5 questions you should ask before donating goods overseas.

In the past month I have seen three different aid agencies request donated goods to send overseas. This is always an appealing idea because it makes you feel like you’re really helping while at the same time recycling things that are no longer of any use to you. Unfortunately, it often costs more to ship goods than to buy them locally, and inappropriate donations can do more harm than good. The following are five questions you should always ask before donating.

  1. Is the donation appropriate for the local climate, culture, and religion?
  2. Do they actually need the donation?
  3. Are the goods available locally?
  4. Will the people receiving the goods be able to afford to fix or replace the donated item?
  5. Will donating this item do more harm than good?

1. Is the donated item appropriate for the climate, culture, religion of those you are trying to help?

Far too many examples of inappropriate donations came from the tsunami. Winter hat, coats and gloves to southern Thailand. Pens that didn’t write and so were donated as a tax write off. Canned pork and skimpy clothing donated to Muslim communities. Dog food donated to feed children (we can only assume that the donor thought the children were starving to death). All of these were not only a complete waste of money on the donors part, but some of them were offensive as well.

2. Do they actually need it?

A church group once invited me to help them with a care package they were sending to the needy in Thailand. I declined when I saw what they were sending; cloth diapers and diaper pins, and baby bottles. Thai’s don’t use diapers or bottles.

Thai’s dress babies in a shirt but leave them bottomless. This meant that I had a general policy of never picking up a baby. I was also roundly teased on more than one occasion because, as everyone knows, “Baby urine is clean”. Although occasionally unpleasant, there are advantages to this method. Children are potty trained at an extremely young age and don’t suffer from diaper rash.

Bottle are also rarely used, and only by those that are well-off or married to a foreigner. Everyone else breastfeeds, even working women. My neighbor baby sat for a nurse who worked at the hospital a block or two up the road. The nurse came to the house several times a day to breastfeed her baby.  Bottle feeding would require either a breast pump and refrigeration or baby formula. If they could afford either of those options they would be wealthy enough not to need donated bottles.

Recently an aid group posted a request for thousands of donated used bras to ship overseas. The reason given for needing the bras was that they were hard to get locally. It may be that bras are not readily available because women don’t generally wear them, I wouldn’t know where to go to buy a burka in Utah.

3. Are the goods available locally? – if your donating overseas.

An aid agency has just been formed to ship new and used flip flops to developing countries. Although flip flops are regularly worn in many countries, they are also readily available. In Thailand flip flops were so omnipresent that 7-11 sold them in a variety of sizes and colors for about two bucks a pair.

Transporting used flip flops would be very expensive once you factor in the cost of shipping goods from your house to the aid agency, from the aid agency by sea or air to the country, and from the port to the actual people that need them. In the end it would cost far more than buying new ones at 7-11.

After the tsunami, a group of students shipped donated school supplies to Thailand. The person picking them up paid more in clearing customs and shipping them to the affected area than he would have if he’d bought them from the local marketplace. Purchasing goods locally puts money into the economy. No only does the person selling it to you make a little profit, but they will likely order more increasing sales at the factory as well.

4. Will the people receiving the goods be able to afford to fix or replace the donated item?

Imagine if Russia donated cars to your state to help during the financial crisis. You might be thrilled to receive a free car (although the US car manufactures and dealerships will not be thrilled that their market was undercut) until the first time you had to repair it. The owners manual printed in Russian won’t be too helpful, and it will be difficult to find a mechanic or spare parts for the vehicle.

Items like imported pipes may not work with local systems because of differences in threads or diameters based on inches, not centimeters. If the pipes are broken they cannot be replaced, nor can the system be expanded. If you decide to donate bottles and formula, can the women afford to buy more when the donation runs out?

5. Will giving this item do more harm than good

Unfortunately, we often know so little about the effects of our donations that you may not be able to answer this question.

After the tsunami, due to media hype and a desire to help, hundreds of people donated clothing. So many clothes were donated to India that truckloads of them were just dumped alongside the road. They became a choking hazard for the local cattle and government staff had to be diverted from the recovery effort to dispose of the donations.

Food aid can undermine the local farmers or shopkeepers. Shipping in food and giving it away for free may destroy what little market there was for food (see the posting Should the Maersk Alabama Have Been There in the First Place for more about this).

Consider donating within your own community

Although it is tempting to donate goods to help people overseas, it is usually cheaper and better to buy goods in that country. Instead of sending over your bras and flip flops, hold a community garage sale and donate the proceeds. Or contact a local aid agency and see how you can best help out within your own community.

Related posts:

A contest to find the worst examples of in-kind donations

The most useful in-kind donations

Sending sports equipment to needy children may seem like a good idea, but is it…

Should the Maersk Alabama have been there in the first place?

Is International Aid Making Things Worse?

Other Resources:

Interaction: How to Help

Center of International Disaster Information (CIDI): Guidelines for appropriate International Disaster Donations