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Sex Toys, Winter Coats, And Spanish Flags: The Uselessness Of Post-Disaster Donations

Years of studying disaster relief has led Jose Holguin-Veras to a few simple truths about donations. While tiger costumes and sex toys aren’t going to do much good, it makes people feel better to think they’re helping. But they’re not—they could be doing a lot of damage.

Jose Holguin-Veras used to have a top-five list of the strangest donated items that inevitably appear in disaster areas once recovery begins: A king-size mattress that weighed 200 pounds, a load of Spanish flags, a case of Viagra, and a carnival-style tiger costume. But then Holguin-Veras, who has studied donations in dozens of post-disaster zones, says he found out about the truckload of sex toys delivered after Hurricane Charley in 2004. "I think that was the winner," he says.

Human impulse makes people want to lend a hand after a major disaster like a hurricane or earthquake, says Holguin-Veras, who is the director of the Center for Infrastructure, Transportation, and the Environment at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "The motivations come from a good place," he says. But sending stuff can lead to its own litany of problems, bottlenecking important donations and wasting the time of aid workers.

Donations can be divided into three categories: high-priority (the stuff that actually helps with an immediate need like blankets or water), low priority (stuff that could help at a later time, but isn’t needed at the moment) and no-priority (stuff that is inappropriate for the area or is expired—like the sex toys).

After most disasters, this no-priority cargo takes up 60% of space, and that can have a real impact, says Holguin-Veras. "It’s funny to talk about, but the problems this stuff can create are very real." Getting high-priority cargo to the people who need it depends on the ability to move low-priority cargo out of the way. And that wastes time and resources.

Stories of useless donations are myriad. Days after the earthquake in Haiti, a plane loaded with toys from a Thai manufacturer landed in Port-au-Prince, deposited several tons of toys on the tarmac, and left after taking TV shots. The toys had to be sorted and dumped by aid organizations. Then freight containers arrived filled with donated refrigerators that required a voltage different from what is used in Haiti. They were eventually used as tables, says Holguin-Veras. Crates of Red Bull and potato chips flooded the port, when people need sanitation equipment and rice.

Clothing presents a special problem. It makes up 40% to 50% of all donations and most of the time it is of little use to disaster victims. In Haiti, clothing donations of winter coats poured in. Of course, it’s never cold enough to warrant a winter coat there, even in January. Similarly, tons of clothes ended up in the dump after Hurricane Katrina, and in Japan it took one-third of one organization’s workers just to sort through the donated clothing before most of it was trashed. "It takes time to sort through and process all the stuff, and most of it just goes to the dump anyway," says Holguin-Veras.

So why couldn’t enterprising organizations sell the donations and use the money for more high-priority needs? "You could sell them if you get 10,000 shirts ordered by size. But it’s that jumble of things, and it takes too much time to sort clothing in all shapes and sizes. There are typically millions of individual pieces, which makes it very difficult to make good use of this stuff."

Donors send a mind-boggling amount of cargo, with no coordination about who is sending what. "One of the warehouses in Japan had 700,000 liters of water. If each individual gets a liter per day, that’s water for 100,000 people for a week—and it was sitting there idle," because water was being provided by other organizations, says Holguin-Veras.

A massive pile of donated, mostly useless clothes. Photo courtesy of Rensselaer/Holguin-Veras

In addition, physical donations of food and water can undermine local markets and producers. Holguin-Veras spoke with one organization in Haiti after the earthquake. They estimated that for every water bottle that was flown in from Spain, it denied three or four people water purchased locally.

The needs at a disaster site can also change in an instant. After the earthquake happened in Japan, blankets were needed right away. But three days later, the weather turned warm and the same blankets became no-priority cargo. The Canadian government had leapt into action and sent 25,000 blankets. By the time they reached Japan, it was too late, and they were wasting space and time.

Donators also don’t know the needs on the ground the way local organizations do. Hundreds of pounds of pork meat was donated to Muslim earthquake victims in Turkey. In Haiti, a major private foundation donated 200 trucks with automatic transmissions. While these trucks worked well in the U.S., they couldn’t navigate the steep Haitian hills. And it’s not just individuals and nonprofits—companies do it too. "A disaster zone is not the place to do marketing," says Holguin-Veras, who became interested in the question of post-disaster donations after 9/11.

So what is the right answer? Don’t send stuff. While there are times that physical donations do help, that window is small, typically if high-priority cargo can arrive just one or two days after the event. Beyond that, it’s not really going to help. Monetary donations to organizations on the ground are the best way to help. But that doesn’t have to mean pulling money out of the bank. "Go ahead and have that donation drive, but then sell the stuff and send a check to a reputable organization," advises Holguin-Veras. It is, after all, human nature to want to lend a hand. "Helping out is highly commendable, but let’s do it smarter."


Add New Comment


  • Phones toys...and I thought I seen bad donations. 

    Great article, I was involved in the relief effort for the 2009 earthquake and tsunami in Samoa and I oversaw a majority of the (bad) donations from organizations overseas. For around 2 months, we would constantly receive donations that would get worst and worst after each shipment: expired food, moldy sneakers (no one wears sneakers in Samoa), dirty jackets (same reason you mentioned above), and maybe every possible broken electronic item (old computers, broken VCRS, a Gamecube without wires or controllers, and my favorite, boxes of VHS tapes). Food in general had a ratio of for every 10 cans donated from an overseas organization, at least 8 of them would be expired or damaged. Not to mention the crates and crates and crates of expired Pepsi and Chips we received.

    I understand it's in good spirit but it got to the point where it felt like they were just sending us trash. 

  • Steve Dutch

    I served in the Kurdish relief efforts in 1991 and Bosnia in 1996 with an Army civil affairs unit. This article is dead on target. DO NOT SEND IN-KIND DONATIONS! In Kurdistan we woke up to find two semis full of clothes that had driven all the way from Scotland! They became a magnet for everyone in the camps, creating a security problem. Problem solved by saying, if you carry a few sacks of food, you get a sack of clothes. In Bosnia we got toys, which we had to safeguard, then try to find reliable people to give them out. We heard credible stories of goodies being handed out to children, then, as soon as the cameras were gone, adults confiscated the goodies to sell. If you want to get rid of surplus, hold a garage sale and send money. In kind supplies create security problems and waste the time of people on the scene.

    The vast majority of donated clothing is shredded. That's not as wasteful as it sounds because the fiber can be recycled into other products.

    By the way, I don't know what Dell is trying to accomplish in customer relations with an ad that scrolls the screen out of view, and surely there are more honorable ways this site can support itself, like, oh, child porn.

  • Wastrel Way

    This article fails to mention that you can donate to the Salvation Army at any time, and when a disaster happens, the Salvation Army is already there.  If your donation is a ton of bottled water, it may be stored and used directly on the disaster site; if it is winter coats, it can be sold to buy supplies to be used there. 

  • Chicagothor13

    At what point did beggars become choosers? According to your story by the time we sell the crap we send the time of need would be past anyway. And I realize Muslims haven't contributed to science since algebra but let them know there are pills for hook worm if you get it from pork products and that starving to death is way worse.

  • Steve Dutch

    There are four separate places in the Koran where it says that pork may be eaten if the need is severe. The verses are 2.173, 5.3, 6.145, and 16.115, if you want to look them up. Typical is the end of 5.3, "but whoever is compelled by hunger, not inclining willfully to sin, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful." These are four of the five verses in the Koran where the word "swine occurs." People getting on their high horse about relief supplies with pork show only their superficiality.

  • AnMun

    Chicagothor13: In three sentences you've managed to be glaringly incorrect three times. Good job.

    1. It's not about beggars being choosers. It's about useless donations actually making things worse due to the manpower needed to sort them which could be better spent elsewhere.

    2. The point of selling crap for money then donating that instead is that money does not lose its usefulness or have an expiry date, while the goods do. You somehow managed to reach the exact opposite conclusion. I can only assume that when faced with a stop sign you accelerate and then when someone tells you 'no entry' you suddenly have to find a way in.

    3. Disregarding your own shoe-horned anti-Islam tendencies, the pork was an example of a stupid donation intended to highlight how unaware many people and organisations are of the actual disaster areas. Turkey is largely Muslim, it is also largely Christian. The pork was donated to Muslim areas. It should have been donated to non-Muslim areas.

    Stop trying to filter everything through your own idiotic agenda and you might not come across as such a an outrageous idiot.

  • Mishellesimpson

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  • n3ahsan

    I am doing my Master's Research Project on clothing-aid protocols and the stories I have heard from survivors in the course of focus group discussions about donated items are hair-raising. I hadn't heard about sex-toys though, thanks for sharing this.

  • Zanna Joyce

    This also applies to support for low income neighbourhoods in NA and elsewhere - tons of products bought out in the 'burbs leads to undercutting of local economies, yielding less choice, higher prices.
    Glad you did this.  Please repeat/build on this theme.

  • Alvaro_alonso

    During the flee of Rwandese into Tanzania after 1994 genocide two containers with high heels and platform shoes was sent. We finally used them as firewood. in the same operation UNICEF received another load pr half used medicines including bottles of cough syroup and expired antibiotics. Withe money spent in this shipment hundress of treatments could have been paid locally.

  • Alejandro Naranjo

    You have touched a sensitive spot here. The harm that donations do to local industries is huge. And the waste of resources when the donations are not useful is frustrating. The bottom line is that you only send money to someone you trust... then, how can that happen if you don´t know these organizations?

  • Gayle Falkenthal

    Thank you, thank you, thank you on behalf of tens of thousands of disaster response volunteers around the world. I am one of them who can tell you that donations of physical goods do tremendous harm, getting in the way, slowing down operations, and costing a tremendous amount to transport, clean, sort, and eventually haul away for dumping.

    When any area suffers a natural disaster, even the businesses who are not hurt suffer because there are fewer people buying groceries or other goods. Far better to send a small amount of money that can be put to use buying needed items in the local economy. Otherwise many local businesses end up closing and jobs are lost which makes the impact of the disaster even worse.

    If an aid worker gently and politely refuses your donation, PLEASE LISTEN TO THEM. Stop forcing your unwanted items on us. Take them to an organization that solicits them such as Goodwill Industries or the Salvation Army. Better to send five dollars than end up costing an organization money trying to manage your used clothing.

  • Vickyodams

    This all makes total sense to me, but I'm really surprised that all of this problematic stuff makes its way to disaster stuck areas and that such cargo is not checked and refused in coordinating effeorts from the countries of origin (or refused permission to land in disaster struck areas).

    How does it actually happen that a boatload of rubbish can be shipped into the way of disater relief?

    Also, if Iput donations (e.g clothes) into recyle in the UK (either charity bins/bags or my local authority textile collection) how do I know they won't be contributing to this issue?

  • Roxanne

    What a great article. I've worked with domestic violence and sexual assault victims for years and I would always explain this problem to people. We would get donations of wedding dresses, used underwear and completely irrelevant items all the time.

  • Sockatume

    I think that Irhah has missed the point of the article. There is a finite amount of space, time, and manpower to move donations into the disaster area, organise them, and get them out to people. Any time spent on pet supplies is time that isn't being spent on food, water, and shelter. And from Roxanne's comment, the same is true of other volunteer organisations.

    If I have bric-a-brac, I take it to a charity shop. If there is a disaster, I send cash on the assumption that relief organisations have a better idea how to apply it than I do.

  • Irhah

    I gave loads of cat litter box and kennels to Haiti...How do you know they dont need it ?? Maybe someone could use the cat litter box to keep hygiene clean. Kennels could be used to keep dogs,cats and chickens for pleasure or for food. Bottom line is that you cant say what is usable or not until you are desperate for stuff.......