Tropical Cyclone Pam brought wide-spread devastation to Vanuatu nearly two years ago.
It also brought an outpouring of aid – including 70 shipping containers of unrequested goods from well-intentioned donors who hoped their collections of food, used clothes and household items would reach people in need.
“Massive amounts of cargo started arriving after the cyclone hit and even though my teams were working around the clock, we were inundated,” recalls Benjamin Malas, Vanuatau’s Customs Director.
He was speaking recently in Geneva at a conference of humanitarian aid and government representatives on managing and reducing unsolicited donations during disasters.
“Huge containers were arriving fully loaded with random, poorly packaged and unlabeled items that no one claimed, but still had to be inspected, cleared and stored,” Malas said.
“Some of these donations were put to good use, but much of it never left the wharf.”
An influx of unsolicited donations or gifts-in-kind from well-meaning individuals, community and diaspora groups is a common occurrence in the aftermath of big disasters. In Vanuatu, the items often arrived unannounced, unrequested, without proper paperwork and lacking a defined consignee.
‘Inappropriate for response’
“All too often, these unsolicited donations are inappropriate for the response and don’t meet the needs of the affected populations,” explained Anna Young, who researched and authored a recent report on unsolicited bilateral donations, commissioned by the Australian Red Cross.
“Without a clear plan for getting the goods out to people or funding to process and distribute them, they end up clogging supply chains, disrupting local markets, incurring local costs for handling and storage and diverting valuable time and resources from the response and recovery operations,” Young told the gathering.
In Vanuatu, 20 containers, each containing up to 22 tonnes of donated goods, went uncollected. A year later, they had accumulated more than $2 million in storage fees.
More than half of the donated food, including flour, noodles, juice and tinned fish, had expired and had to be dumped.
It is also critical that governments have clearly articulated laws, policies and procedures in place to facilitate and regulate incoming international assistance, including unsolicited bilateral donations, Lucia Cipullo told the gathering.
She is the senior legislative advocacy officer for the IFRC’s Disaster Law programme, which helps governments strengthen legal frameworks for international disaster relief.
“When countries do not have the right laws and policies, it hampers the response, making aid slower, more expensive, less effective and sometimes counter-productive,” Cipullo said.
Vanuatu did not have the necessary procedures in place to handle the influx of incoming aid and unwanted goods before Cyclone Pam, but the storm and its aftermath served as a catalyst.
The Vanuatu Red Cross and IFRC’s Disaster Law programme have been working with the government of Vanuatu to strengthen their national disaster management laws and procedures, including systems to reduce unsolicited donations in future disasters.
Benjamin Malas said it was the local communities in Vanuatu who were at the heart of every response when disasters happened, but he believes that improved communication, coordination, systems and procedures would make a big difference the next time around, particularly when it comes controlling unsolicited donations.