What if you found out your disaster relief donation did more harm than good? Juanita Rilling explains the humanitarian logistics of unwanted donations, and how you can give in a more informed way.
When we see a disaster strike, it’s a knee-jerk reaction to want to help. It’s possible, however, that despite your best intentions your charitable act may be more of a hindrance than a help. That flies in the face of everything we know about disaster relief – these people need as much as they can, as quickly as they can get it, right? But often our generosity isn’t informed by humanitarian logistics; good intentions can do harm if they lack understanding, as Albert Camus once wrote.
Juanita Rilling, director of the USAID Center for International Disaster Information, explains that disaster relief would never want to push away donations, but she does urge people to educate themselves on the practicality of their contribution.
The complications arise when people donate goods. In disaster environments, there is typically no temperature controlled storage, and often no dry, flat places to store boxes. When food, clothing, and supplies arrive, charity organizations have to risk losing them to factors like mold, rats, snakes, disease and the elements, or pay to put these goods in a storage facility. "All of these resources that are used to manage unneeded donations are being taken basically from survivors," Rilling explains.
There are two sides to every donation: the emotional side and the logistical side. It’s emotionally satisfying to give physical goods, because donors know exactly the impact of their generosity – a truck of shirts to clothe people, boxes of food to feed them, a truck of building supplies to start reconstruction. The best donation, as much as it feels impersonal, is sending cash to reputable and reviewed organization. Rilling recommends using research portals like GiveWell, GuideStar, Charity Watch and Charity Navigator to search for charities that use cash donations most responsibly.