Are Your Donations Actually Being Used To Help Disaster Victims?

When a disaster like Hurricane Harvey devastates a population, it is a natural human reaction to want to help the victims in need.

Americans, in particular, love to swiftly look around them for items to donate; and they do so at an alarming rate.

But are those donations actually given to disaster victims? The answer will shock you.

Juanita Rilling is the director of the Center for International Disaster Information located in Washington, D.C. She has dedicated over 10 years of her life to serving people in need of humanitarian aid, but Hurricane Mitch of 1998 was a defining moment for her.

She describes the eye-opening moment she had, saying,

β€œ[I ]got a call from one of our logistics experts who said that a plane full of supplies could not land, because there was clothing on the runway. It’s in boxes and bales. It takes up yards of space. It can’t be moved.’ ‘Whose clothing is it?’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t know whose it is, but there’s a high-heeled shoe, just one, and a bale of winter coats.’ And I thought, winter coats? It’s summer in Honduras.”

Lifesaving supplies were not able to be delivered to those in need, simply because of the massively overabundant donations from people just trying to help.

Additionally, not all donations are as well thought out as others.

For example, in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, clothing donations came in so quickly and in such high volume that relief workers were unable to sort and distribute them before they began to rot.

In an interview with CBS news anchor Scott Simon, Rilling described the scene:

“This very quickly went toxic and had to be destroyed,” said Rilling. “And local officials poured gasoline on it and set it on fire. And then it was out to sea.”

“So, rather than clothing somebody, it went up in flames?” asked Simon.

“Correct. The thinking is that these people have lost everything, so they must NEED everything. So people SEND everything. You know, any donation is crazy if it’s not needed. People have donated prom gowns and wigs and tiger costumes and pumpkins, and frostbite cream to Rwanda, and used teabags, ’cause you can always get another cup of tea.”

Juanita Rilling keeps an album full of images of donations from well-meaning donors that end up sitting unused or rotting in warehouses and local communities.

Even vital items can be a challenge to process and distribute. Water, for example, is needed in large amounts. But it would actually be more cost-effective and easier to supply if purifying systems were donated rather than having to manage the shipping, storage, and distribution that comes with millions of gallons of donated bottled water.

Many American mothers wanted to donate breastmilk after an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010. However, humanitarian expert Rebecca Gustafson says:

“It sounds wonderful, but in the midst of a crisis it’s actually one of the most challenging things,” said Rebecca Gustafson, a humanitarian aid expert who has worked on the ground after many disasters.

“Breast milk doesn’t stay fresh for very long. And the challenge is, what happens if you do give it to an infant who then gets sick?”

Unfortunately, in this case, formula is a better option for babies affected by a disaster.

Even tragedies caused by human hands face these challenges. For example, after the deadly attacks at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, donations began to flood in.

These families truly were grieving and in shock, but they were not displaced from their homes. They had access to food, water, and their worldly possessions.

But an outpouring of unneeded donations overwhelmed the small town. A warehouse had to be rented just to house donated teddy bears.

Chris Kelsey, a Newtown worker at the time, explained to CBS:

“I think it was a nice gesture,” Kelsey replied. “There was a need to do something for the kids. There was a need to make people feel better. I think the wave of stuff we got was a little overwhelming in the end.”

And how many teddy bear came to Newtown? “I think it was about 67,000,” Kelsey said. “Wasn’t limited to teddy bears. There was also thousands of boxes of school supplies, and thousands of boxes of toys, bicycles, sleds, clothes.”

But there are people making a difference and helping to cut down on what humanitarians refer to as β€œthe second disaster.”

Hurricane Sandy was a devastating storm that rocked the American Northeast. And while political scandal still surrounds it today, the relief efforts are a different story.

Probably the only decent thing to come from the socially progressive Occupy Wall Street movement was Occupy Sandy. They were able to step in where the government and other organizations could not and cut back on wasteful donations.

Tammy Shapiro, an organizer of the group, told CBS:

“We were able to respond in a way that the big, bureaucratic agencies can’t,” Shapiro said.

When the hurricane struck, they had a network of activists, connected and waiting.

“Very quickly, we just stopped taking clothes,” Shapiro said. Instead, they created a “relief supply wedding registry.”

“We put the items that we needed donated on that registry,” said Shapiro. “And then people who wanted to donate could buy the items that were needed. I mean, a lot of what we had on the wedding registry was diapers. They needed flashlights.”

So what can the average American do when they want to help in a time of crisis?

The answer is one that not many are accustomed to considering. It is not viewed as glamorous or personal; in fact, it is something that has become looked down upon or seen as an easy way out.

The answer is cash.

Both Gustafson and Rilling spoke openly on wasted donations and the need for cash donations instead.

“It is heartbreaking,” Rilling said. “It’s heartbreaking for the donor, it’s heartbreaking for the relief organizations, and it’s heartbreaking for survivors. This is why cash donations are so much more effective. They buy exactly what people need, when they need it.

“And cash donations enable relief organizations to purchase supplies locally, which ensures that they’re fresh and familiar to survivors, purchased in just the right quantities, and delivered quickly. And those local purchases support the local merchants, which strengthens the local economy for the long run.”

Gustafson added, “Money sometimes doesn’t feel personal enough for people. They don’t feel enough of their heart and soul is in that donation, that check that they would send.

“The reality is, it’s one of the most compassionate things that people can do.”

So the next time you donate to a person in need or a humanitarian organization, stop and think about whether that item will truly be helpful with relief efforts.

Rethink the negative stigma often associated with cash gifts and teach your children that sometimes it really is the most helpful gift as well.

How are you getting your kids involved in humanitarian efforts?

Have you had an open conversation with them about Hurricane Harvey?

Share with us your thoughts and tips in the comments section below.

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