Each time a disaster occurs, like Hurricane Katrina, tsunamis and most recently the earthquakes in Haiti, the good people of the United States rush to help. That’s good, no, that’s great! The problems come when well intentioned, good hearted people donate stuff that is useless to the cause.
When a major disaster strikes somewhere in the world there’s a relief agency near my home that springs into action. They do a great job of getting money and supplies to places that really need it, they help lots of people and they do it quickly because they have a plan. After the Haiti earthquakes the general public went berserk donating money, cases of water, first aid supplies and cleaning supplies. I drive past this charity on a daily basis and at that time saw all the stuff that sat in the portable storage container serving as a drop off spot.
This charity receives clothing ALL the time, because it can be just dropped off in the storage container. This heap of clothing incrementally increases during a crisis. People donate clothing during a disaster, that’s just the way people are. Here’s the thing: clothing is NOT good for anything during these times of disaster. This relief agency does not have the time or people to devote to sorting clothing and packing it up in order to ship thousands of miles away. Back in January, right after the Haiti earthquake, I read a blog post on the United Kingdom’s Red Cross blog that described the problem. I encourage you to read the whole post but I offer you some of the more salient points:
First let me debunk a couple of myths, starting with the principle that “anything is better than nothing”. Trust me, it’s not. Relieving suffering should be guided solely by need and not what people have to donate. Humanitarian aid should also ‘do no harm’. Quite a lot of harm is done when unwanted and unneeded fresh food items rot in piles at the airports and seaports, stopping medicines and blankets getting through.
Storage space is scarce in every post-disaster setting. A huge influx of goods needs to be housed somewhere. In Banda Aceh after the Tsunami, health centres had to sacrifice patient’s rooms to store inappropriate drugs. The irony is that the medicines sent in to help people instead reduced the number of sick people who could access treatment. Pharmaceuticals are very sensitive to light, heat and humidity. If they are not stored in proper conditions, at best they lose some of their effectiveness, at worst they become completely useless. You have no way of know where they have been and you can’t tell just by looking if these items are still going to work.
Medicines not recognised by local doctors could lead to fatal doses being prescribed. Patients face a bewildering and ever changing array of pills in different boxes and with different amounts to be taken. Often the packaging and instruction leaflet is in a foreign language. The chance of accidently overdosing is very real. Also if the quality of the drugs or equipment is not acceptable for the UK then it is also not acceptable for Haiti.
Drugs that are not required, those that have expired or have no expiry date have to be destroyed. Incineration is preferred as this prevents the hazard of land filled medicines contaminating water supplies or drugs being collected and sold on the black market. In Eritrea after the war of independence, seven truckloads of expired aspirin took six months to burn. The real tragedy is the cost of this process. In the Venezuela floods in 2000, seventy percent of donated pharmaceuticals had to be destroyed. To be able to cover this cost, a support line to provide psychological support to the survivors had to be shut down.
So, the lesson here is not to suddenly decide to declutter your closet in the aftermath of a tragedy somewhere in the world. Don’t rush around gathering the 6 cans of 3 year old green beans and 2 boxes of stale crackers hiding in your pantry. Give money or take the time to find or purchase items that theses aid agencies actually can use. They always give lists of needed items to local media outlets. If you really don’t have money or supplies to give, then donate a couple hours of your time. Or, if you really do want to declutter your home then sell some of the junk and clutter from your house in a yard sale to raise money that you can donate to the relief cause. Have a sign up at your sale stating that the proceeds will benefit the aid agency of your choice. You might even make more money in your yard sale because shoppers will know where the money is going.
I think I did the right thing after the earthquakes struck Haiti. I donated some money, a hand crank powered clothes washer and 2 small camping tents to the aid agency near my house. I like to think they were useful and not detritus. Maybe, maybe not.