Humanitarian aid needs cash, not donated goods

By Sophie Arnold
Humanitarian aid
Artem Bali

High heels, handbags, woollen knitwear and skis were among thousands of items donated by the international community to help Vanuatu recover from Tropical Cyclone Pam in 2015. This influx of donations that cannot be used, has meant the international humanitarian aid sector is having to educate generous governments, businesses and individuals about the best ways for them to provide assistance. During the 2017–2018 South Pacific cyclone season, a #Cashisbest communications campaign focused on raising public awareness about “donating effectively… and why monetary donations are best”. Such campaigns, however, are not without significant difficulties.

The governments and communities of Australia and New Zealand, for instance, helped Pacific neighbours such as Fiji and Vanuatu to recover from the effects of devastating tropical storms in recent years. Such generosity can have a significant downside in the form of goods donated without reference to what the affected areas need or can process, sort or store. The fast, unplanned and unregulated arrival of such goods also places huge strain on already stretched government officials and humanitarian aid workers.

According to Australian Red Cross analysis, during Tropical Cyclone Pam, Vanuatu received more than 70 shipping containers of donations. One year later, 18 of these containers remained on wharves because there was insufficient capacity to process or sort them. The Vanuatu Government then had to authorise – and finance – the dumping of tonnes of food aid because it had expired before it could be processed. In all, it cost the Vanuatu Government several million dollars in storage, handling and container rental fees, along with the cost of processing, distribution and disposal.

In the aftermath of these most recent Pacific emergencies, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (UNOCHA) has joined with Australian, New Zealand, US and Pacific humanitarian aid organisations in a bid to reduce the negative consequences of generosity. At the heart of this work, is the recognised need to educate donors on the downside of goods and to instead direct attention to the benefits of financial donations.

Such outcomes are not confined just to the Pacific – the Australian Government also developed national guidelines for managing donated goods within Australia in the aftermath of disasters. After the 2009 Victorian bushfires, more than 40,000 pallets of donated goods from across Australia took up more than 50,000 square metres of storage space, with the cost of storing, transport and staffing these donations reaching more than $8 million. A 2010 report found that “services in the fire affected areas were severely stretched as a result of donations of goods arriving without warning and without resources to sort, store, handle and distribute”.

Changing the humanitarian aid narrative to a cash response would reduce the negative impacts of a fast, unplanned influx of items which need to be stored and processed as well as the arrival of inappropriate items. It would also have a significant positive impact in enabling items that are needed to be purchased locally, which would be more efficient, cost-effective and provide support to local economies facing long recoveries. It is becoming increasingly clear to the international humanitarian aid community that affected communities recover quicker if they can choose and purchase what they most need.

However, such a campaign must grapple with the reticence of many donors to give cash. The 2016 New Zealand NGO Disaster Relief Forum heard that the problem with communicating a “money not goods” message was not awareness, but trust. Many people remain concerned about the capacity of humanitarian organisations and governments to use funds effectively and in a timely manner. They remember previous reports of donations being used to fund charity staff and administrative costs more than the intended recipients. Other people may not have cash to spare but want to do something, so they send second-hand goods from within their own homes – often assuming there is no issue with transporting these goods or their usefulness.

Ideally, on an ongoing basis and immediately after a disaster, the public and media would receive clear information about why monetary donations are most effective and how such donations can be made. However, in Australia, there is no formal coordination of such messages and it is often left to humanitarian aid agencies to attempt to both convey this message publicly and to convince people wanting to donate goods that their generosity needs to be redirected.

NGOS and the Australian Red Cross report that these conversations are often met with resistance and anger by people who have already gathered goods to send or have started collections through social media sites. Many donors ring around different agencies in an attempt to find someone who will accept their goods and some give up and send them directly. During Tropical Cyclone Winston, media coverage of the call by the Australian Red Cross to send cash led to such negative comments on the organisation’s Facebook page as “That’s great if you have cash to spare. Most people have plenty of `stuff’ but no cash. Also cash disappears into admin and govt charges very fast”.

The Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), the Australian Red Cross and others have committed to ongoing work to educate about the benefits of monetary donations rather than goods. Information on ACFID’s website aims to let people know that the costs of transporting, storing and distributing goods can often completely outweigh the benefit of donated goods, whilst also being potentially culturally inappropriate or irrelevant. ACFID also points out that free goods donated in large volumes to communities can force down the price of locally produced items. By contrast, humanitarian aid agencies using cash donations to source goods locally can stimulate local economies.

The USAID Centre for Disaster Information has created a fact sheet outlining 55 alternatives to donating material goods, including selling off items at a garage sale and donating the proceeds, or donating clothes to local op shops whose proceeds will then support humanitarian aid efforts.

Humanitarian aid agencies, governments and affected communities remain grateful that most people’s first instinct when a disaster happens is to try to help in some way. It is now a matter of convincing people that their best intentions can do more harm than good – and that cash is best.

UNAA Victoria is hosting #CASHISBEST – a humanitarian aid panel discussion at the Melbourne Athenaeum Library on 16 April 2019.

Panel members include Natasha Freeman, Australian Red Cross; Jess Lees, Humanitarian Advisory Group and Gerard Finnegan, IKEA Foundation Humanitarian Leadership Scholar, and Shruti Verma, Deakin University.

Tickets are available here.