Thanks but no thanks: Unwanted goods flood disaster-struck developing countries

High heels, handbags, chainsaws and carpets — these are just some of the goods donated to Vanuatu and Fiji following recent natural disasters. Photo by: Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office

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

Natural disasters, which can be devastating to developing countries, particularly in the Pacific, are often followed by an outpouring of support and charity from neighboring countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

A new report from Australian Red Cross released Monday shows that despite the good will, some donations — such as those languishing in Vanuatu — cause more harm than good for developing countries recovering from a disaster.

According to the report “The Challenges of Unsolicited Bilateral Donations in Pacific Humanitarian Responses,” high heels, handbags, heavy blankets and woolen goods are among the unrequested donated goods sent to Vanuatu following Cyclone Pam in 2015 — items inappropriate to the climate and culture of the Vanuatu.

Fiji saw a similar outpouring of support following Cyclone Winston in 2016. By December, they had received enough unrequested donated goods to fill more than 33 Olympic swimming pools — including sporting goods, chainsaws and carpets. Many items simply end up in landfill sites.

“Unrequested donated goods are shipped to countries facing crisis and often arrive unannounced with incomplete or faulty paperwork and lack a clearly defined recipient,” Joanna Pradela, head of policy and advocacy for the Australian Council for International Development, explained to Devex.

The impact unrequested donated goods are having on relief efforts are now driving ACFID and the Red Cross to urge better public education and awareness. And they are asking the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to help spread the message.

Who donates unrequested goods?

According to Predela, research shows a diverse range of donors giving unrequested goods, such as schools, businesses and religious and community groups. Donations can also often have a particular link to home — with diaspora among the top givers.

“Existing research shows that diaspora communities with a strong culture of giving, and those with a close connection with a particular country seek to help by sending goods,” she said. “Despite having the best intentions, many people don't realize the negative implications of unrequested donations.”

The Red Cross report revealed that donors often did not understand, or perhaps believe, that the goods they were sending could be a problem. The message from NGOs collecting for the humanitarian responses, including the Red Cross and CARE Australia, urges those wanting to help to donate cash. However people wanting to donate goods will often continue to reach out until they find an avenue to get the items to the recipient country — sometimes even requesting assistance from their local member of parliament.

“Community groups, schools, churches and politicians often organize and promote ways in which people can help — sometimes choosing to make donations of goods or food,” Predala explained.

She said there is still more research required to understand “the sources and motivations of people sending unrequested goods” to better prepare and direct their support.

What are the impacts of unrequested donated goods?

Sending unrequested goods has unintended consequences, such as diverting relief workers from other critical recovery work and adding a financial burden to the response efforts, according to the report. In comparison, Predala said cash donations allow supplies to be directed toward people or areas most in need of assistance and can be easily adapted or redirected to needs as they unfold.

Steve Ray, disaster and crisis response manager at Australian Red Cross, explained to media on Monday that there was often a “mismatch” between what was needed within the country and what was sent.

But not all unrequested goods were unwelcomed. With better awareness programs and platforms to manage goods with the needs, donations could be better targeted, according to the report.

Starting a conversation

ACFID and the Red Cross acknowledge that the current process to direct donors toward cash is not working and a new approach is needed, beginning with the release of the Red Cross report.

“We remain extremely grateful for the public’s generosity, but wish to start a conversation with them about this issue,” Predala said.

Immediately following Cyclone Winston, Australian media coverage of NGO requests to donate cash over goods was met with social media criticism — people may not have been able to afford cash but they could donate clothes from their cupboard, many commented. Questions were also raised over concerns of a percentage of cash to the administrative costs of running an NGO.

A recommendation of the report is that DFAT be a key part of this conversation and messaging. The public, business and government leaders are all targets for potential campaigns. And through the formation of “education communications groups,” consistent messaging from emergency responders and NGOs can follow a natural disaster.

“We want the Australian public to join us in a conversation about the problems and challenges relief workers face and work together to best help people on the ground in these situations,” Predala urged.

With a better informed public, the hope is that old heels and handbags will remain at the back of the cupboard.

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About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex 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 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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