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.
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."