The reality of unwanted aidCan you hear that scraping noise? That’s me dragging my soap box to centre stage. Please don’t be alarmed and please don’t stop reading now because in the next five minutes you could learn how not donating to the Red Cross could save someone’s life.

I spend a large amount of my time post-disaster speaking on the phone with people who tell me that they don’t just want to donate money but they want to do more. They have medical items, clothes or food to give instead. People sometimes get cross or upset when I turn down their well meant offer. And that’s the point; their offer is genuinely well intentioned. They just aren’t aware of the reasons why the Red Cross can’t take these goods. Unfortunately I don’t always have the time to fully explain why. Last Friday I spent more than half a day taking such calls for Haiti, even with a bevy of volunteers helping me. When really I should have been chartering an aircraft to deliver blankets and jerry cans to Port au Prince.

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.

Secondly, we don’t own planes. We pay for commercial air freight like anyone else would. And it’s expensive. That’s why we don’t fly blankets and jerry cans out from the UK. We buy and store them in countries close to where disasters happen so that it’s faster and cheaper to get them to where they are needed. We hold stocks for several thousand families so that we are ready to go 24/7. As soon as we can, we start to buy the rest that’s need from the affected country or its neighbours.  In particular food, soap and where feasible, medicines. These items will be to local taste, will give a much need monetary boost to the economy and the transportation costs will be lower. The savings made can be used to buy more aid.

Unwanted donations create chaos, waste and confusion for an already stricken country. The risks are spiralling costs or actual threats to its people, environment and industry. For example local shop owners, who may have lost family members and their home then find their business crumbling as food or clothing aid is imported.

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.

Imagine you have to help 10,000 families put up aid tents. What would you do? I would probably train a handful of volunteers how to put up said tent and get them out training others. Now what would you do if every single one of those tents was different? Replace the word tent with the following: incubator, water pump, dialysis machine.  With these items you will also have maintenance and spare parts. We standardise items and put them in our catalogue for a reason. Efficiency and effectiveness are key to what we do.

I do understand that people want to help. The British Red Cross has capacity to help others due to the generosity of the British public and we are deeply grateful for their support.  But when we ask for money it is because, for us, the best way to help those people directly affected by the disaster. Your money will pay for life saving items, and the trucks and planes to get them there, and the ERU teams on the ground handing them out. If you do have any saleable items, like clothing or books then please donate them to the Red Cross shops and the money raised will also support our work.

I have one more favour to ask. Could you please get just another person you know to read this blog. The more people who can understand the down side of unsolicited goods, the less chance there is of this stuff cluttering up the aid effort. And the fewer phone calls I will have to take to explain individually why we can’t accept the offer. Then I can get on with the practical side of helping the Haitian people, which is, let’s face it, what all of us want to do. Right, I’ll step away from the soap box now, thanks for listening.

© IFRC