The horrific events unfolding in Ukraine have attracted global attention. Naturally, people from Europe and beyond want to help. But how you help matters. Let’s explore why cash is best in a crisis. 

The generosity of people in response to a disaster or other crisis is always heart-warming to witness. It’s also very normal to want to help. In fact, giving has even been found to have a positive psychological effect. So it should come as no surprise when schools, communities, individuals and businesses feel compelled to collect donations to go to people who have been affected. Take Ukraine for example, where you’ll have seen, and maybe even given toward, the many campaigns to collect goods like winter clothes, toiletries, food and electronics. 

No doubt these generous acts are well-intentioned. But ask any agency involved in emergency response and they will all agree: donating cash is better than gathering goods. 

Quick: cash frees up supply chains

When a disaster strikes, time is of the essence in humanitarian response. And timing is especially important within the supply chain. Reaching people in need with relief items is a crucial part of early response. But all too often, the same supply chain as those that charities, non-government organisations and other humanitarian agencies are utilising to direct relief to people in need is being rapidly congested with publicly-donated goods. 

Unsolicited donations after cyclone Pam
Unsolicited donations after cyclone Pam in Vanuatu.

There are countless examples of this. In 2004, when a devastating tsunami struck Indonesia, people from around the world sent clothing. Unfortunately, in the weeks that followed, a mountain of abandoned donated goods began to pile up on the shoreline and many went to waste. When a cyclone struck Vanuatu in 2015, containers full of donations arrived. Inside? Food that had expired or spoiled during the journey, as well as clothing items that included high heels and ski jackets. Twenty of these containers, each containing up to 22 tons of donated goods, went uncollected. A year later, they had accumulated over USD $2 million in storage fees. 

Cash, on the other hand, can be used to purchase goods that are already available in the country affected by the crisis. This has the additional effect of injecting cash flows into the local economy. It can also be used to replenish aid organisations’ stores of pre-positioned relief. Or cash can be used to purchase exactly what is needed and move these items through supply chains that are freed up from excessive and unwanted donations. 

Flexible: cash allows experts to determine what’s needed

Two reasons why donated goods end up in landfill is that they either arrive too late in slow, clogged-up supply chains, or the goods that have been donated are not what the affected community needs. Water, shelter and non-perishable food items are what’s often most urgently needed, but often what’s sent is second-hand clothing items and perishable goods. 

Relief agencies have spent many years responding to various crises. They understand the needs of communities and are usually working closely with local governments and community groups to understand what is most urgently needed. They are also often equipped with effective logistics and established partnerships, meaning they can quickly access and move goods into place. And it’s usually cheaper too: the price of shipping three litres of water to Fiji from Australia, for example, would equal the cost of sourcing 9,100 litres of water on the ground – enough to meet the daily needs of 600 people. So if you want to know that your support will reach the people most in need, with what they need most, it’s best to give cash. 

Dignified: cash means people and communities can make their own decisions

Although unrelated to environmental impact, dignity is a crucial reason to donate cash. People affected by crises may be in a vulnerable position, but they are also survivors who have individual needs and wishes. If response organisations are able to provide cash, rather than goods, these people can make their own decisions about what they need. 

Earthquake-affected people in Indonesia receive cash-based assistance to meet their needs. A woman and young child hold their purchase card from World Vision.
Wahana Visi Indonesia’s multi-purpose cash assistance gives quake-affected families timely and flexible way of meeting their needs.

Too often, we forget that every person affected by a crisis is unique. No matter where they come from, whether they have lost their home due to flooding or were forced to flee war, every person has individual needs that are best met when they have the power to choose. 

When respondents of a report by Humanitarian Policy Group were asked what dignity means in a humanitarian response, “interviewees placed more emphasis on how aid was given, rather than what was given. The main components of a dignified response included transparency, clear targeting and face-to-face communication. Cash-based aid was seen as more dignified.”

Be curious: 

  • Many aid organisations are working in Ukraine and surrounding countries, supporting people affected by the conflict. Here’s a list of organisations that are currently active. 
  • Find out more about why cash is best from British Red Cross.
  • If you are interested in the other ways humanitarian agencies are addressing the climate challenge in their work, check out the Climate Charter.