For a Modicum of Relief

For a Modicum of Relief

Why you should care

Donating to a humanitarian agency this year? Here’s one place your money might go. 

Tornadoes. Typhoons. Tsunamis. Conflict. In the wake of disasters, humanitarians far and near provide succor, while many of us with the means and good fortune not to be struck this time donate to their relief efforts. But just what do humanitarian groups do?

Dignity kits get survivors through another day, week or month.

There’s medical care, of course, and food and water distributions. Yet a major — if quite unsung — endeavor is to hand out kits of “non-food items” to help survivors get through another day, week or month. Groups ranging from the Red Cross to the United Nations to World Vision distribute gazillions of these so-called NFI kits.

Contents vary according to availability, type of disaster, local context and purpose of the kit. Household kits typically include bedding; kitchen kits have pots, plates and utensils; and hygiene kits contain things like toothpaste and soap. Dignity kits made their first appearance in the early 2000s. They include things like sanitary pads, razors and bras — and sometimes sarongs, too.

Humanitarian agencies say NFI distributions have yet to start in earnest in the Philippines, where Typhoon Haiyan turned out 4.4 million people from their homes and destroyed more than half a million houses, according to the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs . But lots of stuff is in the pipeline, says Patrick Elliott, head of the global shelter cluster, which tries to coordinate the panoply of humanitarian agencies now at work in the Philippines. Currently on planes, in warehouses or otherwise en route, Elliott believes, are 64,000 household kits, 12,000 kitchen sets and 390,000 tarpaulins. Better than tarps? There are some 40,000 tarpaulins with kits that include rope or wire to secure the tarp and “hopefully some nails, too,” says Elliott. Tarps come from local and international sources, says Elliott, each with their trade-offs: “The reality is that the local ones don’t last as long, but they get here a lot quicker.”

By November 20, Oxfam had already begun to distribute hygiene kits in the Philippines. Meant for a family of five, each kit contains:

12 pairs of underwear (three for women, three for men, three for boys and three for girls)
1 tube toothpaste
1 kg of bath soap (about 10 bars)
1 20-liter jerry can (to collect water)
1 10-liter jerry can (to store water)
5 toothbrushes
1 kg of laundry soap (about 7 bars)
2 blankets
2 sleeping mats
A bright green reusable bag

Value: 2,500 Philippine pesos, or $57 (according to Mira Bacatan, an Oxfam staffer in Bantayan Island)

Closer to home, the Heartland Association of the American Red Cross reported running out of the comfort kits it’s been providing to people affected by the midwestern tornadoes. The kits were designed for victims of “single family house fires,” according to a Red Cross staffer there, but the tornado sweep, which damaged or destroyed an estimated 1000 homes in Washington, Ill. , alone, has depleted its supply. With things like soap, toothpaste and deodorant, the comfort kits intend to provide a modicum of hygiene, care, and sanity amidst loss that’s hard to comprehend.

Contents of Oxfam kit. Shown are toothbrushes, underwear and detergent.

Helen Szoke of Oxfam Australia holds hygiene kits being dispatched to northern Cebu.

And in the ongoing conflict in Syria, which has displaced millions of people in a country with cold weather, the International Rescue Committee has been providing various sorts of winterization kits. One of them contains:

1 20-meter plastic sheet
2 blankets
1 baby blanket
1 washable diaper
4 pairs of woolen socks
1 fleece sweater with a pocket and hood
2 cotton sweaters
2 pairs of children’s pants
2 woolen hats
2 winter scarves

Others have blankets, sheets and additional woolen clothing. This year, says director of emergencies Bob Kitchen, IRC plans to distribute solar lamps as well.

Boxes of boxes of Red Cross kits to distribute with a volunteer with back towards camera

Red Cross workers unload emergency relief packages for delivery to Typhoon Haiyan victims.

Sometimes NFI kits include controversy. Relief items are often bought and sold in markets or privately — not quite the intent of NGOs, but better a market than more SWEDOW (that’s “Stuff We Don’t Want” in Jaded Humanitarianese). The International Organization for Migration is apparently getting props in the Philippines for including a “tabo” or “dipper”— a plastic cup with a handle used for “anal sanitation,” as the international aid community puts it. (“It would seem that even in the evacuation center, Filipinos cannot do without the ‘tabo,’” reported one local newspaper.)

The International Federation of the Red Cross reported that hygiene kits distributed in the wake of Pakistan’s 2006 earthquake caused a stir. The women’s underwear, distributed only in small and medium sizes, didn’t fit. Many women were “not familiar with disposable sanitary towels,” and with many men bearded, the razors were considered unnecessary at best, and “imposed by Western people to try to change their culture and religion” at worst.

The bigger question, though, is whether vouchers and outright cash grants are better. “Gone are the days where we turn up and say, you need X, Y and Z,” says Kitchen, perhaps optimistically. Distribution kits might have a place in conflict environments or broken economies, where the market can’t provide, he says, but a more sustainable solution is to provide a stimulus to disaster-struck marketplaces. It also “places purchasing power back in the hands of communities, the local population, local traders and local markets,” says Kitchen. All of which could help economies and societies recover faster than handouts, and would make our aid dollars be more effective. That’s an idea that fits in every kit.

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