A coalition of Australian aid organizations is trying to inform people that their donations of handbags and high heels are doing little to help humanitarian crises. Good intentions aside, these unrequested donations are actually hindering efforts to help those in need, as sorting and storing the items divert time and money that are already thin during a disaster.
A Red Cross report found that more than 70 shipping containers filled with high heels and handbags, but also other unrequested goods including canned food and heavy blankets, were sent to Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam, one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the nation of islands. The UN reported 24 deaths and 3,300 people displaced. And 96 percent of the nation’s food crops were destroyed, according to ABC.
Ten months later, 18 containers of donations were still uncollected, racking up more than $2 million in storage fees and leaving more than half the canned food perished. Joanna Pradela, head of policy and advocacy for the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), told The Outline that many of the items were destroyed and sent to a landfill, which adds a substantial environmental impact, particularly in a region with few safe waste management options. And goods that do end up being used could distort the local economy, as free products drive down the price of locally produced goods.
“The generosity of the Australian public is unwavering,” Pradela said in a release. “When a disaster strikes, people’s first instinct is to help in any way possible. But sometimes well-meaning actions do more harm than good.”
After 2016’s Cyclone Winston, which killed 44 people and forced 51,000 into shelters during the worst storm to make landfall in Fiji, the country received 133 containers and more than 8,000 pieces of loose cargo, enough to fill 33 Olympic swimming pools. Among the items were sports gear, wool sweaters, carpets, miscellaneous school books, and chainsaws.
Steve Ray, Disaster and Crisis Response Manager at Australian Red Cross, said: “People who donate goods often send whatever they have to hand. Custom officials and relief agencies then have to sort, catalogue, and assess those items, which takes time away from helping the people most affected. When you factor in shipping fees, storage, and distribution, the costs far exceeds their value.”
If people really want to help, ACFID is asking them to do so with donations of cash instead of whatever may be lying around the house. This allows aid organizations to provide needed items directly and in bulk or cash so that families can buy what they need from local stores. And if people are still hell bent on getting rid of their stuff in the name of charity, Pradela suggests selling it online and donating the proceeds or giving to thrift shops backed by international aid charities. ACFID has a list of trusted organizations right here.