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Money still best way to aid disaster victims

Typhoon Haiyan is one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall and its effects for Filipinos have been devastating. Current U.N. and Philippine government estimates indicate more than 9.5 million people are affected across the country. Additionally, nearly 620,000 people have been displaced. All of this comes on top of displacement as a result of fighting in September 2013 and the Bohol earthquake of Oct. 15 2013.

I’ve been a humanitarian aid worker for a long time. After a disaster like Typhoon Haiyan, I’m usually the person to whom friends and family members turn to ask, “How can I help?”

Wanting to help is a human instinct that should be lauded. But unfortunately, well-meaning people repeatedly get it wrong. And this time around it seems some are already responding in unsuitable ways.

Americans are exceptionally generous in the wake of an emergency. But often these very humane instincts result in inappropriate donations that can actually do much more harm than good.

After the 2004 tsunami, similarly well-intentioned people cleaned out their closets, sending boxes of “any old shoes” and other clothing to the countries. I was there and saw what happened to these clothes: Heaps of them were left lying on the side of the road. Sri Lankans and Indonesians found it degrading to be shipped people’s hand-me-downs. I remember a local colleague sighed as we passed the heaps of clothing on the sides of the road and said, “I know people mean well, but we’re not beggars.” Boxes filled with Santa costumes, 4-inch high heels, and cocktail dresses landed in tsunami-affected areas. The aid community has coined a term for these items that get shipped from people’s closets and medicine cabinets as SWEDOW – Stuff We Don’t Want.

Right now, access to people affected by the disaster is a major challenge. According to the most recent U.N. Situation Report, resources to deliver relief goods are extremely limited. Roundtrip travel on the nearly 7-mile road that connects the airport to the city of Tacloban currently takes about six hours; it is the only cleared road, according the U.N. The airport’s air traffic control and fuel storage facility were damaged. Consider what happens when a plane full of unwanted donations is competing for runway space with planes carrying needed medicines and food items. Someone has to unload those donations, someone needs to sort through them for customs, someone needs to truck them to affected areas that are hard to reach anyway and where there’s a limited supply of fuel. When old shoes and clothes are sent from the U.S., they just waste people’s time and slow down getting lifesaving medicines and food to affected people.

“Dumping” goods into areas of need also puts local vendors out of business when they need their businesses to recover most. Your son’s old Nikes may put a smile on the face of a child for an instant, but you’ve now undermined his father, who sells shoes in the local market, and who is trying to regain his livelihood to help put that same child through school.

There is one simple way that people who want to help can help. Donate money. Give money to organizations that have worked in the affected areas before the storm – they will be more likely to know and be able to navigate the local context and may be able to respond faster, as it won’t take them time to set up. Give money to agencies that are able to articulate what the actual needs are and transparently tell you how they are responding. Give money to agencies that are procuring items locally to help rebuild the economy. Give money to agencies that are working with the government to ensure that their response is aligned with the national response.

Jessica Alexander is an adjunct professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service. She wrote this for Slate.