How Donating to Disaster Relief Can Do More Harm Than Good

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.

Juanita Rilling:  There are two aspects to every donation. There is the emotional/spiritual side which is all good and there’s the practical/material side which is very tricky. The emotional/spiritual side is people giving to people who are hurting which has spiritually evolved in civilization saving that is all really good. But a donation is a material thing in a situation where material things have to be prioritized. There’s no emotion in humanitarian logistics. Anything that is not needed gets in the way and so people’s donations can actually prevent people on the ground from getting the help that they need.

After a major disaster there really are no flat, dry spaces to put things. And so if there are flat, dry spaces the relief organizations need them to stage and manage and deliver emergency supplies. So if it’s raining used clothing and canned food and bottled water all of that has to be moved aside and it’s in the elements because there really is no climate controlled storage after a disaster, not for a long time. If there is it’s used for medicines. So all of this donated goods, these donated goods sit in the elements and they degrade. The clothing gets moldy, the cans open up, these big piles become a haven for rats and snakes and therefore a health hazard for anyone who has to deal with them. And moving all of the stuff out of the way and managing it is relief workers taking relief workers time and heavy equipment and money away from the response. So all of these resources that are used to manage unneeded donations are being taken basically from survivors.

After the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, a very generous donor offered 28 truckloads of new furniture to the people of Moore, Oklahoma. And the relief workers were like dude, that is so wonderful of you but can you wait because right now there are no houses, no houses. But he was excited about his gift. People get very excited when they want to give something they know is special. So up to Moore came 28 truckloads and all of that furniture needed to be warehoused and warehousing costs money. And so that’s money that comes away from building people’s houses. So timing is important in giving as well. And it’s not good to give household goods when there are no households.

The best way to help survivors of any disaster event is through cash donations to the relief and charitable organizations who are working directly in disaster affected communities. That is because cash donations enable relief organizations to meet needs as they change which happens frequently, especially in the early days right after a disaster which are very dynamic. Cash donations also enable relief organizations to purchase supplies close to the disaster affected area because even in the worst disaster a protracted famine there’s always a perimeter of healthy markets from which to buy supplies. And when supplies are purchased locally they are fresh and familiar to survivors. They’re purchased in just the right quantities and they don’t require the heavy transportation costs and fees. They’re delivered quickly and there’s enough for everyone. They really – cash donations really are the best donation to give. And I understand that people are sometimes suspicious of relief organizations. And justifiably so because in that tricky intersection of money and human nature there will be pop up non-governmental organizations after a disaster. All of a sudden you’ll see this compelling website with a name you’ve never heard of and a big red donate now button. And people are smart to be cautious. But that’s why the charity watchdogs are so helpful.

Like Give Well, Guidestar, Charity Watch and Charity navigator where people who are open to donating money can look in the websites and find out what the organizations are doing, what they specialize in and the donor can decide whether they want to support the organization. That’s really the best way to do it.

 

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.

Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

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  • NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.

Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel:
https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work

Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

SJADE 2018
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  • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
  • It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
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Meet the worm with a jaw of metal

Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.

Credit: Mike Workman/Adobe Stock
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  • Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
  • Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
  • It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
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