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When Humanitarian Relief Goes Wrong

In the wake of the destruction from Hurricane Harvey, Americans rallied to provide aid and relief. But not all of the "help" actually helped. Some of it led to more complications and burdens. In an Acton Institute Powerblog disaster relief expert Juanita Rilling said, "Generally after a disaster, people with loving intentions donate things that cannot be used in a disaster response, and in fact may actually be harmful." For instance, she continued, "People have donated prom gowns and wigs and tiger costumes and pumpkins, and frostbite cream to Rwanda, and used teabags, 'cause you can always get another cup of tea."

Following 1998's Hurricane Mitch, Rilling recalls finding loads of boxes on an air strip that were filled with winter coats (it was summertime in Honduras). Likewise, after the disastrous tsunami of 2004, beaches in Indonesia were so filled with donated clothes that the donations were eventually set on fire due to oncoming rot. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, American mothers donated breast milk, not thinking of the challenges of keeping it fresh.

Possible Preaching Angles: Poverty; Poor People; Social Justice; Injustice; Missions—This story serves as a perfect example of "when helping hurts." The intentions may be good, but the strategy is not effective because the donors have not listened to what the recipients really need.

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