When it comes to disaster relief, it is possible to be too generous.
Australians stepped up to help Vanuatu after Tropical Cyclone Pam struck the Pacific island nation in March 2015. They filled more than 70 shipping containers with unrequested goods – from high heels to canned food. Ten months later, 18 of the containers remained, at a cost of $1.5 million in storage fees.
It is a problem that repeats with every major disaster.
The Australian Red Cross wants people to know that their good intentions are in some cases doing more harm than good. A new report examined the impact of unsolicited bilateral donations during disasters, and made the case that if people want to help, they should send cash.
“Sending unrequested goods has unintended consequences, like diverting relief workers and adding costs to an already stretched emergency response,” Steve Ray, disaster and crisis response manager at the Australian Red Cross, said in a statement. “Cash donations allow aid and humanitarian organizations to direct supplies to those most in need of assistance and easily adapt to people’s needs as the situation unfolds.”
In the case of Vanuatu, the containers filled with unsolicited items took up wharf and storage space that could have been used for other things. It fell on humanitarian organizations and the Vanuatu government to manage the donations. That included throwing away roughly half of all donated food since it was expired by the time it arrived. Inappropriate clothing items, such as wool sweaters, handbags and high-heeled shoes, were also discarded – filling local landfills.
Fiji learned from the experience of Vanuatu and deployed plans to manage the arrival of unsolicited goods after Tropical Cyclone Winston struck. The report acknowledged that preparation and improved capacity led to a better allocation of goods as they arrived. However, the resources spent on managing goods – no matter how smoothly the operation went – took away resources that could have been spent on direct relief, according to the report.
The Australian Red Cross now encourages people to give cash during disasters. The report is in line with the U.S. Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI), which states that public messaging and campaigns should explain why cash is better.
“It is crucial for governments and disaster relief agencies to communicate immediately after a disaster to share information on the needs of the affected population, and to continue communicating how donations are being utilized so the public has confidence that donated funds are being used effectively and efficiently,” according to CIDI documents.
The report found that once people or groups start collecting goods to send following a disaster, it is virtually impossible to stop them. Information about the importance of cash-base giving and the harms of sending goods has to be conveyed before disasters take place and in the immediate aftermath. In the Fiji response, they partnered with the Australian Broadcasting Partnership and briefed its journalists on the issue.
“Sending unrequested goods has unintended consequences, like diverting relief workers and adding costs to an already-stretched emergency response. Cash donations allow aid and humanitarian organizations to direct supplies to those most in need of assistance and easily adapt to people’s needs as the situation unfolds,” Joanna Pradela, head of policy and advocacy for the Australian Council for International Development, said in a statement.