Want to help after hurricanes? Give cash, not diapers

Some companies and community groups didn’t wait for Hurricane Florence to make landfall before organizing donation drives.

But as a researcher with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, an interdisciplinary center at Harvard University dedicated to relieving human suffering in wartime and disasters by analyzing and improving the way professionals and communities respond to emergencies, I wish they would have.

I’ve studied dozens of disasters, from Hurricane Maria and Superstorm Sandy to the South Asian tsunami and one thing is clear: In-kind donations of items such as food, clothing, toiletries and diapers are often the last thing that is needed in disaster-affected areas.

Delivering things that people need on the ground simply doesn’t help disaster-struck communities as much as giving them – and relief organizations – money to buy what they need. What’s more, truckloads of blue jeans and cases of Lunchables can actually interfere with official relief efforts.

If you want to do the greatest good, send money.

What’s wrong with in-kind donations

As humanitarian workers and volunteers have witnessed after disasters like Haiti’s 2010 earthquake and Southeast Asia’s Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, disaster relief efforts repeatedly provide lessons in good intentions gone wrong.

At best, in-kind donations augment official efforts and provide the locals with some additional comfort, especially when those donations come from nearby. When various levels of government failed to meet the needs of Hurricane Katrina victims, for example, community, faith-based and private sector organizations stepped in to fill many of the gaps.

How can in-kind donations cause more harm than good? Donated goods raise the cost of the response cycle: from collecting, sorting, packaging and shipping bulky items across long distances to, upon arrival, reception, sorting, warehousing and distribution.

Delivering this aid is tough in disaster areas since transportation infrastructure, such as airports, seaports, roads and bridges, are likely to be, if not damaged or incapacitated by the initial disaster, already clogged by the surge of incoming first responders, relief shipments and equipment.

This is especially the case in places like the Outer Banks, a string of barrier islands off North Carolina’s coast, where the challenges of bringing relief goods in, and distributing them to people who need supplies, are heightened by geography.

Dumping grounds

At worst, disaster zones become dumping grounds for inappropriate goods that delay actual relief efforts and harm local economies.

After the 2004 South Asian tsunami, shipping containers full of ill-suited items such as used high-heeled shoes, ski gear and expired medications poured into the affected countries. This junk clogged ports and roads, polluting already ravaged areas and diverting personnel, trucks and storage facilities from actual relief efforts.

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, many untrained and uninvited American volunteers bringing unnecessary goods ended up needing assistance themselves.

In-kind donations often not only fail to help those in actual need but cause congestion, tie up resources and further hurt local economies when dumped on the market, as research from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies determined.