The shirt off your back?

A man in Washington, D.C., wants to send a refrigerator to Sri Lanka.

BY SUSAN KIM | FAIRFAX, Va. | December 29, 2004

"Stuff that comes from the heart may not always be appropriate for the disaster survivors."

—Rick Augsburger, Church World Service

A man in Washington, D.C., wants to send a refrigerator to Sri Lanka.

When the well-intentioned donor saw a list of responding organizations published in The Washington Post, he called Abhishek Jain, a local businessman who is collecting monetary donations for tsunami relief.

"The person who called obviously had the best intentions in mind. But when you put them in the Sri Lankan context, it's ludicrous," said Jain.

Nearby, at an American Red Cross chapter office in Washington, D.C., another man showed up with his suitcases packed, said Phillip Love, a Red Cross caseworker. "He thought he could go and help. He thought we could send him," said Love.

And in the same metro area, dozens of people are bagging up clothes and toys, and trucking them to a two-day-old relief organization created on Monday and listed in The Washington Post by Wednesday as a responding group.

"People have been dropping off bags of stuff all day," said a breathless volunteer who answered the phone after 20 rings. "We're planning to purchase a 40-foot container and send stuff as air freight."

Outpourings of support - giving the shirt off your back to someone who survived one of the worst natural disasters in recent history - may be evidence of commendable human compassion.

But right now it's more efficient to keep your shirt on and grab your checkbook, advised veteran disaster responders. "Stuff that comes from the heart may not always be appropriate for the disaster survivors," said Rick Augsburger, director of the Church World Service (CWS) Emergency Response Program.

CWS - which has been working for decades in many of the tsunami-affected areas - has issued a financial appeal for tsunami relief. CWS teams are already on the ground, working in partnership with local groups.

"The best way to help is to send cash contributions to groups who have on-the-ground partners," said Augsburger.

Why, when it feels so good to collect canned food, and mail it?

Because the needs - particularly in this large-scale disaster - are rapidly changing, said Augsburger. "Regional staff people are aware of those needs. This disaster is unfolding so rapidly. The needs for temporary shelter, food, water and medicine are changing rapidly."

Jain - who returned from Sri Lanka just before the tsunamis struck - agreed. "Everybody wants to do their part. But old clothes and individual bottles of water don't work from a logistical perspective. The cost is steep to ship these goods."

People ready to send clothes need to ask themselves a difficult question, said Jain. "Do people in Sri Lanka need your clothes? You can buy a T-shirt over there for 50 cents - even right now. To ship a T-shirt from here costs so much more. And that goes for everything - food, medicines. To get medicines even regionally - from Burma, India, Vietnam - it's much more cost-effective."

Yet - even when people collecting T-shirts know most of their money is going toward shipping costs - why do collections still happen?

Often people are simply unaware that groups - such as CWS - exist, much less that they have been working in affected areas for years. By Wednesday morning - when thousands of people were clicking onto the online version of The Washington Post - the listing of groups included two relief groups that were less than three days old. By Wednesday afternoon, the list had been revised - but not before the influx of stuff began.

Still more people are unaware of what happens to their donated stuff. Shortly after Hurricane Mitch hit the Honduras in 1998, 1,200 containers appeared in the Port of Cortez that were labeled simply 'Humanitarian Relief.'

The boxes contained clothes mixed with food - much of it spoiled. There were also goods with instructions written entirely in English, dozens of pairs of size 13 boots, and Christmas sweatshirts. The day the shipment arrived, responders on the ground then said the two most-needed items were sheets and mosquito nets.

Combine unawareness with compassion, and nice people end up sending stuff, not cash.

"Well, it's such a nice thing to do," said Jain. "It really is."

But, in a post-disaster situation, "nice things" can get out of hand so rapidly that many responding groups are simply sending the message: just send cash, don't send stuff.

"Don't send your clothes to Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD)," said ERD spokesperson Ayana Davis.

ERD - like many other faith-based disaster response groups - has put out an appeal for emergency relief funds to help on-the-ground efforts in the hardest-hit areas.

"ERD is working with local partners who are providing food and other emergency relief services round-the-clock," said Davis. "Emergency funding is the best way to make sure this happens as rapidly as it needs to."

And cash contributions are best for the long run, not just emergency needs, said responders. Lutheran World Relief (LWR) launched on Wednesday a new "Wave of Giving" campaign to raise $5 million for long-term rebuilding efforts.

CWS and LWR are members of Action by Churches Together, a global alliance of churches and related agencies that support communities in emergencies worldwide.

ACT members based in south Asia and southeast Asia were able to mobilize relief operations in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, hours after the tragedy struck.

Around the world, ACT members have rallying financial support to assist tsunami survivors. Appeals have been launched in the U.S. and in many other countries. Church-based leaders encouraged interested people to donate through their denominational disaster response group.

Tsunami-related deaths totaled more than 77,000 across 12 nations by Wednesday afternoon, and officials in every hard-hit country have expressed concern that communicable diseases could exact an equally devastating toll on human life.

Leaders from the International Red Cross estimated that the toll could eventually surpass 100,000. United Nations officials said on Wednesday that food shortages and disease could kill as many people as the quake and tsunami.

"The challenges these families face in the coming weeks and months are very real," added Kathryn Wolford, moderator of the executive committee of ACT and president of LWF. "Decaying bodies, polluted water sources, destroyed sanitation systems and, in some cases, having lost literally everything will make day-to-day existence every bit as challenging as surviving the tsunamis themselves."

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