FOCUS: WAR IN EUROPE: Donate cash, not old clothes, say relief agencies

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Baby food sent to military hospitals, beans which must be boiled dispatched to drought-stricken Ethiopia and tinned pork consigned to Muslim flood victims in Bangladesh: aid organisations do everything to persuade the public to give help in cash, not kind, but the inappropriate aid keeps rolling in.

Then there are the blankets. Coffee-morning groups who stitch together hand-made blankets for victims of emergencies are viewed with particular bemusement, since appeals for blankets, such as for the 1988 Armenian earthquake which happened in freezing winter, are now outdated. Charities now buy them wholesale in mainland Europe and fly them out at a moment's notice.

Aid bodies are reluctant to criticise such well-meaning but essentially meaningless donations publicly. Privately they have deep reservations.

"People often see these dreadful pictures and feel that donating money isn't enough," said one senior charity logistician. "But what they end up doing is just a souped-up appeal that Blue Peter would have cringed at 20 years ago."

The Disasters Emergency Committee has fielded several calls from people who have collected bin bags of second-hand clothes.

"We don't want to seem churlish about people's efforts, but we're trying to avoid this," said Kate Robertson, fund-raising executive for the DEC. "In this sort of disaster, collecting and shipping second-hand clothes is not an effective use of funds. If people do gather clothes and toys, they should take them to a local charity shop where they can be sold for cash for the appeal."

The British Red Cross, which has a policy of buying aid locally where possible to stimulate local economies and businesses, has warned staff to ask would-be donors for cash rather than blankets, tinned food or other emotional items such as cuddly toys. "It's far more efficient for us to buy such items in bulk in mainland Europe. If people bring them to us, and we have to gather them up and fly them over, it quickly becomes a logistical nightmare," said a spokeswoman.

Bulk buying is vital: a food package to feed a family of four for a week would cost pounds 30 in Britain but pounds 8 if bought in Greece.

Smaller groups which operate independently of the DEC believe they have a valuable role to play.

The South Devon Aid for Kosovo appeal, launched last week, is appealing for cash, clothes, medicines, blankets, tinned foods and baby milk, which will be driven to Albania in lorries at a cost of pounds 3,500 each trip.

"We are addressing a different audience," said the director, Adrian Huxham, who has co-ordinated charitable work in eastern Europe.

"People tend to be insular. They may not donate to a national campaign but will to a local initiative."