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The need to help

It’s natural to want to help in a crisis, especially one which is close to home. But it’s also interesting to watch human nature kick in, and see how we place different values on different solutions, especially when that solution makes us feel good.

Picturing a child opening a box with a teddy bear you’ve donated gives a heart-warming glow far beyond anything achieved by bunging £50 through a charity website. But what’s best to do?

In short, if you want to help Ukraine, and can afford to, it looks like it’s far better to donate money to the Disasters Emergency Committee than to donate goods which may not be needed — and may even hinder operations.

Not everyone — especially right now — can afford to part with cash, which makes donating spare clothes, blankets and toys more appealing, and if that’s the best way for you to help, then that’s still absolutely fantastic.

But just take a moment tothink about the logistics: how items will get to their destination, who will sort them, how they will be distributed — if they’re even needed? Would it be better to sell them in this country and donate that money?

“Everybody around the country is desperately trying to help, trying to collect food, clothes and medicine. But Ukrainians have said, please do not send them to us. This is coming from their Ministry of Defence, their MPs, from everyone and also all the aid agencies in the UK.

“This is for two reasons. One, the Ukrainians don’t trust anything that would arrive like that [that] hasn’t been potentially laced or tainted in some way by the Russians – that’s how worried they are. And two, it is actually clogging up the routes. There are only limited logistics and supply routes and all the aid agencies are saying, ‘please just donate money’.”Alicia Kearns MP

  • Areas in Poland near the border with Ukraine are running out of warehouse space
  • Donations vary greatly in quality and usefulness (a small minority of people use this sort of thing as an excuse to clear out their wardrobe)
  • Donations must be sorted, creating extra work in a critical area and time

The Red Cross have said:

“We are not currently accepting items such as clothes, food or medical supplies for the Ukraine Crisis Appeal. These kind offers are really appreciated, and we do understand that not everyone is in a position to give money right now, but we can only accept money for emergency appeals.

“Items have to be sorted, cleaned, and transported, which slows down our response. If you have items you would like to donate, we would suggest finding a local group who can help.”

There is a huge frustration in having to process, manage and store donations that are simply not needed:

“Haitian and Japanese authorities have reported that 60% of donations sent after the 2010 and 2011 disasters were not needed, and that only 5- 10% satisfied urgent needs OCHA report

Cash might allow aid agencies to buy more in local markets (and boost those struggling markets too), including fresh food and drinking water. Cash is infinitely flexible; it can be used to buy whatever is needed NOW. A blanket is only useful if someone nearby needs a blanket but is of no use to someone wrapped-up warm who needs insulin. The best people to make decisions about what’s needed are people actively involved on a local level.

“During the Gaza operation Cast Lead in 2009, health authorities had to rent 37 warehouses in order to store drugs and other medical material from unsolicited donations. Three months after the operation, they were still trying to sort out these drugs and to secure the warehouses to avoid looting.” OCHA report

Any goods arriving at the scene of a crisis need careful logistics planning, not just for arrival, but for dispersal too.

“You have to understand that if a thousand trucks are heading into an already a very complicated situation, that’s just going to make it worse, so we’re discouraging people from doing that.” — Charlie Lamson, Head of Fundraising, Irish Red Cross

Sadly, a lot end up simply wasted, causing longer-term problems for the local environment and economy:

“While [] humanitarian donations were sent with good intentions, they generally clog up the limited supply chains into disaster areas and occupy the time of volunteers who could be contributing in other ways. And for the donations that are usable, there is often no system, network, or infrastructure in place to get those items to those people who need it. Sadly, in the end, many of these donations simply end up abandoned or in landfills.”Industrial & Systems Engineering

The best way I can find to donate is to give to the Disasters Emergency Committee, and the government is matching the first £20m donated this way. You can also Gift Aid your donation, so £50 from you could be worth £112.50 to the charities.

I know charities are not perfect (and even Gift Aid has its detractors, but you’re not obliged to tick the box), and the cynic will say that of course they’re going to ask for money, but it looks like donating cash, if you can, is simply the most effective thing you can do to help right now.

Disasters Emergency Committee website