Unintended consequences: Why I believe the destruction of donated goods was justified

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A howl of outrage rose from the public after the Bureau of Customs announced it was destroying four containers of donated goods intended for the survivors of Super Typhoon Yolanda.

According to a CNN Philippines report, the destroyed goods included “clothes, diapers, toiletries, medical supplies and canned goods from Belgium, Norway and the United States transported to Cebu in 2014.”

CNN Philippines quoted BOC-Cebu District Collector Elvira Cruz as saying that the canned goods and medicines were already expired.

As for the donated clothes, these were originally not accepted by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) when these were shipped to the Philippines because of a regulation dating from 2011 that “bans the acceptance of forfeited used clothing”.

The report added that the BOC declined to give an estimated value of the destroyed goods since the “consignees did not file an import entry report”, a document which can be used to determine the value of shipped goods. The BOC can use such an estimate to determine the custom duties that must be paid for the goods.

Though the sense of outrage might feel right, it was not entirely justified.

Inday Espina-Varona, a contributing editor and writer at ABS-CBN Integrated News & Current Affairs and a former editor-in-chief of the Philippines Graphic, wrote in a Facebook post of the need to show the context of the BOC’s action.

“There is, of course, a need for safeguards and regulations for aid,” Espina-Varona wrote in her FB post. “Disasters can be exploited by the corrupt. The confusion/controversy over Yolanda aid cuts across administrations.”

AP Photo/Michael Sohn

“In the aftermath of Yolanda, the world responded with enthusiasm,” she noted. “In the country, many NGOs (non-government organizations), civic groups and people’s orgs rushed to help an overwhelmed administration,” she added.  “We remember the anger over certain incidents. Many overseas Filipinos decided to give their cash aid directly to private groups, only to learn that donor taxes would have to be paid unless the recipient is a government agency or an organization accredited with the DSWD.”

“Similar conditions apply to donations in kind,” she wrote. “I remember keeping track of a shipment of housing construction material that was being held up because of bureaucracy—the need for a gazillion signatures from many agencies before the DOF grants the exemption from duties. And that was an accredited organization. The red tape grows longer once the government deems the calamity phase ended. The guidelines for goods intended for rehabilitation are different.”

“This worsens as administrations change (we know how that goes, with new officials assigned and demanding to review everything approved or waiting approval),” she added. “That’s probably what happened here.”

Looking back at what happened in those fateful days after Super Typhoon Yolanda left a trail of death and destruction in the country, I agree with what she wrote.

I’ve seen how kind-hearted

individuals rushed to send donations. In their haste, there were unfortunate and unintended consequences.

Noel Esquela, Espina-Varona’s Facebook friend, described it well. He wrote as a response to Inday’s post: “Soon after Yolanda hit, there was a scramble to send donations regardless of the huge legal & logistical bottlenecks.”

I saw part of that bottleneck at the cargo area of the Cebu airport where goods intended for the survivors of Yolanda piled up.

As Esquela noted, there were a lot of well-intentioned folk who were not aware of the “logistical and political bottlenecks.”

The particular problem that I witnessed was caused by a break in the logistical chain. And that break was a result of the donors sending their donated goods to Cebu without an identified recipient. Those donated goods without any identifiable recipient could not be released.

Other groups were aware of this and successfully avoided that bottleneck. They made sure that someone was on hand to receive the goods arriving in Cebu. And that someone, in turn, had already arranged to ship these goods from Cebu to Leyte and Samar.

John Ray Ramos, who was involved in the humanitarian logistics effort to aid the survivors of Yolanda, called this segment of the supply chain as the “last leg.”

The “last leg,” he explained, was the point wherein the supplies had been gathered at a collection point and ready to be shipped to the actual recipients, which in this case were the survivors of Yolanda’s wrath.

Ramos and I were among those individuals who were involved in making sure “last leg” worked and that the emergency supplies intended for Yolanda’s survivors arrived.

And before that last leg, others from our group had also worked with foreign government officials and their local embassy to ensure that the goods and supplies that were coming abroad would not be hindered with red tape.

This was part of what Esquela pointed out in his response to Espina-Varona’s post.

Esquela noted that there has been a regulation issued by the Bureau of Customs and the Department of Finance covering donations “precisely to address rampant smuggling where donations ended up in surplus stores.”

“There are specific government agencies and registered aid-receiving institutions outside of which, unless recipient registration has been temporarily waived for the duration of the emergency, donations are subject to scrutiny and delay. I think a lot of clothing and food aid were lost that way,” he said.

I agree. And I have to add one point about the matter of donated used clothes.

As Espina-Varona had noted, the DSWD does not accept donations of used clothes.

It’s been said that the reason was a health issue. That’s true.

I point out another, more practical issue. Clothing are bulky and can be very difficult to transport and store.

And when stored, the slightest moisture tends to render these items useless. Why? Because wet clothing attracts molds. And mold destroys clothing, rendering them unwearable.

And when these are to be sent to disaster areas, the chances of them getting wet due to the conditions in the field are very high.

I’ve seen that happen, unfortunately, when back-to-back typhoons hit one disaster area. It’s not a pretty sight.

I’ve seen other instances when school organizations band together and solicit donations for survivors of a disaster. Many do good work. Unfortunately, there were still some groups who become overwhelmed by the success of their efforts. These groups belatedly learn that they don’t have the capability to transport the donated goods to their intended beneficiaries.

The result was an unintended consequence. Months after these goods were gathered, these remain undelivered. By that time, the urgency had passed and these were no longer needed.

And what happened to the goods by those schools? Some of the food rotted. Other stuff were damaged because of improper storage. Medical supplies expired. Molds rendered clothing useless.

That’s a bad sight to see. Unfortunately, those things actually happened at the micro level.

These separate events coupled with what Espina-Varona and Ramos pointed explain why I believe the Bureau of Customs decision to destroy those donated goods was justified.



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