Dom Kafatolu: Send cash not stuff if you want to help the Pacific in a cyclone

The Pacific cyclone season has officially started, and this month we had the first named Tropical Cyclone (‘Ruby’).

It’s a reminder that the risk of disasters in the Pacific doesn’t stop just because it’s the holiday season. According to Metservice, we can expect at least four to six named cyclones before the end of April.

As a young Pacific person, I’m acutely aware of how much climate change is making these cyclones more devastating and unpredictable each season. But while communities in New Zealand may not be able to change the intensity of cyclones, we can change the way we respond.

When a cyclone hits the Pacific, the communities that I know band together and pitch in to help. We don’t hesitate to help our Pacific friends, families, and neighbours, whether Palagi, Pasifika or otherwise.

We do it because it’s who we are. The good intentions of our communities are often
channelled into donating all sorts of stuff to the Pacific. But unfortunately, the reality is that 20- and 40-foot shipping containers filled with good intentions often do more harm than good in the Pacific.

We need to change the way we help.

After Tropical Cyclone Winston in 2016, Fiji received 133 shipping containers and over 8000 pieces of loose cargo. This totalled over 83,000 sq m – enough to fill 33 Olympic swimming pools – of donated goods that no one asked for.

Worse, much of this stuff was not needed. Some people sent snow-skis, rollerblades, and chandeliers. Anything from home they didn’t need any more.

After sitting on the port unopened for months, much of it ended up in landfills. Half of the
food items had expired and were sent to landfills. Tinned cans of food – again, not needed – take hundreds of years to break down.

The strain on the local Pacific environment is immense. Pacific nations are leaders in environmental sustainability because they see the impact of climate change every day. I urge you to take this into account whenever you are thinking about donating unsustainable goods.

Pacific communities appreciate your help and generosity, but you may be loading further stress on already strained systems for Pacific authorities. It makes it worse that you could be undermining the local economy and small businesses.

The easiest way to help following an emergency is to donate money. As Pacific people, we
understand more than most the support that remittances can provide.

Cash is best because it strengthens local markets and small businesses and gives a boost to an already impacted local economy. Local people spend the cash in local businesses.

Cash also gives the most affected a choice. They can buy the specific things that their families need the most, rather than trying to work out what they’re going to do with rollerblades.

In a crisis people need money, not stuff. No other type of donation can match its impact.

Earlier this year, I worked with the New Zealand Council for International Development (CID) who, in partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP), are campaigning to provide guidelines about how to ‘donate responsibly’ in the Pacific.

In my Pacific community, if we’re sending money, we want to know it’s going to reach those who need it most. Trusting that your money will get to Pacific family on the ground is a top concern for us.

Some people are comfortable sending cash via a New Zealand aid charity. But others who are used to remittances, want to send the cash direct.

Online websites such as, a free-to-use Australian and New Zealand Government tool can help people make an informed decision about the best way to send funds.

This tool compares the costs of money transfer services before sending money to family or friends to make sure you are getting the best deal.

But I would also urge money-transference businesses to support humanitarian responses, by wavering transaction costs or keeping them at less than 3 per cent during the emergency response. This will make it easier for already stressed Pacific families to send cash to family overseas.

Living in the Pacific after a tropical cyclone is already tough. Making sure we support the response in the most appropriate way will make sure good intentions have good outcomes.

Think about sending cash first. Even if you still want to send stuff, at least think first – ‘Are these items necessary’? Make an effort to find out if people in the Pacific really need those rollerblades, or that food that they can actually buy in a local shop.

We cannot change the intensity and number of cyclones this season. But we can change how we respond.

– For more information go to
– For a complete list of respected and code compliant New Zealand aid charities who respond to cyclones, go to the Council for International Development website at

– Dom Kafatolu is a Pacific Studies graduate from Victoria University and worked with Council for International Development, an umbrella organisation for New Zealand’s international aid agencies

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