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Well-meaning gestures that create more problems than they solve Add to ...

Jason Kelly just wanted to help. An American living north of Tokyo, he started Socks for Japan, asking donors to send clean socks for victims of the earthquake. So people mailed him socks. Others said they would emulate him and collect masks, diapers and other items for the survivors. He also got an earful of complaints.

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"Oh god. It's starting all over again," tweeted Scott Gilmore, director of Peace Dividend Trust, an NGO. Socks for Japan is typical of the kind of well-meaning schemes that end up creating more problems than they solve, say experienced aid workers. Here's what drives them nuts:

Gifts in kind

To veteran aid planner Saundra Schimmelpfennig, Mr. Kelly's project brought back memories of southern Thailand after the 2004 tsunami, when she stood in a parking lot looking at a mountain of unneeded donated clothes. In Indonesia, 4,000 tonnes of donated drugs arrived after the tsunami, well beyond local needs, said Jason Nickerson, a University of Ottawa PhD candidate studying health care in humanitarian crises. Most of those drugs weren't required, were labelled in foreign languages or were close to expiry. They overwhelmed the capacity of local incinerators to dispose of them. The problem is known by the acronym SWEDOW: Stuff We Don't Want.

Earmarked donations

Another problem occurs when people make donations that are pegged to a specific use or location, effectively handcuffing the charity. After the tsunami, for example, some NGOs in Sri Lanka that were stuck with excess funds earmarked for housing ended up building larger, fancier homes. This created resentment among people got more modest homes. "We think that when we earmark funds we are insuring that they're well spent," Ms. Schimmelpfennig said. "But how do we know, halfway around the world, what the greatest needs are? We need to give the charity the flexibility to make decisions based on what they're seeing on the ground." Médecins sans frontières won't accept earmarked donations, saying that no-strings-attached financing is what enables it to act promptly in any emergency. "We always ask our supporters to consider making an unrestricted contribution," spokeswoman Naomi Sutorius-Lavoie said.

African dumping ground

SWEDOW is an issue even when there isn't a disaster. An entire cottage industry is dedicated to sending stuff to Africa: Flip-flops for Africa. Knickers 4 Africa. Shoe Aid for Africa. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals ships donated fur coats to "needy women and children in sub-Saharan Africa." Global Soap Project wants to donate reprocessed leftover hotel soap bars to African countries. Hyundai wants to ship one million soccer balls to Africa, despite complaints from a British NGO trying to get local balls produced in Kenya and Zambia. When he was a volunteer in a Ghana hospital, Mr. Nickerson saw boxes of discarded drugs arrive regularly from medical clinics in Western countries. The drugs were close to expiry and too expensive to be properly used in Ghana. "If it's not of use in North America," Mr. Nickerson said, "it's not of use in Africa either."

Pros v. Joes

The grumblings from aid professionals against amateurs can appear churlish. But, Ms. Schimmelpfennig noted, the field is not regulated and, thanks to the Internet, there is a proliferation of inexperienced start-ups. Even larger charities aren't immune from questionable practices. She criticizes World Vision, which is sending thousands of unwanted Super Bowl T-shirts to poor countries. There is a bookkeeping incentive to the scheme, she said. A charity that accepts gifts in kind also improves its financial metrics because the goods are recorded as a program expense, not an administrative cost. This increases the NGO's program-to-administration cost ratio, giving it a higher rating on websites that rank charities.

Follow on Twitter: @TuThanhHa

 

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