As planes full of food and medical supplies sit at the airport in Haiti while hundreds of thousands of people are dehydrated, hungry and in dire need of medical aid, the challenges of helping others is made obvious to the world. The outpouring of global generosity is always impressive in emergency situations; yet, the inability to actually get the aid to the people who need it the most is a painful reality. Sadly, the intent to help others isn’t always enough. A few tips for individual donors:
1. Don’t send clothes or shoes, send money.
2. Don’t send baby formula, send money. “Baby formula,” Alanna Shaikh, an international relief and development expert working in Tajikistan writes, “does nothing for babies in the middle of a disaster and can even be fatal.”
3. Don’t send blankets, send money. Blankets require getting them to port, clearing them through customs, distributing them and deciding who gets them — when other organizations on the ground may have plenty of blankets already.
4. Even George Bush gets it. Referring to relief efforts in Haiti, he says: “I know a lot of people want to send blankets or water. Just send your cash.”
5. Water is heavy and bulky, takes up precious cargo space and requires distribution. Better to back an organization working to get emergency water systems up and running, experts say.
Every aid worker has a favorite story about useless donations. Raymond Offenheiser, the president of Oxfam America, recalled being in Bangladesh after a cyclone had killed 200,000 people and watching local women trying to make sense out of French TV dinners — “complete with croissant,” he said — that required a microwave.
Someone else has a story about the bewilderment of survivors of Hurricane Mitch in Honduras upon opening a box of donated high-heeled shoes, while another tells of the arrival in Congo of boxes of used toothbrushes, expired over-the-counter drugs and broken bicycles.
“There isn’t always a lot of thought that goes into these gifts,” Mr. Offenheiser said. “The impulse is just to do something, anything.”