After Haiyan: Skip The SWEDOW, Help Usefully

Tacloban, Leyte Island via Eoghan Rice - Trocaire/Caritas

Boxes filled with Santa costumes, 4-inch high heels, and cocktail dresses landed in tsunami-affected areas. In some places, open tubes of Neosporin, Preparation H, and Viagra showed up. 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.

From “Please Don’t Send Your Old Shoes To The Phillipppines” by Jessica Alexander (Slate)

Admit it, you laughed a little at the snark in “SWEDOW.” I did. Then I clicked on the link, read the full story, and was incredibly saddened. Because we seem to go through this after every major disaster, and apparently the aftermath of Haiyan is no different. We want to be generous, especially as the full picture and extent of the damage continues to unravel. And as we here in the U.S. go into holiday season, days before Thanksgiving’s cornucopia of food, there is no option but to help millions in need of water, food, clothing, shelter, and medicine.

But here’s the problem—especially as frequency and urgency of coverage subsides, and survivors continue to struggle: we want to help on our own terms, when what people really need is generosity that makes sense and matters on the ground. This is an especially good reminder as we get into holiday season, when traditional giving, the dip in temperatures, end-of-year fundraising letters, and the possibility of a tax deduction creates a perfect storm of generosity. Here is how we can all really help.

1. Give people what they need, not what you want to give them.

Our instinct is to give survivors the things we think we can’t live without if we were in the same situation. And things feel more substantial than a check or cash. But does what you can give match what they need on the ground? If not, you’re probably part of what aid workers call the “dumping” problem. And sending them your things—which have to be sorted, separated, made sense of, and then perhaps finally used—may actually worsen the situation at a time when supply lines and aid workers cannot afford distractions between them and the people in need. Frankly, this is where cash may be your best gift. Yes, it feels cold, but as fellow Mightycause blogger, Ken Mueller put it in the aftermath of Newtown, “It’s one thing to give, but another thing to give well!”

2. “Food and clothing drive” =/= “Clean out your pantry and closet.”

This is your opportunity to give others what they need while they’re without power or a functional kitchen. Any pantry cleaning that happens—oh hello, box of quinoa that the kids wouldn’t touch with a barge pole upon sight!—is purely an aside. The same is true for clothing drives. If what you have to part with won’t keep a body clothed with dignity, perhaps you might consider a yard sale. Yes, beggars can’t be choosers. But apart from the possible incongruity and culturally inappropriateness of your clothing in another part of the world, think about it, is that how you’d want to be treated if you were without? Chances are, if you don’t want it, no one else does either.

3. Donate with due diligence.

Last but not least, in this age of crowdfunding, anyone can begin, fund, or further a cause. This is a very good thing in many ways—hey, this blog celebrates the idea! But it also means that the onus is on you, the donor, to make sure you’re supporting a legitimate cause. Right now the devastation is so grave that large and established organizations, the kind you are encouraged to support because they already have systems and expertise in place, are facing an uphill battle. Smaller organizations? Ones you’ve never heard of? Check them out very thoroughly. And in the age of viral, be very sure of who and what it is you’re retweeting.