September 20, 2001

Contact: Stephen M. Apatow, Humanitarian Resource Institute
Eastern USA: (203) 668-0282   Western USA: (775) 884-4680
Internet:  http://www.humanitarian.net  Email:  info@humanitarian.net


Recently, the World Trade Center and Pentagon Terrorist Incidents (http://www.humanitarian.net/interfaith/tradecenter/) marked the worst acts of terrorism in United States history.  These incidents have prompted a call for military action against international terrorism in a scenario that is anticipated to last several years with warnings of economic repercussions.

In the light of the massive rescue and recovery effort currently underway , the compassion of the American people has been overwhelming and in proportion to the pain associated with the loss from this tragedy.  But in the midst of this outpouring, a number of important questions have arisen:

1. How are the millions of dollars being collected going to be used to directly help the families of the victims and relief efforts ?
2. Why, after a terrorist incident in the financial district of Manhattan, are people sending donations of clothing and other unneeded supplies to NYC ?
3. Since the incident occurred in conjunction with mass layoffs and an economic downturn which will be exacerbated by this tragedy, what steps are being taken to support families throughout the United States that will be directly impacted by these progressive challenges?

Answers to these questions, accountability and public disclosure will be crucial for sustained confidence and support of charitable organizations in the long term.

Humanitarian Resource Institute (HRI) maintains America's National Community Needs Database (http://www.humanitarian.net/usdatabase), a national initiative to bridge the unmet needs of frontline service programs to untapped resources of professional time, talents, manpower, inkind and financial donations. HRI is calling for needs assessments from the executive directors of frontline service programs in every United States county for inclusion in the National Community Needs Database to support community planning and project development.


TV, satellite phone, web site and e-mail communication spreads news of disasters to Americans faster than anyone can figure out what the victims really need.  Unfortunately, disaster experts say that sorting and distributing unsolicited donations often occupies more than half of all volunteers.


Honduras: Hurricane Mitch

Tons of unused donations of unneeded bottled water, food and other items remain both inside and outside Honduran warehouses while building supplies are scarce, there are few donated books and, despite widespread fear of mosquito-borne diseases, there’s little donated repellent.

Many of these unsolicited donations have compromised lifesaving relief efforts and exposed victims to new dangers.  According to World Relief, a humanitarian aid group that handled Miami's 100-ton-a-day stream of donations,  “Effectiveness could have at least doubled, if they would have been able to get the appropriate relief in when people needed it.”   For a month, at the height of the disaster, clothes, bottled water and other unclaimed shipments jammed Puerto Cortes, Honduras’ main port, impeded the delivery of pipes for water treatment plants and of food for Mitch victims living in shelters.

Unsolicited contributions can even cause harm, as was seen when powerful new U.S. antibiotics were shipped to rural Honduran clinics without Spanish-language instructions for health care providers. Also shipped was infant formula that, if mixed with contaminated water, could kill a child from diarrhea in 24 hours.   According to the Pan American Health Organization,  there were situations where out of 15 pallets of pharmaceuticals,  three-quarters of them turned out to be trash and one-quarter essential.


In strife-torn Bosnia, the international nonprofit medical team Doctors Without Borders estimates the quantity of unusable drugs accumulated between 1992 and 1996 totaled a staggering 18,000 tons.

North Dakota:  1997 Red River Flood

After the Red River flood, donated clothing, piled and sorted using a front-end loader, filled a hangar at the Grand Forks airport to a height of 10 feet.

Miami, Florida:  Hurricane Andrew

After Hurricane Andrew, South Florida’s unwanted clothes pile topped 17 feet and at least 5 acres of used clothing was buried or incinerated. Tons of donated house paint, thinner, solder and other hazardous waste was dumped into a landfill at a Homestead,  Fla., airbase.

Reference:  Frank Greve, Knight Ridder Newspapers 



Confirm There is a Need for All Items Being Collected.

Do not make assumptions about the needs of disaster victims. Exactly what is needed can be confirmed by checking with an established relief organization that has personnel working on-site. Do not send what is not needed; unneeded commodities compete with priority relief items for transportation and storage. Organizations that receive in-kind relief donations can help this process by clearly communicating what items are required (in what size, type, etc.) as well as clearly stating what items or services are NOT needed. Please remember, certain foods, particularly in famine situations, can make victims ill. In most cases, donations of canned goods are not appropriate. The collection of bottled water is highly inefficient. It is important to have an accurate analysis of need before determining response.

Donate Only to Organizations having the Ability to Transport Collected Items to the Affected Region

Immediately after a disaster, many local organizations will spontaneously begin collecting miscellaneous items for use in disaster relief. However, at the time that these collections are begun, agency officials will not have thought about to whom, or how, the items will be sent. It is not unusual for community and civic groups to have collected several thousands of pounds of relief supplies only to find that they do not know whom to send the supplies to and that they do not have viable transportation options for shipping the goods. At this juncture, it is often advisable for those collecting the goods to auction them off locally, converting commodities into cash to be applied to the relief effort.

Deliver Items Only to Organizations having Local Distribution Capacity

Distributing relief supplies requires personnel and financial resources within the affected country. To efficiently distribute relief commodities, staff, warehouses, trucks and communications equipment are required. It is not enough to gather supplies and send them to an affected region; a sound partnership with a reliable local agency having transport and management capacity is 

Donated Items Must Be High Quality, Well Packed, and Clearly Labeled

Items that are not well-packed and clearly labeled must be sorted and repacked by the recipient organizations. And relief organizations need to pay to have this work done. Donated goods should be packed in small boxes that can be easily managed. The boxes must be well-labeled so that it does not become necessary to open each. It is best if two envelopes with specific content lists are taped to the side of every box sent. This allows anyone interested, including customs officials and relief workers, to quickly determine what the box contains. Be sure to follow the receiving agency's packing regulations.

Never Assume the U.S. Government or any Relief Agency Will Transport Unsolicited Relief Items Free of Charge

It is important to make arrangements for the transportation before collecting any kind of material donations.  Never assume that the government or any relief agency will transport donations free of charge (or even for a fee). In the majority of cases, the collecting agency will be responsible for paying commercial rates for the transportation and warehousing of items gathered.

Volunteer Opportunities for Disaster Relief are Extremely Limited

Volunteers without prior disaster relief experience are generally not selected for relief assignments. Candidates with the greatest chance of being selected have fluency in the language of the disaster-stricken area, prior disaster relief experience, and expertise in technical fields such as medicine, communications logistics, water/sanitation engineering. In many cases, these professionals are already available in-country. Most agencies will require at least ten years of experience, as well as several years of experience working overseas. It is not unusual to request that volunteers make a commitment to spend at least three months working on a particular disaster. Most offers of "another body" to drive trucks, set up tents, and feed children are not accepted. Keep in mind that once a relief agency accepts a volunteer, they are responsible for the volunteer's well-being -i.e., food, shelter, health and security. Resources are strained during a disaster, and another person without the necessary technical skills and experience can often be a considerable burden to an ongoing relief effort.

Monetary Contributions to Established Relief Agencies are Always the Most Useful Response to Disasters

Financial contributions allow professional relief organizations to purchase exactly what is most urgently needed by disaster victims and to pay for the transportation necessary to distribute those supplies. Unlike in-kind donations, cash donations entail no transportation cost. In addition, cash donations allow relief supplies to be purchased at locations as near to the disaster site as possible. Supplies, particularly food, can almost always be purchased locally - even in famine situations. This approach has the triple advantage of stimulating local economies (providing employment, generating cash flow), ensuring that supplies arrive as quickly as possible and reducing transport and storage costs. Cash contributions to established legitimate relief agencies are always considerably more beneficial than the donation of commodities.

These Guidelines are excerpts from Managing Resource Coordination for Sudden-Onset Foreign Disasters: A Case Study Focusing on the United States' Response to Hurricane Gilbert/Jamaica by David Callahan.  VITA. 1989.


VITA's Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) is in the process of surveying the public regarding their opinions about international disaster response.  There are both a public and corporate survey available online on the Center's web site at http://www.cidi.org .

Related Information

  • InterAction: A coalition of over 165 organizations working worldwide and the U.S.'s leading advocate for sustainable development, refugee and disaster assistance and humanitarian aid.
  • VITA: Volunteers in Technical Assistance

National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster Cooperation (NVOAD), Communication, Coordination, Collaboration in Disaster Response


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