Teddies for Timor and carpets for Fiji: How to stop donations from doing more harm than good

Clothing donations abandoned in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. Photo by: USAID

CANBERRA — When violence was ravaging Timor-Leste in 1999, thousands of teddy bears collected dust and racked up storage fees as part of an ill-conceived charity campaign. Nearly two decades later, after Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico devastated, two warehouses full of clothes, diapers, toilet paper, canned food, and bottled water were collected with no obvious way of getting to their intended recipients. It created a blockage in humanitarian supply chains that prevented lifesaving supplies from getting to the island.

Why do people donate goods instead of cash when a disaster hits? And how can they be dissuaded?

As charitable response to the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami is taking place, a timely report released by the Australian Council for International Development, supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is challenging the idea that the messaging of “cash is best” alone will drive donation change.

Using a behavioral approach to the research, the report “The Real Story Ends in Landfill” surveyed 1,000 subjects who have sent or were considering sending unsolicited bilateral donations, or UBDs, to understand their motivations. Even when they knew better, many cited the “impersonal” aspect of cash, or a fear that it wouldn’t reach an intended recipient.

To counter that, blunt messaging is crucial, according to lead researcher from The Behavioural Architects, Melissa Gill. Donors must be warned that goods will end up in landfill. Still, NGOs are concerned such an approach could dissuade those with good intentions to avoid donations altogether.

The issue with UBDs

In 1999, violence spread throughout Timor-Leste following a vote for independence from Indonesia. In response to the crisis, Australians sent a large number of teddy bears to children under the campaign “Teddies for Timor.” For children in Timor-Leste, teddies were a foreign concept. Far worse: The bears took up valuable logistics services and warehouse space, while the stuffing and surface of the bears became unsanitary in the tropical conditions.

It’s a common problem in humanitarian response  — well-intentioned but impractical goods clog up systems. Recipient countries or aid organizations are often forced to pay out of pocket to store and dispose of them.

Ten months after Cyclone Pam ravaged the South Pacific ocean nation of Vanuatu in 2015, 18 containers of unrequested donated goods sat on the wharf accumulating $1.5 million in storage, handling, and container rental fees.

And following Cyclone Winston in 2016, Fiji received enough unrequested donated goods to fill more than 33 Olympic swimming pools — including sporting goods, chainsaws, and carpets.

Even donations of medical supplies can create a challenge.

“This is a big problem,” Jacqui Symonds, disaster response manager with the Australian Red Cross, explained to Devex. “These are goods that are well intentioned and could have been useful if they arrive quickly and don’t expire. And if they cannot be used, [the recipient countries] need to find somewhere to put it … In the Pacific, where there are small … areas of land, this creates a lot of pressure on systems.”

The mentality behind sending goods

Expats, diaspora groups, vacationers, and church groups were among those surveyed. The mindset behind sending goods, said Gill, was often a reactionary response to the emergency event.

“We had hypothesized … that people would actually think about the decisions made,” she explained to Devex. “But people weren’t. They were in a mode of thinking that was automatic and they weren’t stopping to think about how goods were going to get there, who would unpack them and sort them so they would reach people in need. It was a big insight.”

The findings helped frame four different messages to test and determine which would work best to dissuade the sending of goods.

The first message was “cash only,” framing the positive aspects of cash in supporting communities. The initial hypothesis, Gill said, was that continually reinforcing a positive message around the donation of cash would eventually change behavior. But the results suggested otherwise.

“You can’t take anything good out of a landfill message. It is black or white. There is no grey area for interpretation or to make it into something you want.”

— Melissa Gill, lead researcher, The Behavioural Architects

On its own, “cash only” could not overcome the concern that not all money would meet the intended recipients. It did not overcome images of destruction and utter devastation media conveyed, suggesting there could be nothing left. And it was not personal enough considering the possible lives and livelihoods lost.

Messaging around delays in goods being received in countries and goods clogging the system including ports that would prevent essential aid were also tested. But there was room for interpretation with the two messages, as both suggested it was possible that goods could still be received and benefit communities.

The final message tested was inspired by a research subject who explained that they changed their mind about sending UBDs after reading an article explaining many goods end up in landfill. This messaging informing potential donors that their donations would be a waste, was most effective of all. More than half of subjects this message was tested on said this would change their decision.

“It’s because you can’t take anything good out of a landfill message,” Gill explained. “It is black or white. There is no grey area for interpretation or to make it into something you want. That’s our rationale as to why it’s so effective.”

Even so, some 40 percent of subjects admitted the messaging would not necessarily convince them to offer a cash donation instead. But given the expected dip in problematic UBDs, the blunt nature of the messaging was still recommended by Gill.

Next steps

Australian NGOs, led by ACFID, will need to decide how to convert the research into reality, with new messaging to support current and future humanitarian responses. DFAT will also consider how it will influence its public messaging following a disaster.

“We don’t want to discourage this goodwill, but we want to ensure the message is getting out there that it is not the best way to help,” Symonds said.

There will also need to be further work to identify how to make cash personal and build confidence in the money chain to convert goods’ donors to cash donors. Providing a personal message or being able to sign a book later provided to communities was one way suggested to improve personalization. But transparency also needed to be addressed, and Symonds said this included providing more detail on the challenges and costs that exists — particularly in remote areas of the world — to deliver any life-saving service.

Gill cited Shelterbox as an example to aspire to. Based in the United Kingdom, the NGO that aims to rebuild communities devastated by disaster gives each donation a unique identifier that can be tracked from end to end.

“It makes [donors] feel much more connected, but also allows greater visibility and feedback on the impact of this cash donation,” she said. “That is really key to improving the thoughtfulness of a cash donation.”

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.

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