When Disaster Strikes, Send Cash, Not Sex Toys

When we hear that fellow humans in faraway places are suffering, we want to help. Some of us write a check, sign in to PayPal, or make a donation using our phones. But there’s nothing quite as satisfying as sending tangible goods to people in need. The problem is that well-meaning people can waste resources and time on the ground in the disaster area by sending inappropriate items that will ultimately end up in the dump.

Jose Holguin-Veras is a professor at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York who studies disaster relief. He says that useless or inappropriate items take up about 60% of the cargo space in shipments destined for disaster-stricken areas. How inappropriate can these items be? Here’s a greatest hits list.

Just from items sent to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake:

    • Refrigerators using the wrong voltage. (People used them as tables.)
    • Winter coats.
    • Red Bull and potato chips.
    • A planeload of toys.
    • A case of Viagra.

And the famous sex toys, sent to help the victims of Hurricane Charley in 2004. Holguin-Veras says that donations of useful items, like clothing, food, and water, can be problematic: random clothing donations take time to sort and many have to be trashed anyway, and shipping food and water from faraway places can squeeze out local providers who do have the needed inventory.

His advice: hold a clothing drive if you really want to, but then have a rummage sale and send the cash.

Sex Toys, Winter Coats, And Spanish Flags: The Uselessness Of Post-Disaster Donations [Fast Company Co.Exist] (via All Over Albany)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Cat says:

    A CASE of Viagra?

    The mind wobbles.

  2. TheMansfieldMauler says:

    I donated several cases of ammo to the Haiti relief effort. I figured they could use it to get whatever else they needed.

  3. raydee wandered off on a tangent and got lost says:

    After 9-11, I knew of a local guy who put together a load of blankets, dog food, water, socks, duct tape, and dog bowls to take up for the rescue dogs, stuck it all in his truck, and got it to them, all during week immediately following.

    The socks and duct-tape were to make makeshift booties for the dogs, who sometimes suffered paw injuries while walking over rubble.

    Said that he remembered a news piece about rescue dogs from the Oklahoma City Bombing.

  4. humphrmi says:

    Is Red Bull inappropriate because it’s a high energy drink? It is, ostensibly, a drink in any case… which I heard they were quite short of after the earthquake. Same with chips, so only healthy donations, please?

    I’m kinda torn on the toys too. I mean, yeah they need life sustaining donations first and foremost, but is there any harm in giving the kids a little happiness while their parents are busy fashioning living quarters out of cardboard?

    Yeah, I agree with the rest of them.

    • Rocket says:

      They should be drinking water, not red bull.

    • raydee wandered off on a tangent and got lost says:

      The issue is that toys, while kindly meant, are impractical for the immediate needs of the survivors. Sure, getting toys to kids would be nice, but most of the kids in question would rather have a good meal, clean water, and a safe place to sleep.

      And distributing the toys appropriately would pull people away from the more important tasks. If someone gave me 1000 toys and told me “Give one to each kid in this area,” chances are, by myself, I couldn’t do it without taking several days. And even then, there’s no promise I wouldn’t miss someone, or give a kid two toys by mistake, or give up and stop wasting my time on toys when I could be doing something useful.

    • who? says:

      The sorting and transport of a bunch of cool, but otherwise random items takes away resources from things that are vital for sustaining life, like providing food, water, shelter, and health care. Even for things like food, water, and shelter, it’s usually more effective for the first responders to buy what they need in enormous quantities than it is for them to try to cobble together a bunch of random stuff and try to distribute it.

    • tooluser says:

      Every single item on the list is completely and totally useful. You just have to not be stupid.

  5. caradrake says:

    I don’t know how useless toys are. Maybe they aren’t as essential as food and water, but they help relieve kid’s stress, so they aren’t hanging onto an adult and crying, causing more stress in the adults. It’s a good way to keep kid’s occupied and less upset.

    • sponica says:

      toys are probably a second tier item….and they still have to be sorted and distributed. when you’re trying to figure out where the kids are you’re reallocating resources. it’s the hierarchy of needs, once people are stably re-homed, medically cleared, and have a stable food source, then you can focus on the other needs

      I used to work in a transitional housing program and the only THINGS I ever wanted donated were new linens.

    • CPC says:

      The adult toys could probably relieve some stress, too…

  6. teke367 says:

    Never been to Haiti, but I have been to “hot weather” areas and seen people wearing winter coats. It was perhaps in the high 70s, but I guess if you are accustomed to 100 degree weather, high 70s becomes “jacket weather.”

  7. rpm773 says:

    Refrigerators using the wrong voltage. (People used them as tables.)

    If they used the refrigerators as tables, were the sex toys used as utensils and cooking implements?

  8. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    I think it’s kind of terrible that the best help I can provide is money, and not useful tangible goods.

    • raydee wandered off on a tangent and got lost says:

      Tangible goods are important in like, the first two or three days of a crisis.

      After that, response people are on site and can pull resources as needed, with high efficiency, and then distribute those items with a similar level of efficiency. Thus “Money” is better than “items” unless you’re also stepping up to give those items out personally.

      Dealing with random items just wastes their time. It feels wrong, yes, but we aren’t professional crisis-response organizations. Things that seem to make sense to us really don’t make much sense at all to the people who do this for a living.

  9. Rachacha says:

    I think some of the problem comes from the fact that there is no single source of information. You see the disaster and want to help. The news reporter says where he is there is no running water, but what he does not tell you is that 2 miles away the local water bottling plant is up and running and preparing to ramp up production for the increased need. You then hear the feel good story of the girl scout troop collecting blankets and the church group collecting food and assume that those items are needed. The Red Cross says they are deploying resources to deliver food and then say the next day they really need something else. I think what is needed is a database of companies that have the resources to help in any disaster and officials can call upon those organizations to expedite transfer of those resources to the needed area. For example, several years ago our local grocery store brought several trucks of water down to an area hit by a huricane, but they also agreed to keep the refrigerated trailers in the area for several months to keep perishable food fresh. The local grocery store could not assist as several of their trailers were damaged and the rest were trying to restock stores to establish normalcy.

    Individuals. We’d only send cash

  10. Battlehork says:

    I guess that desk of Cheez-Its wasn’t very well appreciated then…

  11. Ablinkin says:

    How DARE these racists bigoted religionists have an opinion that is different from mine! Just who the hell do they they think they are and just where do they think they live? Do they actually think they should have the right to organize like all the groups I support? The nerve of them.

  12. kataisa says:

    Paul Newman used to send truckloads of his salad dressing to areas hit by disaster so it’s not just the little people who make errors in judgement when trying to help.

    • scoosdad says:

      My favorite comment at the source article was from the person who was desperately trying to defend sending kitty litter and kennels to Haiti after the earthquake, and damn you for telling her it was a dumb idea, she’ll send whatever she thinks is appropriate.

      I’m an animal lover too, but come on….

  13. Earl Butz says:

    You ought to see what people put in the “care packages” that they send to the military. There’s nothing quite like being in the middle of the desert, getting a package, and opening it up to find…20 copies of “Def Comedy Jam 1992” on VHS.

  14. RandomHookup says:

    Sex toys, no. But hookers…

  15. KyBash says:

    Why send cash? According to the latest reports, less than 25% of private donations has yet reached the people in any form.

    If you can’t fund a boots-on-the-ground missionary organization, give the money to locals who need it.

    • sojourner022 says:

      How do you think they pay for shipping your stuff there? Cash. Until you find a company that is willing to exchange toys/viagara/evening gowns for shipping.

  16. TerpBE says:

    So why does the local news keep saying before storms that we should make sure we have a stock of food, water, batteries, and fleshlights?

  17. dadelus says:

    Not all of these donations are entirely charitable. There was a story of large companies “donating” large quantities of merchandise that they had not been able to sell and they expected wouldn’t be of much use to disaster areas because they could use the “donation” as a tax write-off.

  18. gman863 says:

    Note to self: Stop donating to the “Toys for Twats” drive held after major disasters.

    • mrstu says:

      Heh, one of the rock stations where I used to live had a “Toys for ta-tas” drive every winter where they collected toys for tots at the local strip club

  19. BradenR says:

    It’s probably true of many disaster zones but a recent news link stated that the most help delivered in Haiti was not from big organizations who seemed to waste more than dispersing help. Check out who is doing what before donating. If I could win a big money prize, I;’d send nurses and planned parenthood staff.

  20. dush says:

    Send the cash: words to live by.

  21. TasteyCat says:

    I’m sure they could find some way to make good use out of winter coats, even if it may not be the intended way.

  22. glorpy says:

    Can we also remind people that they’re mad for restricting their donation to a specific tragedy? The aid organization on the ground already has enough money for this emergency.

    What they don’t have is the money for the emergency AFTER this one.

  23. Libertas says:

    That case of Viagra came in handy by keeping the menfolk from rolling out of bed from the aftershocks.