The #SWEDOW (Stuff WE DOn’t Want) debate has surfaced a bunch of times on this site, and far moreso across the aid blogosphere over the last few years- with a particular crescendo around the Million T-Shirts conversation a while back. It deals with the issue of people wanting to give things- t-shirts, shoes, underpants, food, footballs- to disaster response agencies rather than cash.
For a whole bunch of reasons, this is generally unhelpful. Stuff costs huge amounts of money to ship, store, sort, distribute and track. It often ends up being mismatched to context- too much, too little, culturally inappropriate, or most often, just stuff that isn’t needed. There’s a misconception that what disaster response agencies do is hand stuff out, whereas in fact a huge part of their work is in delivering services, training and other more intangible benefits. Where stuff is required, it can be more cheaply acquired from local or regional markets than shipped from overseas. And stuff, dumped on local markets, can undermine local economies and actually make the situation worse, rather than better.
As a result, most aid agencies lobby for donors to give cash, not try and send stuff for them to distribute. Cash gives them the flexibility to respond quickly, cheaply and appropriately, and improves their chances of saving or bettering the lives of disaster survivors.
A lot of the SWEDOW debate has revolved around the shipping of stuff to third-world disaster sites, places like Haiti, Pakistan, or the nebulous ‘Africa’. Interestingly, in the wake of last week’s tornado in Moore, OK, in which 24 people died and nearly 400 were injured, SWEDOW has become more of an issue in the developed-world context.
@texasinafrica posted this link to this NPR article yesterday, in which disaster relief agencies responding in Moore are asking people in the US to stop sending stuff to ‘help out’:
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p>Sigh. Cash, friends. Cash is what you should ALWAYS give in disasters. Not stuff. <a href=”http://t.co/fXymRDEN9q” title=”http://j.mp/1769hfW”>j.mp/1769hfW</a></p>— Laura Seay (@texasinafrica) <a href=”https://twitter.com/texasinafrica/status/338304458415017984″>May 25, 2013</a></blockquote>
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The article is interesting in that it captures the main aspects of the SWEDOW issue, and makes it clear that this is not just a third-world problem. According to the article, relief groups in Moore are now posting on their websites,
“Please, no more clothes.”
Of the inflow of relief donations:
Marty Taylor is a pastor at the evangelical JourneyChurch in Norman, just south of Moore. This megachurch has become a kind of mega-relief center. Hundreds of volunteers sort thorough rooms packed with donations, everything from diapers and teddy bears to crutches and toilet paper.
“And there’s your obligatory giant rack of ramen noodles,” Taylor says.
In fact, this church has accumulated so many items that volunteers are busy building a tent in the parking lot to store some of the stuff so there is room inside to hold church services this weekend…
[D]onations have been so overwhelming that groups around town are posting on their websites, “Please, no more clothes.” The city of Moore suggests that those who want to give should send money to the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army or a local food bank.
In a quick survey of Moore-related disaster appeals, I found only one agency (the Baptist Disaster Relief Agency) explicitly stating that it was no longer accepting clothes. United Way are also a bit more overt about the need for cash-only donations, saying:
City of Oklahoma City, the City of Moore and United Way of Central Oklahoma advise that monetary donations are the best way to assist the recovery efforts.
However, the default for most other response agencies is to direct all web traffic to a cash donations page, with no options given to provide non-cash donations- fairly standard practice.
Some agencies talk about providing material supplies in support, but it is the agencies themselves that purchase the equipment or supplies in question (hygeine kits, for example), while accepting cash, not stuff, from the public.
A handful of other agencies work specifically in delivering donated relief goods, and therefore do accept donations to their distribution network. Many of these list the specific items they wish to have donated, and others work exlusively with corporate donors, not the general public, to ensure the items received are bulk and of standard.
More on some of this in a moment.
The comments provide some of the most interesting reading, as they capture more depth from the readers who have had experience of this sort of thing.
A comment from reader Cyn B:
I know people mean well but it seems they use every tragedy as an excuse to clean out their closets.I worked in a warehouse after a hurricane once and it was ridiculous, the piles & piles of old, musty clothes. Just give $10 to the Red Cross, please…or $5 even…in lieu of closet cleaning.
Melissa H helped respond after the May 3 tornado in Moore:
One of my favorite memories? Getting some food and finding a box of pistachio pudding that had expired in 1978, a full 21 years before the tornado. People use these tragedies to rid themselves of garbage and make themselves feel warm and fuzzy at the same time. It has nothing to do with the people of Moore being ungrateful and everything to do with the fact that clothes do not rebuild homes or feed people. As has been said, mountains of clothes take manpower away from more important tasks.
I have a neighbor who has made a business out of disaster “relief.” Every time there’s a major disaster somewhere in the world, she organizes a “teddy bear” collection. She usually gets thousands of stuffed animals donated which she then sends off to places like Oklahoma, New Orleans, Haiti, Indonesia, etc. And she does this despite the fact that time after time she’s told by authorities (from the Red Cross to the National Guard) that while the donations are appreciated, what they really need are things like money, blood, water purification, medicine, etc., not stuffed animals But she persists nonetheless and invariably gets herself in the local newspaper as a disaster “hero.” I always wonder, when she does this, if misplaced good intensions might not be worse at times than doing nothing at all.
Jennifer Murphy, who volunteered with the Red Cross in Hurricane Katrina, says:
Although donations of all sorts came in almost daily, the number of those donations that were actually useful to us was about half of what we got. The two “visions of waste” that stick in my mind to this day: The mountains of clothing that we would see piled on the curbsides like snow, not as detritus from the storm, but as well-intentioned yet useless donations. Also (and this one was my favorite), about three pallets of those crustless frozen PBJ sandwiches that are individually wrapped. Mind you, these need to be kept frozen until they are used, and the only freezer we had was your average-sized household refrigerator freezer! To make things worse, they weren’t even noticed by the staff until they had been sitting in the warehouse for over a week! Needless to say, they all went to waste, as well.
Talk to any disaster response worker, and you’ll get story after story of useless stuff gone to waste that has been shipped at high expense to a disaster response.
The article says it well. Quoting Taylor (referenced above):
“So many people … just feel this urgency like, ‘I gotta do something,’”
Something, unfortunately, often means giving SWEDOW.
“But writing a check or texting a donation isn’t always that satisfying for those who want so desperately to help.”
Trucks and volunteers have been streaming in all week long… Sean Hawkins and seven others traveled from Phoenix with three trucks loaded with cases of water, Gatorade, shampoo, soap, clothing and work gloves.
How did they know what to bring? Hawkins says they didn’t, really: “We just figured…’If we were without, what would we need?’ “
Many good, well-meaning people have a “I want to help” button, that gets pushed whenever a disaster strikes. They feel saddened, or powerless, or some other compulsion to try and fix what went wrong. The act of giving can make a person feel better. And that feeling can be magnified by giving stuff, rather than cash, which isn’t, as the article points out, ‘satisfying’ in the same way. I’m trying to be cynical- while there are people who give for selfish reasons, many who give- both cash and stuff- do so from a good place, and my not be conciously motivated- or motivated at all- by the need to feel good about it. None the less, the strength of this ‘I want to help’ button being pushed, coupled with an ignorance around what the disaster response community actually needs, results in people often tending towards giving stuff instead. Stuff that’s unhelpful.
Relief agencies do push for cash- sometimes stymied by fears among donors that cash can get misused while stuff is a safer option- and there’s been plenty of cash raised for the Moore response over the last week or so. Ironically, while donors worry that maybe some of their money might be mis-spent (i.e. on overheads), for more Gifts in Kind (GIK) gets wasted in a response, not to mention the cash required by agencies to transport, store, sort and distribute- so GIK loses out on every front when it comes to the conversation about cash.
But what about some of the agencies working deliberately with GIK? I’d like to look at a couple of those for a moment.
One of the biggest issues with GIK is the link to corporations and the inextricability of tax breaks for organizations to dump their unwanted stock on charities. It serves both corporates and the agencies themselves in a fairly cynical cycle of useless.
Not to name-and-shame, but one organization’s blurb on their corporate disaster relief partnerships is particularly telling- albeit I’m sure unintentional. Operation Blessing has this to say:
Across America, Operation Blessing’s fleet of tractor-trailer trucks travel an average of 2 million miles a year to service our corporate partners, helping deliver their GIK donations directly to families and communities in need. [italics mine]
I don’t want to be too pedantic, but I think the comment “to service our corporate partners” does capture the relationship that agencies often have with GIK- overt or not, that this is something that isn’t just about the communities in need- this is actually about the corporate donor as well, a total “we scratch your back, you scratch ours” dynamic.
Other agencies are more prescriptive in dealing with GIK issues. The Oklahoma government relief page lists donation centres and the specific types of GIK required at each. Operation USA is one of several agencies that also lists the relief items they are willing to collect and donate. The Moore Recovers site linked to the City of Moore allows would-be donors to list what they have available, and will contact donors back if this matches a requirement among the community- better still.
This is certainly a better way to approach GIK than it just arriving in a maelstrom of small and uncoordinated donations. But there’s another major problem with this, and that’s the evolving nature of disaster response.
The final line of the NPR article says:
“People here say, so far, they’ve gotten everything they need. It’s what they’ll get in the weeks and months ahead that are the big unknowns.”
This really is the crux of the matter, even for well-intentioned and thoughtful GIK. Disaster needs change, and change often and quickly, in the wake of a rapid-onset disaster. In the first few days after a disaster, particularly in a developed country context, people need medical assistance, water, food and temporary shelter.
After that, most people have access to their own bank accounts. Shops are re-opening- if not right on the disaster zone, then close enough by that people aren’t going to starve. Some food distributions can help, especially for people who can’t return home, but on the whole, people need to be able to move to more robust interim shelter arrangements, to regain some semblance of routine in their lives as quickly as possible, to get their kids back to school, and to engage with the clean-up operations.
Eventually, reconstruction begins- and with it, the need, perhaps, for help restarting a business, or long-term debt recovery, and in a few cases, long-term medical assistance- but each of these pieces will be quite household-specific.
The specific items that will support people in this process vary. And they vary rapidly. The period where food, water and medical supplies are needed is really a short window- a week, ten days, really not too much beyond that in terms of actual need. The cleanup period, a little longer after that, where tools and so-forth can be handy, depending on the capacity of other actors.
The reality will vary from response to response as to how long each window lasts, exactly what it looks like, and what is needed when.
However the donation of GIK is a slow process. If it’s being given around the country, it can take days for donated items to reach collection points, days more for it to be compiled, shipped and warehoused. Days more for it to be sorted by overwhelmed volunteers on or close to the ground. By the time donated goods actually reach the target community, there’s every chance that, even if the donation responded to a request by a legitimate response agency, by the time it gets to where it’s needed, there’s a good chance it will no longer be needed.
I’m not saying that no GIK donation provides any worth whatsoever. Some, I’m sure, subsidize operations on some level, and they will be appreciated. What I am saying is that with cash, rather than stuff, agencies can respond quicker, more appropriately, and for less money than it takes to manage somebody’s well-intentioned gift of stuff.
Nuff said. If you want to support survivors of the Moore tornado, please give cash to the Red Cross or another reputable response agency. And please don’t give anyone SWEDOW.
If you want to help, give cash. If there’s stuff in your house you want to meaningfully dispose of, give it to a local charity shop that has a system to effectively monetize it to meet local needs. That should be the only place you donate household items.
1. ‘Please, No More Clothes’: Relief Agencies Ask For Cash, NPR
2. How to help Oklahoma tornado victims, NBC News