bleeding has stopped" and transitioning to (or even realizing the need for) rehabilitation aid. Instead, relief aid is either 1) administered for far longer than needed, eroding human capital or 2) stopped all together, leaving the community somewhere short of the their original baseline (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Failure to switch to rehabilitation aid

I have personally experienced the results of such of a mistake during my development efforts several years after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Immediately following the structural collapse of over 50% of Port-au-Prince city (a metropolitan population the size of Orlando),

Haitian Earthquake Displacement Camp

hundreds of thousands of Port-au-Prince citizens were forced out of the city and placed in disaster relief displacement camps in order to attend to their basic physical needs. The short-term emergency relief was effective at saving human lives; however, as years went by and little to no rehabilitation of the city had occurred, these camps became the citizens' new permanent residences at greatly reduced levels of well-being.

Mistaken Aid: Non-Crisis Relief

The most commonly committed mistake made by rightly motivated but misguided good-intentions is the application of relief-type aid outside of a crisis environment. In non-crisis times, relief aid will have positive, but temporary impact for as long as it is being applied. As modeled in Figure (3), without a focus on developing the human and social capital to continue socioeconomical development, communities will retrograde as soon as the relief has stopped. The only way to sustain improvement is for local government or foundations to perpetually supply the aid; usually well below intended targets.

Figure 4. Relief aid applied outside of a crisis

As defined earlier, a crisis is a "natural or man-made environmental disaster where human lives are at immediate risk of death or great socioeconomic destruction." Lower socioeconomic communities that have not recently experienced a disaster event rarely are in need of relief-type aid; however, there may be individual cases within the community whose lives are at immediate risk and require relief in the form of medical care or protective shelter. Though from the outside it may look like the community is missing basic human necessities, it is likely that the root causes are more deeply entrenched in historical geographical, political, cultural and social factors [Sowell]. Providing non-crisis relief at a community level can create a host of unintended consequences:

  • Increased dependency

  • Diminished local leadership

  • Depleted resources

  • Corruption

  • Erosion of human capital

  • Destruction of local market economies

  • Further socioeconomical decay and/or divide

On the individual level, it is very difficult to discern if a chance encounter by an unknown person asking for relief is actually experiencing a crisis. It would take the willingness to spend time with the individual to develop trust and understanding to discover the true need. Sometimes, the true need can be realized quickly, but in most circumstances these relationships take weeks or months to development before any solution can be attempted. For situations where a true crisis is not apparent, you may show compassion for the individual by connecting them with a local shelter or food ministry. Get to know the organizations that excel at development aid in your area and keep their 24-hr contacts and service addresses with you. It's always a safer approach to purchase a ride-share to a soup-kitchen or shelter than risk fueling some deeper, destructive root causes.

Unfortunately, the stories of this kind of aid mistake are never-ending. From toy donations being sold to furnish drug addictions, to "free-rice" destroying local farmers in the Caribbean, to TOMS Shoes self-commissioned studies discovering that their efforts displaced local manufacturers and taught the recipient children that good things come from outside their families. At least in the case of TOMS Shoes, they have realized their mistakes and are making changes to correct. Many others do not get this far for fear of what they may discover of their own actions.


Famed inventor and head of research for GM, Charles Kettering, once said "a problem well-stated is half-solved." I believe some of that same sentiment applies to humanitarian aid. Knowing what type of aid to deliver and when is truly half the battle but, as Aristotle reminds us, "is not an easy matter." I hope that you find these definitions, principles and guidelines useful in your humanitarian or charitable endeavors. As long as there are rightly motivated people out there willing to sacrifice of piece of themselves for others, these kinds of techniques will help make sure all good-intentions have great outcomes.

If you have any comments or additional principles/techniques that you use in your own humanitarian aid efforts, I’d love to hear about them! Please contact directly or provide in the comment section below.

#nonprofits #charity #givingtuesdaynow #humanitarianaid #reliefaid #outcomesoveroutputs

A note from the author:

"The opinions in the article are from my own experiences and/or developed from the cited resources. These opinions and resources are based entirely on secular evidences; however, my passion and effort in this area are attributed wholly to my non-secular, Christian-based beliefs and values."

Joel Kern has over a decade of experience in local and international humanitarian relief and development efforts as well as for-profit business modeling. He is also a co-founder of, a consulting group that provides data capture and analytic tools to increase outcome performance of non-profits.

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