Just a week ago, a breaking news item showed footage of a massive tsunami that devastated Tonga and its surrounding islands after an undersea volcano erupted. We have all been there, stunned by the need of disaster-affected people who are trying to comprehend the enormity of what they have lost. Naturally, you want to help, but how you do that matters a lot.  

Untitled-design-(32).jpg Photo of volcanic activity in Tonga the day before the big eruption.

You come up with a plan to respond. You want to do something practical, so you decide to rally your community to send a container of practical items that will help and give comfort to those in need. This is a common response, especially with disasters in the Pacific. With the best of intentions, you start piling up canned food, bottled water, clothes, blankets, torches, batteries and you throw in a couple of teddy bears for good measure. But wait, have you thought this through? What happens at the destination after you have gathered everything and fronted the shipping costs?  

At Tearfund, we love how generous and willing Kiwis are to help our Pacific neighbours after a disaster. However, sending donated goods is perhaps one of the most inefficient ways to help in a disaster. By sending *unrequested goods, you are unwittingly participating in what disaster relief workers call the “disaster after the disaster”. Sending unrequested goods may cause more harm than good in the long and short term.  

MicrosoftTeams-image-(43).pngDestruction from Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu.

Here’s why sending goods can cause harm 

1. Goods hamper the disaster response 

Disaster logistics are extremely streamlined. Responders identify what is needed and the volume of items. Then the delivery of these goods are sourced and dispatched, and they know when these goods will be available for distribution. This also requires the agency to have the labour resources available for the job. But what happens if unscheduled deliveries arrive in ports or airports and there is nobody to take care of their pick up or distribution? Often ports and runways can be damaged in a disaster so the capacity is limited.  The unrequested items block the supply chain of items needed for the response. It often means that personnel have to be taken away from crucial work to deal with the problem. That is why so many containers don’t get unpacked for many months.  

 2. Donated goods undermine the local economy 

Many people make a living from providing goods such as food and hygiene items or clothing. Disaster responders will always try to source what they can locally to support the local economy. It helps business people and means they can begin distributing help sooner. But when disaster-affected nations are flooded with free goods, local business people miss out.  

3. Donated goods often are inappropriate or end up in a landfill 

On average, an estimated 60% of unrequested goods sent in emergencies sit in containers at the country’s port for months, and the contents usually end up in a landfill. Remember Cyclone Winston that hit Tonga and Fiji in 2016? Donated goods were shipped to both islands, including outrageous items such as high heels and skiing gear! It also led to a whopping 130 shipping containers of goods. It takes approximately 10 people and 70 hours to sort through one container of donated clothes, which wastes precious time for first response teams.  

4. Don’t send food 

Some foods will most likely spoil before the container has even arrived at its destination or before it is unpacked many months after it has arrived. When a disaster happens on an island such as Tonga, the humidity and heat can also result in pests and infestations which poses further health risks for vulnerable, disaster-affected people. Finally, the cost of transporting goods is far higher than the goods themselves.  

MicrosoftTeams-image-(44).pngVaisiliva's house was destroyed by Cyclone Gita in Tonga.

This begs the question, what kind of response is best in a disaster situation? We’ve outlined some tips on how to donate responsibly.  

  1. Give cash to support trusted organisations and charities  

Donations to charities with good reputations, that are trustworthy, and have a pre-existing presence in the affected country, is the best way to help with disaster relief. Charities and organisations use cash donations and their resources effectively and efficiently. After all, people working for charities that support disaster relief are professionals at what they do. Cash can be utilised, traded or converted incredibly quickly into what affected communities need, far more rapidly than sorting through goods in shipping containers. New Zealand charities are extensively regulated and audited, especially charities like Tearfund. But what does this mean? It means that charities must publicly verify statements showing all their expenses and donations collected, portraying transparency and accountability. This means that New Zealanders can trust that their charity of choice will use their donations in the best possible way.  

2. What if you don’t have cash to send? 

  • Instead of rallying your community to send the goods, why not have a community garage sale and donate the proceeds to a trustworthy charity?  

  • Raise some funds by taking on a challenge and getting your friends and family to support the charity of your choice?   

  • Get your friends together for a movie night and serve food and something to drink. You could ask for koha or charge them an admittance fee that you can donate to a reputable charity responding to the disaster. 

We hope this has provided some helpful tips on the best way to donate to disaster relief. If you’d like to donate to the current Tonga disaster through Tearfund, click here. <insert link>. Thank you for all the donations we have already received.  

*Many Pasifika peoples living in Aotearoa have families in disaster-affected Pacific nations who may ask for specific items to be sent. They also have the labour to distribute the items. These are requested goods as opposed to “unrequested” items.  


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