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Killing relief with kindness

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Asia, Humanitarian

Amongst the snowstorm of information clogging the humanitarian wires (Alertnet, Reliefweb, etc) one little nugget, buried at the back of a WHO report caught my eye.

‘The airport is intermittently open and closed. In addition, supplies arriving into the country are piling on the tarmac…

The small Port-au-Prince airport is now being clogged with aid supplies. Credit: Rebecca Sudduth
The small Port-au-Prince airport is now being clogged with aid supplies. Credit: Rebecca Sudduth

It is the beginning of the perennial, mega-disaster problem. The airport is already clogged with supplies that are unsolicited and unprioritised and adding to it will make it even more difficult for the truly life-saving stuff – the medical kit, the water and sanitation material, the food – to get through.

In Aceh, a few weeks after the Tsunami, the runway was lined with 5m high piles of clothing sent as aid packages by people trying to help. Most of it had begun to rot; there had been an attempt to burn it, and some of it was still smouldering.

I can understand this want to give - whatever you can - at this time of need. It’s this want to help that drives us a humanitarian workers. It’s what keeps my colleagues in the Operations Room working through the night. And it’s a visible sign of the public support that we desperately need to do our work.

But, alas, it’s just not practical to give “stuff” - or to take relief efforts into your own hands. In the case of Aceh, clothing was never a humanitarian priority, and in any case, cultural norms meant that most people would not wear second hand clothing. The other irony was that most of the clothes had been manufactured in South East Asia in the first place, exported to Europe and had now found its way back – by eye-wateringly expensive flight – to Indonesia.

I remember back in the Operations Room, the lines were often busy with people wanting to help, to do anything, to do something. Several offers from the public stick in my mind. There was the British national who rang up from Thailand; she did not have much to offer, she said, but at home she worked in a travel agent, and so offered to assist with the incoming relief flights. And there was a gentleman from Australia who rang to ask us where he could send a super-tanker he planned to fill with fresh drinking water.

The one that is clearest in my mind, however, is the call we received from a lady who spent the day after the tsunami baking cakes for the survivors, and was asking if we could help deliver them.

Colleagues in the DFID Operations Room respond to calls and offers of help
Colleagues in the DFID Operations Room responding to calls

Similar well-meaning offers are appearing once again for Haiti. Today I heard of a lady that had rung in with the offer of using her personal yacht.

In an era when disasters are piped almost instantaneously into our sitting-rooms, and play out over YouTube, unsolicited donations are a natural and understandable expression of worldwide anguish at the plight of the Haitians. It is the same motivation that jolted Imran to reply to my last blog; a heartfelt, humanitarian response. How can I help?

There are a number of ways. I see that the American Red Cross has been savvy: Twittering you to donate $10 by mobile phone. (And I see the DEC Appeal in the UK has followed suit). I like that; and so do the American public, apparently: $35m has been raised since Thursday night. If you are a business, or have an in-kind donation, I see the UN has set up a portal which seems to act more or less like a dating agency, matching your donation against an identified need. Or if you are a person who just feels moved to scratch the humanitarian itch, find out how you can help on our website or donate now to the Disaster Emergency Committee appeal.

The take-home message is this: monetise the home-made cakes, sell the super-tanker, and rent out the yacht. Give the money instead, to an NGO near you.

Donate to the Haiti earthquake appeal



Donate to the emergency appeal for Haiti | How you can help | Latest updates from DFID

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  1. Comment by Sell on eBay to help the people of Haiti | Dan Wilson | eBay Expert, Online Community Specialist, Author and Blogger posted on

    [...] article from DFID caught my eye today: Killing relief with kindness. Lots of people want to help and send things, but the agencies and charities involved basically [...]

  2. Comment by Dave Holladay posted on

    Might I suggest that just as the bicycle got transport systems working immediately after the tsunami hit the Sri Lankan Coast it can have a vital role in Haiti.

    The local population currently begging for delivery of food and water could be mobilised to deliver a large number of small loads which can get through even where bridges are down and roads destroyed - as long as you can push the bike through you can get there. This will get the local population active and moving the supplies without the need to import fuel and store it securely for motorised distribution, with the plus point of also giving the mass of people something to do.

    Bikes can keep going with minimal maintenance, and what is needed can be done with simple tools in an open air workshop - in many parts of Africa they are ridden without tyres or brakes - but they work to get medical staff to their patients and supplies distributed.

    The UK might be able to help here with the Royal Mail's annual replacement of a one seventh of their 40,000 bikes - many do go to organisations such as Re Cycle and thence to Africa but these bkes, with sturdy frames and huge load carrying capacity could work wonders in getting supplies moving. I think the French postal service also replace their bikes regularly, and there must be others who can offer load carrying work-bikes. (NB the relaxed geometry of the load carrying bike means that it is much easier to ride over bad road surfaces and with flat (or no) tyres)

    BEN - an empowerment project in Namibia is now setting up local transport projects with bike workshops using converted shipping containers, packing bikes, spares and tools so that the units are delivered to a point that can be reached by truck and then form a hub for a wider network. They have devised bicycle ambulances and many other uses for the bicycle to deliver load carrying transport. Remember too thet the Viet Cong delivered 50,000 Tons by bicycle for their Da Nang offensive, with an available labour force and thought through incentives to get the cycle couriers to return for fresh loads (ie if you deliver a load and come back you get a bit of extra benefit for yourself (like a good meal or similar for each completed trip, with verified receipt from the intended recipients)

    The other aspect which I noted was the call for diesel to power generators - I think the UK company Baxi makes a generation plant powered by a Stirling Engine - the Stirling (Thermal) Cycle is also known as an external combustion engine - heat, generated from any source is applied to the outside of the cylinder and powers the unit - thus as long as you have something to burn (vegetation, dried faeces, old clothing, and even refined fuel), you can generate power. I'm not quite sure if the company produce a unit that can handle such a divers selection of fuels off-the shelf, but it must surely be something to consider for contingency planning - power generation from any available heat source.

  3. Comment by eBay community raises cash for Haiti : TameBay : eBay news blog and forum posted on

    [...] only one thing, for most of us: put our hands in our pockets and give them our money. And we [...]

  4. Comment by c.h. posted on

    Sound advice, worth repeating in every major emergency.