Things I don’t believe in #10 – Donating stuff instead of money (June 2008)

Pile of used clothes

Note: August is looking like a crazy and stressful month for me, with no time to blog here. To make sure no one gets bored and abandons me, I am going to re-run some of my favorite posts from the past.

Give money. Don’t send food, bottled water, clothing or useful-seeming stuff. Give money.

Your old stuff costs money to ship. It is almost always cheaper to just buy it in country, and doing it that way benefits the local economy. It’s also more respectful to survivors of humanitarian emergencies, and allows relief agencies to procure exactly what is needed instead of struggling to find a use for randomly selected used junk. Disaster News Network talks about the used clothes problem in “The Trouble with Trousers.” which features a really depressing anecdote about Hurricane Hugo.

Your food costs money to ship, too. It is probably not food anyone in the recipient area would recognize. How exactly will the people of Burma know what to do with canned refried beans or artichoke hearts? Sending donated American food doesn’t drive income to local farmers or help local retailers start selling again. Buying in-country gets food people will actually understand how to cook and supports the local economy.

Here’s another example – some people wanted to send their old tents to China to house earthquake survivors. A sweet idea – provide quick, free housing. But every different kind of tent would have different set-up instructions, and how many people save their tent instructions once they’ve learned how to do it? It would take a huge time investment in figuring out each type of tent, and then training for the people in China who had to set up the tents. All of this time translates to a delay in providing housing, and it’s time used by paid staff, which means it is also squandered money.

Interaction, the coalition of disaster-relief NGOs, has a nice piece about why cash donations are most effective. They mention needs-based procurement, efficient delivery, lower costs, economic support, and cultural and environmental appropriateness as advantages of cash. World Volunteer Web has a good explanation too, breaking down the myths about post-disaster aid.

Usually people end these kinds of articles with links to the three or so places who will take your old clothes and possessions for international donation. I am not going to do it. Don’t waste everyone’s effort that way. Give your old stuff to Goodwill, the Salvation Army, or St. Vincent de Paul; they’ll make the best use of it. They’ll sell your things locally and use the money for their charitable purposes.

Giving stuff instead of money is easy for you, it’s cheaper for you, and it’s quick. It is not quick, easy, or affordable for the NGOs who are actually trying to help people.

If you want to help, give money.

[Picture of old clothes in Haiti from Flickr by Vanessa Bertozzi]

Jargon of the day: Cash for Work

I have always thought the phrase “cash for work” was kind of crazy. Isn’t cash for work called employment? In practice, however, cash for work is a specific kind of disaster relief where people affected by the emergency are paid to engage in reconstruction activities. That might include cleaning or rebuilding schools and hospitals, clearing roads, or digging latrines. If well-designed, cash for work programs support the rebuilding of a community and provide a much-needed cash infusion. If badly designed, they can disempower communities by not giving community residents a stake and a voice in how their own space is restored.

Links: jargon, politics, humanitarian relief, and a contest

This glossary is a resource for deciphering development jargon.

The Huffington Post asks if Republicans are better at foreign assistance.

Statistics on humanitarian relief from the excellent new humanitarian relief blog. I have been very impressed by the blog so far; it’s a great combination of information, editorial, and links to useful resources.

Lastly, I’ll hop on the bandwagon and link to the USAID Development 2.0 Challenge. USAID will award a $10,000 prize for a high-impact use of mobile technology for development. I think this contest will be very interesting to watch – the small prize level should bring out fresh ideas and not just proposals from all the same USAID grantees.

How to help in Georgia

Georgia is a developing country, but not among the poorest of the poor. It’s not Haiti or Bangladesh. Therefore, the displaced persons who fled probably have some level of savings, and left with some household items. They’re not going to be at immediate risk for starvation, but things will get very tough for displaced persons in about a month. After that, the major risk is winter. Cold weather in the Caucasus is extremely cold, and displaced persons are likely to be in inadequate housing without the funds to pay for heating fuel or the clothes and blankets needed to keep warm.

If you want to provide help to displaced persons, I offer the same advice I always do. Find an NGO that already operates in the region. I suggest CARE, which has been in Georgia for about 15 years, and CHF, which also has an established presence. Give to the organization’s general fund, so your funds will be used as effectively as possible.

You may also want to think about other victims of the crisis. Consider supporting groups who assist and protect ethnic Georgians in Russia, and ethnic Russians in Georgia. By all accounts, the nationalism is getting ugly on both sides, and resident minorities will be at risk. I suggest supporting the Open Society Institute’s (OSI) Russia organization to help ethnic Georgians in Russia and OSI’s Georgian arm for the inverse.

Lastly, I suggest supporting civil society, human rights, and independent media in both countries. Democracies don’t go to war like this.

Photo: Joao Silva for The New York Times

Jargon of the day: NFIs

Jargon: NFIs

Translation: NFIs stands for Non-Food Items. This is a package of household items such as blankets, utensils, and cooking pots given to refugees or internally displaced persons to help them survive in their new location. You can find the term in jargony, jargony action here. You can find a definition and discussion here.

Thinking about reconstruction

I heard a speech the other day on post-conflict reconstruction and state building by an analyst from a prominent NGO, and it made me do a lot of thinking about the best ways to provide assistance during a crisis and afterward. I’m not sure it was on the record, so I can’t give you details, but I’ll pull out some of the salient points:

1. Contemporary conflicts cross borders. It’s almost their defining characteristic. We cannot afford to ignore small, obscure conflicts because they do not stay small or obscure for long.

2. The development of a competent, professional police force is key to rebuilding a post-conflict state. It is a strong police force, more than a strong military, that supports peace in a country.

3. If you build up the presidency and the military as the only strong and credible national institutions, you are pretty much just asking for a coup to take place.

4. The responsibility to protect is intended to prevent state failure, not trigger or respond to it.

5. Rwanda and Congo (Zaire) are examples of the devastating consequences of allowing state failure.

6. East Timor is a prime example of the challenges of state-building. It’s a small, ethnically homogeneous state, but is still constantly on the verge of failure.

7. Regime collapse and state failure are not the same thing. Regime collapse can actually prevent state failure by allowing for change.

What does this mean to us with regard to international development?

I think the big thing is that we have to think very carefully about the impact of any aid we give. Are we supporting a healthy government, or encouraging NGOs to take over government functions?

Photo by Yewenyi