Good intentions, unintended consequences: how to help when disasters strike the Pacific
“Heavy winter clothing arrived. We don’t have winter here! These things just aren’t needed.”
The issue is a longstanding phenomenon in the humanitarian world: after a disaster containers of unsolicited bilateral donations (UBDs) arrive spontaneously, well-meaning but not well-planned, and often filled with unneeded or non-priority items. These containers place pressure on an already stretched humanitarian supply chain, congesting vital ports and entry points, competing for limited transport and warehousing space, and diverting relief workers attention. While UBDs are goods sent with the greatest intentions to help; the problem is they can often do more harm than good.
On a recent trip to Samoa’s capital, Apia, as part of Pacific Logistics Cluster Preparedness activities, we chatted with Samoa Red Cross Secretary General Ms Tautala Mauala about how communities can help when disaster strikes.
Tautala thanks so much for your time. What was your first experience with UBDs following a disaster?
It was after the 2009 tsunami. Many containers we had no idea about arrived at the port - we were overwhelmed. Initially we got excited but when we opened the containers there was food that had expired and unnecessary goods such as winter clothing, shoes, household items, even a container full of bras. So many containers full of goods that had no relevance to the crucial needs that arise after a big disaster. It took a huge effort from our volunteers to sort through everything and determine what was useful, in the middle of the response.
Since the tsunami, we have also experienced unrequested goods during the Cyclone Evan response in 2012. We had televisions arrive from the United States that couldn’t be used here, and so had to be disposed of. We also began to receive containers that had been delayed along the way somewhere, and that we believe were intended for the tsunami response.
Can you provide some insight into the logistical challenges these goods pose, particularly on a small island nation like Samoa?
It really comes down to the space, the cost, the time and the quality. We have to pay customs fees for the goods, and we end up having to not just buy the contents, but also the container because we just don’t have the warehouse capacity to store and sort the goods elsewhere. And so, we’re having to spend money on things that just aren’t needed.
As part of our preparedness activities we identify a list of standardised, prepositioned supplies, and they’re sorted in a way that they can be dispatched immediately after assessments have been undertaken.
We know when disaster hits generous people around the world want to help, and we’re so grateful. But people need to realise that the arrival of any unrequested container can pose some real challenges. We’ve been working closely with Samoan communities in New Zealand on why these goods can have a negative impact and advocating on the best ways help.
So what is the best way to help?
From our experience monetary donations are best, and can be better utilised during times of disaster. Not only does it not cause some of the challenges listed above, it has no shipping costs, it helps us buy what’s immediately required and respond to the needs of the most vulnerable in the community. Even the smallest amount can make a big difference in Samoa.
It can help with the purchase of emergency goods, transport of priority items to remote locations, the mobilisation of volunteers, counselling services, and even cash-based transfers so individuals can use funds specifically on what they need. We also work closely with Samoan suppliers before each cyclone season to ensure that if disaster strikes we can purchase goods locally wherever possible.
If people who are overseas want to send items to family in Samoa or any Pacific nation, they should wait until a few weeks after the disaster response, when ports are clear. Make sure your family knows, you are sending things they need, think about the costs for shipment and customs fees, and make sure not to send any perishable goods!
We understand not everyone has money to give, but instead of sending a container of items, a good option is to hold a garage sale instead and then donate the money to those on the ground. The most important thing is raising awareness. We’ve been through these experiences many times, and we have so much respect for everybody’s good intentions, we just want to ensure their kindness and generosity does what it intends, and reaches those in need.
The Pacific Logistics Cluster is working with partners on a regional UBD pilot project aimed at reducing the number of unrequested goods following a disaster. Read more and see past updates here.