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Calls to Stop Australians Sending ‘Heels and Handbags’ to Humanitarian Crises

16 January 2017 at 2:57 pm
Ellie Cooper
Australians sending unrequested goods to neighbouring countries after humanitarian emergencies are unintentionally hindering relief efforts, according to a first-of-its-kind report from the Red

Ellie Cooper | 16 January 2017 at 2:57 pm


Calls to Stop Australians Sending ‘Heels and Handbags’ to Humanitarian Crises
16 January 2017 at 2:57 pm

Australians sending unrequested goods to neighbouring countries after humanitarian emergencies are unintentionally hindering relief efforts, according to a first-of-its-kind report from the Red Cross.

The report, which examined ways to reduce unwanted donations, found 133 shipping containers and 8,000 pieces of loose cargo were sent to Fiji in the aftermath of Cyclone Winston in 2016 – enough to fill 33 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

More than 70 shipping containers, packed with high heels, handbags, heavy blankets, canned food and other goods, were also sent to Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam in 2015.

Ten months after the cyclone, 18 containers remained uncollected, costing nearly $2 million in storage fees, and more than half of the canned food items have expired.

The report found many of these items end up in landfill.

The Red Cross and the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) asked for Australians to stop sending unrequested goods to countries affected by a disaster.

ACFID head of policy and advocacy Joanna Pradela told Pro Bono News that despite the best intentions of donors, their actions could do more harm than good.

“When they [unrequested goods] arrive sometimes they don’t have an address or they have incomplete customs paperwork, and what this means is that local government officials and relief agencies then have to go about sorting and cataloguing all of the items that have been received,” Pradela said.

“That takes their time away from helping the people who’ve been most impacted from the disaster.

“It also means items are clogging up supply routes, they’re taking up storage space that could be used for the warehousing of immediate, life-saving supplies. They are sitting in containers in airports or on the sides of roads, blocking other shipments from getting through, and they’re costing money for the governments who are storing them and then needing to destroy them.

“Often… it turns out that the goods that have been sent are really inappropriate for the conditions… things like high heels, heavy blankets, handbags, woolen knitwear, and these are all things that really can’t be used in the climate or in the cultural situation of the Pacific.”

While the report doesn’t examine where the goods originated, Pradela said a significant proportion were likely to have been sent from Australia.

“We don’t know exactly how many of them are coming from Australia, but, particularly around the Pacific, we believe that a large majority of them are coming from Australia and New Zealand and from the diaspora communities of Pacific Islanders that exist in those two countries,” she said.

The Australian Red Cross disaster and crisis response manager, Steve Ray, said monetary donations were the best way for Australians to support countries in the aftermath of a humanitarian crisis.

“When people give cash, aid agencies can help in the most effective way – whether by providing tarpaulins in bulk or giving families cash to buy what they need from local markets,” Ray said.

Pradela also said cash was “faster and more flexible” in terms of reaching people in need.

“It enables relief agencies to buy exactly what’s needed, so there’s a better match between what people need and what they’re receiving,” she said.

“It can also be quite quickly redirected, so as an emergency unfolds and the needs evolve over time, the relief agencies can be quite responsive.

“And as the situation improves, money can be used to buy goods locally, and that’s really important for driving the recovery of local economies and local markets.”

She said the report was intended to create a positive conversation with donors.

“Unfortunately [the results are] not really surprising. Anecdotally we know that these things have happened in humanitarian emergencies for a number of years, decades really,” she said.

“And so what we aim to do is to bring the public into a dialogue with us and really try to draw the attention to people who are giving for all the right reasons but may be unaware of the intended consequences of these kinds of donations.

“The Australian people are extremely generous, and the message we really want to deliver is that if you want to help people who’ve been affected by humanitarian emergencies, cash is really the best way of doing that.

“Instead of donating household items, we would encourage people to sell them online or at garage sales and local markets, and donate the proceeds. Alternatively, op-shops associated with international aid charities will gratefully accept good-quality clothes and household items.”

ACFID also directed Australians to their website, which provides an up-to-date list of trusted aid and humanitarian organisations working in disaster-affected countries.

“The standards by which ACFID members make appeals for donations for humanitarian crises are set by a code of conduct. This includes a responsibility to provide clear information to donors on the emergency situation and the work they are doing with affected communities,” Pradela said.

Ellie Cooper  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

Ellie Cooper is a journalist covering the social sector.

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