Be a boon, not a burden

Be a boon, not a burden

The outpouring of sympathy and a desire to help following a disaster always comes with the best of intentions but often causes more problems, writes Julie Greig.

The Australian community has a long history of responding generously after disasters.

We define ourselves as a nation that is at its best when facing a crisis and that always helps those in need.

Our climate is often harsh and can be hot and in drought for long periods and then facing flood and the destruction it brings.

In recent years these disasters have affected country and city dwellers alike, sometimes suddenly and sometimes progressively and long-lasting, with accidents such as falls, electrocution and the effect of landslides, fire, food shortage and lack of drinkable water, and even death through drowning.

When this happens Australians want to help.

We imagine what it would be like to be in that situation ourselves and we want to take action to help others get on their feet as soon as possible.

We want to minimise their loss because we all know how hard they have worked to get where they are and we feel for them, knowing they have to face a recovery process.

Response is often immediate because we want people to know they are not forgotten in their time of need; so we send money and, often, clothes and furniture to the disaster areas.

Unfortunately, despite our best intentions, this can be counterproductive.

This may come as some surprise but one of the main issues of dealing with the 2009 Victorian bushfires was how to cope with and pay for the logistics of processing the goods donated.

Response is often immediate because we want people to know they are not forgotten in their time of need; so we send money and, often, clothes and furniture to the disaster areas.

A paper prepared for the Australian Government by the State Recovery Office, Department for Families and Communities, South Australia, in February 2010, said, “The 2009 Victorian bushfires resulted in more than 40,000 pallets of goods from across Australia that took up more than 50,000 square metres of storage space. That is twice the size of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) arena. The cost for storage, staff and transport amounted to more than $8 million. Services in the fire affected areas were severely stretched as a result of donations of goods arriving without warning and without resources to sort, store, handle and distribute.”

When we look at these statistics, combined with anecdotal evidence of stories of workers in the area, taking a day for three people to unload a truck of clothes and goods which were donated but not packaged or labelled or sorted and realise this happened over and over again, we can see how this would become a problem — one that needs to be addressed before the issue has to be faced again.

Maximise the benefit

So what is the best way to harness the good intentions of Australians and best meet the needs of people facing the devastation of flood or fire?

There are several easy guidelines for congregations and communities to follow, which will maximise the beneficial effects of aid sent to a disaster area.

Maximum benefit is, after all, what everyone wants. We want to do the things that will help the most to meet the need and to be cost effective in our aid efforts.

Firstly, we need to truly place ourselves in the shoes of people in these situations.

We need to imagine ourselves bundled out of our homes, often with only a short time to decide what to take. We could even be asked to leave all we have in this world at the word of a stranger who tells us fire or flood could threaten us at any moment.

We may have to leave our pets and items which cannot be replaced, such as a wedding dress or photos. We may only have the clothes we stand up in and not know when we can get back home.

Having got to the evacuation centre, along with other worried neighbours, we have a long wait ahead with not much to do but think about what is happening at home.

Those of us not in such a situation need to think about what we would like to happen if we had lost most or all of our possessions.

The report to Synod by the rural chaplain and disaster relief chaplains, who attended both the Victorian bushfires and the recent floods in Hay and Yenda, near Griffith, gives several key pieces of advice.

1. Always donate money rather than goods. This makes it easier for workers “on the ground” to meet needs quickly and efficiently.

Giving money avoids the problem and cost of sorting and handing out items fairly and appropriately. Traumatised people do not have the added burden of having to accept damaged or worn goods and clothing. With vouchers they can take back some control and buy their own clothes and household items.

(It is not trivialising the situation to comment here that there are benefits to retail therapy and it gives people something to do while they wait.)

Second-hand and electrical goods should never be sent unless specifically requested. Money is always the best option. Vouchers can be very useful but local businesses need to be taken into account. Donating money:

  • provides choice
  • promotes self-directed recovery
  • empowers people by promoting personal decision making
  • is more flexible
  • supports local economies by encouraging local buying and
  • reduces the complicated, costly and time-consuming process of managing donated goods.

2. Congregations should discuss and organise a disaster donations plan before a situation occurs so they are ready in the event of a disaster nearby or in another area. Planning allows the response to be immediate, considered, objective and organised to provide maximum impact. Congregations can see if other churches in the area want to be involved and they can work together in a coordinated effort when the need arises.

3. Congregations can play a role in helping their communities to understand the issues surrounding disaster donations and take a leading role in the community in responding to an emergency situation.

As well as working with other churches, congregations can involve the wider community through friend and community networks and wider afield.

There are many practical ways congregations can raise money to use when needed. A few suggestions are running a garage sale to help turn donated goods into cash, encouraging the community to come together to raise funds and then responding as a whole community to another whole community.

4. The needs of disaster-affected communities and individuals should always be the first priority. Unhelpful donated goods should never be accepted just because they make the donor feel better.

Julie Greig is a Uniting Church Rural Chaplain, based at Hillston.



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