Considerations before donating in-kind goods like bottled water in an emergency situation

“Sending donated goods oversees is an appealing idea because it makes you feel like you’re really helping while at the same time recycling things that are no longer of any use to you,” states Saundra Schimmelfennig, a co-founder of the Disaster Tracking Recovery Assistance Center, an NGO that works on aid coordination and ensuring better aid distribution. “Unfortunately inappropriate donations can do more harm than good and it often costs more to ship used goods than to buy new goods locally.”
While many people have given in-kind donations of food, clothes, medicines, and bottled water for Haiti earthquake relief, this often creates a logistical quagmire. The Haitian embassy’s doors in Washington, D.C., have been recently blocked by donated goods. Although this clearly demonstrates that the public wants to help, in most cases there is little forethought in considering how the goods will actually be transported to Haiti. After the earthquake, students at an Arkansas high school collected 1,000 bottles of water, hoping that it would provide relief for earthquake victims and survivors. However, after realizing that they had no way to physically ship the bottles to Haiti, they donated them to the local fire department.

Alanna Shaikh, who has spent the last decade as a global health professional and has worked on US government projects to improve child and maternal health had this to say about bottled water donations, “Bottled water. Yes, people need clean drinking water in emergencies. Sending bottled water is not the way to make it happen. Purification and filtration on-site is. Bottled water is heavy and bulky. Shipping bottled water clogs ports, wastes natural resources, and takes logistical resources better devoted to essentials.” You can see her whole article “What Not to Give in Emergencies” here.

Shaikh echoes the sentiments of many leading humanitarian organizations working in Haiti and in emergency situations elsewhere:
Don’t donate goods. Donating stuff instead of money is a serious problem in emergency relief. Only the people on the ground know what’s actually necessary; those of us in the rest of the world can only guess. Some things, like [winter clothes] and expired medicines are going to be worthless in Haiti. Other stuff, like…bottled water may be helpful to some people in some specific ways. Separating the useful from the useless takes manpower that can be doing more important work. It’s far better to give money so that organizations can buy the things they know they need.

“Some people like to donate goods instead of cash because they worry that cash won’t be used in a way that helps the needy. If that’s you, I have two points. 1) Why are you donating to an organization you don’t trust? 2) What’s to stop them from selling your donated item and using the money for whatever they want?

“After Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Honduras was flooded with shipments of donated goods. They clogged ports, overwhelmed military transport, and made it nearly impossible for relief agencies to ship in the things they really needed. Those donations did harm, not good. Expired drugs had to be carefully disposed of. Inappropriate donations had to be transported away and discarded. All of this wasted time and money.”

Cash donations are helpful not only for immediate rescue and humanitarian operations, but can also be used for long-term reconstruction. They also allow organizations to buy in bulk exactly what they need and allow smoother and quicker shipping options.

Donations have enable us at International Action to purchase appropriate water tanks and bulk chlorine pallets to provide water for tens of thousands of earthquake survivors. While bottled water may be many organization’s initial resort for temporary water relief, there must also be a proportionate emphasis on implementing a water delivery system that is organizationally, environmentally, technically, financially, and socially sustainable; and that emphasizes local ownership. The lack of a functional water system before the earthquake is responsible for the water shortage we are seeing today.

The military and a few aid organizations are starting to shift their attention to developing a local water source. They are realizing that it doesn’t make sense to ship in dozens of truckloads of water a day. As almost every water source in Haiti-springs, streams, rivers, and wells–are contaminated with human excrement and garbage, in addition to effective on-the-ground chlorination by groups like International Action and our local Haitian partner Dlo Pwop, many groups are also beginning to look into drilling more wells.

If you are interested in helping with Haiti relief, please consider a cash donation. Many aid relief organizations are further highlighting the point that the mathematics of donations favor cash. Below is an except from a Newsvine article entitled, “Disaster do-gooders can actually hinder help:”


Many agencies try to motivate donors with the mathematics of the situation. Jeff Nene, a spokesman for Convoy of Hope, a Springfield, Mo., agency that feeds 11,000 children a day in Haiti, urges cash donations that allow his group to buy in bulk from large suppliers and retailers.

“When people give $1, it translates into $7 in the field,” he said. “If they spend $5 for bottled water, that’s nice and it makes them feel good, but probably it costs us more than $5 to send it. If they give us $5, we can get $35 worth of water.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by virtually every aid agency.

“I would really say at this point, honestly, right now, money is the best thing to give,” Rothe-Smith said.

Donors can find vetted agencies helping in Haiti on sites such as Charity Navigator.

Still, trying to direct the flood of compassion can be tricky, Nene acknowledged.

“Some people get a little miffed by it. They think they’re trying to help and when you don’t receive it in that attitude and spirit, they get upset,” he said.

“You just have to tread lightly. You don’t want to crush people when they’re so willing to help.”

Schimmelfennig lists 6 important questions potential in-kind donors should ask themselves:

1. Is the donation appropriate for the local climate, culture, and religion?
2. After a disaster, will an influx of donated goods clog the ports?
3. Do they actually need the donation?
4. Are the goods available locally?
5. Will the people receiving the goods be able to afford to fix or replace the donated item?
6. Will donating this item do more harm than good?

Her blog, “Good Intentions Are Not Enough: An honest conversation about the impact of aid” can be seen here.


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