6 questions you should ask before donating goods overseas
Posted on January 16, 2010 at 8:40 am
This is an edited and updated repost of an article originally written in May of 2009
Sending donated goods oversees is an appealing idea because it makes you feel like you’re really helping while at the same time recycling things that are no longer of any use to you. Unfortunately inappropriate donations can do more harm than good and it often costs more to ship used goods than to buy new goods locally. The following are six questions you should always ask before donating.
- Is the donation appropriate for the local climate, culture, and religion?
- After a disaster, will an influx of donated goods clog the ports?
- Do they actually need the donation?
- Are the goods available locally?
- Will the people receiving the goods be able to afford to fix or replace the donated item?
- Will donating this item do more harm than good?
Is the donated item appropriate for the climate, culture, religion of those you are trying to help?
Far too many examples of inappropriate donations came from the tsunami. Winter hat, coats, and gloves to southern Thailand. Canned pork and skimpy clothing donated to Muslim communities. At a conference a military presenter discussed the shipment of dog food they received intended to feed children (I understood it to be actual dog food, some people have questioned whether it was like this donation from New Zealand). None of these donations were actually used and some of them were offensive as well.
Will an influx of donated items clog the ports?
All people and goods arriving in a country must enter through sea or air ports. The influx of people and goods entering a country after a disaster may far exceed the capacity of the local government or the damaged ports and infrastructure to process and transport. This may lead to a bottleneck of goods waiting to be processed and distributed. Unless the country has the staff and capacity to unload, sort, clear, and move goods out of the port, well-intended donations of clothing and other supplies may clog the ports preventing shipments of critical relief supplies from getting through.
Do they actually need it?
A church group once invited me to help them with a care package they were sending to the needy in Thailand. I declined when I saw what they were sending; cloth diapers and diaper pins, and baby bottles. Rural Thai’s didn’t use diapers or bottles back then.
Thai’s dressed babies in a shirt but left them bottomless. This meant that I had a general policy of never picking up a baby. I was also roundly teased on more than one occasion because, as everyone knows, “Baby urine is clean”. Although occasionally unpleasant, there are advantages to this method. Children are potty trained at an extremely young age and don’t suffer from diaper rash.
Bottle were also rarely used, and only by those that are well-off or married to a foreigner. Everyone else breastfed, even working women. My neighbor baby sat for a nurse who worked at the hospital a block or two up the road. The nurse came to the house several times a day to breastfeed her baby. Bottle feeding would require either a breast pump and refrigeration or baby formula. If they could afford either of those options they would be wealthy enough not to need donated bottles.
Are the goods available locally? – if donating overseas.
Even after disasters it may be possible to purchase goods from the areas surrounding the disaster site that were not destroyed. Purchasing goods from those areas ensures that the goods are appropriate to the local climate and culture. It also supports livelihoods which are critical for rebuilding after a disaster.
After the tsunami, a group of students shipped donated school supplies to Thailand. The person picking them up paid more in clearing customs and shipping them to the affected area than he would have if he’d bought them from the local marketplace. Purchasing goods locally puts money into the economy. No only does the person selling it to you make a little profit, but they will likely order more increasing sales at the factory as well.
Will the people receiving the goods be able to afford to fix or replace the donated item?
Imagine if Russia donated cars to your state to help during the financial crisis. You might be thrilled to receive a free car (although the US car manufactures and dealerships will not be thrilled that their market was undercut) until the first time you had to repair it. The owners manual printed in Russian won’t be too helpful, and it will be difficult to find a mechanic or spare parts for the vehicle.
Items like imported pipes may not work with local systems because of differences in threads or diameters based on inches, not centimeters. If the pipes are broken they cannot be replaced, nor can the system be expanded. If you decide to donate bottles and formula, can the women afford to buy more when the donation runs out?
Will giving this item do more harm than good?
Unfortunately we often know so little about the effects of our donations that you may not be able to answer this question.
After the tsunami, due to media hype and a desire to help, thousands of people donated clothing. So many clothes were donated to India that truckloads of them were just dumped alongside the road. They became a choking hazard for the local cattle and government staff had to be diverted from the recovery effort to dispose of the donations. After disasters baby formula mixed with contaminated water can lead to severe diarrhea and potentially death due to dehydration.
Consider donating within your own community
Although it is tempting to donate goods to help people overseas, it is usually cheaper and better to just send money. Instead of sending over your bras and flip flops, hold a community garage sale and donate the proceeds, or contact a local aid agency and see how you can best help out within your own community.
From other blogs:
What IS it with the SHOES? – From Tales from the Hood who is on the ground in Haiti
Logistics questions around the Haiti earthquake – A Humourless Lot – discusses the logistical challenges of moving goods after a disaster and the problems caused by unneeded goods
Don’t send baby formula to Darfur – GlobalHealth@Change.org – Informative article from Alanna Shaikh with links to other resources
Global Post wrote Haiti: Help with money, not stuff discussing the problems caused by donated medicine after disasters
The challenge of reverse logistics in global health – A Humourless Lot - looks at the problems that arise when too much is sent or things have to be sent back
Interaction: How to Help
Center of International Disaster Information (CIDI): Guidelines for appropriate International Disaster Donations