What do panic buying and disaster response have in common?

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A few scattered packages of wet wipes remain after panic buying at a supermarket in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, U.S. Photo by: USA Today via Reuters

WASHINGTON — As fears about the COVID-19 pandemic grew in the United States, prompting Americans to rush to purchase stockpiles of toilet paper and other essential items they feared might run out, José Holguin-Veras, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, noticed similarities between what some call “panic buying” and a phenomenon that has afflicted disaster responders for at least a century.

“When we ask disaster responders about what are the major challenges they face, in a plurality of cases they simply say, donations.”

— José Holguin-Veras, professor of civil and environmental engineering, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

In the midst of a crisis, people lose confidence in the commercial supply chain — sometimes with good reason. When that crisis affects them directly, they might respond by purchasing large amounts of items they expect to become scarce. When the crisis unfolds somewhere else, donors often respond by sending enormous quantities of donated goods, which can end up hurting more than helping response efforts.

It seems to recur almost every time a disaster strikes: well-intentioned people send enormous amounts of useless donations that clog up supply lines and overwhelm responders who should be focused on saving lives. In engineer speak, this phenomenon is referred to as “material convergence.”

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“In both cases you have the desire to do something, there is a perceived need, and in both cases they do something that might not be the best for the system,” Holguin-Veras said.

While Holguin-Veras is only now developing a theory about the interconnection between precautionary buying — or “disaster-related buying behaviors” — and material convergence, he and a handful of others have been waging a lonely battle against the latter problem for decades.

In 2011, on his way back from Japan where he had been working in the aftermath of the tsunami, Holguin-Veras stopped in Kansas City to speak at the annual meeting of the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. It was only days after a catastrophic tornado tore through the nearby town of Joplin, Missouri, killing 158 people.

He shared what he considered the most absurd example of material convergence he had witnessed in his career — a tiger costume, sent by some anonymous donor under the auspices of providing assistance to people in need. An audience member challenged him, claiming he had seen something even better — or worse.

“I told the man nothing beats the tiger costume,” Holguin-Veras said. “And the guy said, without any hesitation, ‘what about a truckload of sex toys?’”

“I had to bow in defeat,” Holguin-Veras said.

The data around this issue is sparse, but what exists suggests that roughly 60% of material donations for disaster response are completely useless, according to Holguin-Veras. The goods might be broken, inappropriate for the environment — like winter coats to tropical regions — or even potentially harmful, such as expired medications.

After donations poured into the Philippines in the wake of the Taal volcano eruption in January, local residents and responders took it upon themselves to show the world some of the goods they had received, donning wedding dresses, a mermaid costume, high-heels, and other less-than-essential garments, and posting their photos online.

“They see people who’ve clearly lost everything. If you’ve lost everything, then anything someone sends must be needed, right? That’s the thinking.”

— Juanita Rilling, former director, USAID Center for International Disaster Information

While some of these specific examples might be entertaining, their collective impact is far more serious and damaging.

“When we ask disaster responders about what are the major challenges they face, in a plurality of cases they simply say, donations,” Holguin-Veras said.

He has tracked examples of overwhelmed responders and jam-packed warehouses from a 1953 tornado in Arkansas to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and beyond. The impacts include vehicular congestion and delays at entry points, followed by massive amounts of goods simply dumped at the disaster sites themselves by shippers and truckers with no other option.

“Most donors feel that these donations of material things are as good as cash donations to a relief organization,” said Juanita Rilling, the former director of the USAID Center for International Disaster Information.

“Actually they cost money. They take resources away from a disaster relief effort,” she added.

Humanitarian relief organizations are caught in a trap, Holguin-Veras said.

“They are very fearful of upsetting donors. Basically they feel that speaking frankly about the problem produced by these donations could irritate donors,” he said. “And the reality is that this risk is well-founded. People get upset.”

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How can the psychology behind the choice to send goods over cash to support a humanitarian response be changed?

“That is a bit self-defeating, because these relief groups … have credibility. They are the ones who could change things, but they fear taking that step, and I understand that,” he added.

Travis Opocensky became aware of the scale of the useless donation problem after a friend in Australia — where he was pursuing a master’s degree in peace and conflict studies — returned from Vanuatu with tales of “ludicrous” donated items that were left to rot. The problem is particularly costly in island regions where space and disposal options are at a premium.

After Opocensky returned to the United States, he found himself drawn back to an issue that seemed ripe for innovation in an age of unprecedented interest in sustainable entrepreneurship.

“It was really shocking to me, this huge issue that was not super-salient to anyone outside of … disaster relief and coordination,” Opocensky said. “It really painted a picture of a huge service gap.”

Opocensky sought out experts on material convergence — like Rilling, whom he described as “the warrior queen of unsolicited donations” — and as he learned more about the problem, he encountered the inevitable examples of useless donations, including an entire shipping container sent to Haiti that was filled with only left boots.

Opocensky hopes the nonprofit organization he is in the process of starting — RightBoot — can intercede between donors and disaster-affected communities, divert unwanted donations away from transport centers, and recycle them into cash donations for disaster responders.

Holguin-Veras applauds RightBoot’s vision, but he also worries any effort to try to process unwanted donations will be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff.

“The amounts are so overwhelming that the only rational response is to trash the stuff,” Holguin-Veras said, adding that when people learn that donations have been discarded or incinerated, they often blame the responders who were forced to take that action.

The only viable way out of this trap, Holguin-Veras said, is behavior change among prospective donors.

After the 2011 tsunami in Japan, Holguin-Veras was involved in a research project to understand donors’ motivations. They found that about half of the reasons people say they donate in the wake of a disaster relate to the victims themselves. The other half relate to what he called, “self-verification,” a desire to take part in what feels like a gratifying act of communal generosity.

“It’s what I call ‘referred panic,” Rilling said. “People see these images of towns that have been devastated by a natural disaster and all the houses flattened, and they see people who’ve clearly lost everything. If you’ve lost everything, then anything someone sends must be needed, right? That’s the thinking.”

Individual donors are joined by governments who follow similarly misguided impulses, and sometimes by corporations, who might even see a marketing opportunity in disaster donations, or use them to dump unwanted inventories on communities that are then faced with figuring out how to dispose of them, Jolguin-Veras said.

He added that local responders have to help drive the message to potential donors about the negative impacts that unwanted donations can cause. That is difficult though, because few local responders will be involved in multiple disaster response efforts during their careers. Big disasters are relatively rare events, so responders might not know what they are likely to face.

By the time the disaster response effort has started, those messages are too late, Jolguin-Veras said.

“In the heat of disaster, there is no reasoning,” he said. “They have to be done in peace times.”

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.