Why cash is king in emergency responses
After every high-profile emergency people naturally want to help. Kind-hearted people set up donation drives for clothes, shoes, food and baby diapers that flood our Facebook pages. But here are five reasons why it’s better to give cash, not commodities.
Individual vans and trucks transporting donated goods across hundreds of miles take time and cost money. Paperwork, fuel costs, visa issues and import controls all need to be taken into account. When cash is donated to local and international humanitarian organisations that are already on-the-ground, they can purchase those goods within the country and this is often much more cost-effective.
Sometimes the things we give are not what they want. The clothes we think are suitable might not be culturally appropriate in their context or for the time of year. In the Pakistan earthquake of 2005 clothes donated by city folk were burned by rural survivors to keep warm because city garb was not conservative enough. In fact, some clothing is actually offensive. Peppa Pig baby clothes, for example, are unsuitable in a Muslim context. The tins of food we might send are often a mystery to those receiving it. Cash giving allows humanitarian agencies to purchase appropriate goods within the disaster-affected country.. and we even ping cash directly to survivors’ mobile phones so they can spend it on exactly what is most critical if local markets are working.
Humanitarian agencies really are the experts in responding. They have decades of experience. Agencies assess what survivors need by doing rapid surveys. Agency logisticians can then activate procurement pipelines, tapping into ready-to-go emergency aid stocks in warehouses around the world, or quickly set up supply chains in the country. Cash donations help fund all of this.
Humanitarian agencies have well-established coordination mechanisms – with the government, with other humanitarian agencies, and with the UN. This means that the geographical distribution of aid - and what is provided - is done fairly and avoids duplicate delivery of aid or its chaotic delivery. Without this coordination, easily accessible communities get way too much, and remote areas way too little. Roads get clogged with all manner of trucks and vans taking in donated aid which then blocks emergency responders from getting in on roads that might be blocked by earthquake rubble. Drone footage from Turkey shows roads crammed with lorries taking in aid.
Cash giving allows goods to be purchased via shops, markets, and local retail supply chains which keep local economies going. Donated goods have the potential to undermine the recovery of local economies and markets at just the time people most need to keep their jobs and incomes flowing.
It’s worth thinking of humanitarian organisations as the rough equivalent of the e-commerce giant Amazon. We know how effective Amazon is at delivering goods to our door wherever we are based on the basis of a simple digital cash transaction. Humanitarian organisations have vast experience working in chaotic situations to get what survivors want – not what we think they might need.