On a remote island in Samoa, a group of women walk along the beach, carrying coconuts in old bras.

The bras were among the many secondhand items donated by people wanting to help after a tropical cyclone. However, despite the good intentions they were sent with, the bras weren’t needed in the villages. Instead, they’re now being used to cart coconuts, which is not particularly efficient.

Floods of unrequested goods, such as the bras in Samoa, are a common problem after cyclones, earthquakes and other emergencies.

Often called the ‘second disaster’, the influx of donated goods can swamp relief efforts, clogging ports already strained by a disaster. Humanitarian staff are diverted away from more important tasks to sort items, which also take up valuable storage space. Goods that are damaged or expired have to be disposed of, at extra cost.

Chandeliers and prom gowns

In the Pacific, it’s a problem that resurfaces every cyclone season.

After Tropical Cyclone Pam, more than 75 containers of unrequested goods were sent to Vanuatu. Two years later, 10 containers remained on the wharf, with a bill for NZ$3.5million in storage and handling fees.

This could buy 29,700 kitchen sets, 41,600 tarpaulins, 25,000 shelter kits and almost 46 million litres of locally sourced water.

Like the bras in Samoa, donated items are often not needed or are not fit for purpose. After Cyclone Pam, winter woollies, high heels and handbags were donated to Vanuatu to help those affected. Other communities have received donations of weight loss drinks, prom gowns and even chandeliers.

Experts estimate that, in some cases, only five per cent of donated goods meet the urgent needs of affected communities.

It’s why aid organisations, including Red Cross, recommend donating cash rather than goods to help after a disaster, Red Cross international and national disaster manager officer Andrew McKie says.

“By donating cash, you’re ensuring communities get exactly what they need to help them rebuild and recover,” Andrew says.

“We don’t want to discourage anyone from donating after a disaster, but it’s important to make sure your help isn’t placing extra pressure on relief efforts.”

Choosing cash can make a big difference

Sending 3L of bottled water from New Zealand to Fiji: $129.80

Producing 6,890 litres of clean water in Fiji: $129.80

Why cash?

  • It’s quicker. Containers can take weeks to put together and ship overseas. They then have to be sorted and distributed. Cash can help immediately.
  • It’s more cost effective. The cost of sending containers can be more than the value of the donated goods.
  • Cash allows communities to get what they really need, instead of receiving tonnes of items that are not fit for purpose (such as thousands of teddy bears).
  • It supports local economies. Cash means relief items can be bought locally, helping communities get back on their feet faster.