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Posting Big Parcels: Gifts of Unrequested Goods 

Monday, 2 April 2018

In 2012, staff at the Fresh Hope office (Churches of Christ in NSW) decided to help Khayelihle Children’s Village (KCV) in Zimbabwe. They asked what the current need was and the reply came back – new underwear for all of the children. They set about raising money with a donation jar in the lunchroom and a competition decorating cardboard cutout undies. The idea was to ship over a big load of undies in a variety of sizes. However, some research brought that idea to a halt. The transport and import fees were going to outstrip the value of the underwear. Taking that amount of underwear in your luggage would also mean you would be stopped at the customs gate.

Research shows that Australians are generous people who like to respond in practical ways – like the undies project (codenamed ‘Easter Bloomers’!). In 2015, after Cyclone Pam, 70 shipping containers arrived in Vanuatu. Unfortunately, they clogged crucial wharf space, keeping out much needed supplies and costing locals at least two million Australian dollars. A generous response is exactly what is needed in an emergency, and in the ongoing emergency of poverty across the world, but sending unrequested goods has its downsides:

  • They are not targeted at the specific needs of communities, which in an emergency situation can change rapidly. Only people on the ground can make good decisions about what is needed;
  • They clog emergency supply chains. Local government and communities bear this cost, both in dollars and in time lost, and
  • They often arrive too late to be useful. They take up the time of aid workers and local people who are working on the next stage.

All up unrequested goods are slow and wasteful. This is true outside of emergency situations as well. The toy car or socks that we lovingly put in a box for someone overseas may make no sense to someone who always goes barefoot. Local people can make much better decisions about what a great gift looks like.

Sending money enables trusted organisations on the ground to make the critical decisions about what is needed:

  • Money gets there quickly and can be directed toward energy or water supply, or life-saving medicine – whatever is most needed;
  • Money can be redirected if there is excess. It never goes to landfill;
  • Money doesn’t create the additional burden of sorting for the recipients, and
  • Money helps revitalise the local economy so that things return to normal more quickly.

Part of GMP’s support to people affected by the Ambae volcano eruption was through providing vouchers for two local shops. This meant people could buy exactly what they needed, the shops could use their established supply chains, and the vouchers helped rebuild their business more quickly. We also discourage and restrict sending gifts to sponsor children overseas. This avoids giving inappropriate things (because we make our decisions based on Australian culture, rather than the recipient’s culture). It also reduces the potential of jealousy from those who do not receive gifts.

At GMP we know the locals, and we let the people decide what is best for them. The Easter Bloomers project had a happy ending. A small group decided to make a partner visit to KCV. They used the money raised to go shopping with KCV staff and with the older girls. Everyone got what they wanted – size and style – and could bloom all the more knowing that their extended family in Australia cared enough to listen to them above their own ideas.

PS: There was money left over so they purchased some shoes as well! No landfill!

Colin Scott,
COCOA Director

Relief & Development Health

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