I am a Material Aid Officer with Mercy Corps – which means I work with massive (truckload sized-quantities) donations of product. The donated materials my team works with run the gamut: from computers to textbooks to sports equipment to pharmaceuticals.
My job is to solicit donations of product, work closely with recipient programs to find ways to appropriately and effectively utilize materials, manage the logistics of getting materials to program sites and follow up on the use of products.
When programmed effectively, product distributions can greatly contribute to programs that help achieve a positive change in the human condition, which I was able to closely observe during a recent visit to Mercy Corps’ programs in Colombia.
Mercy Corps Colombia manages an innovative program which aims to both eliminate and mitigate the effects of some of the worst forms of child labor — primarily prostitution and street vending in urban areas and agricultural work in rural areas. In this program, at-risk children participate in after-school activities for three to four hours a day, five days a week. Activities occupy children’s time during the day so that they do not have time to work. These activities also accelerate learning and promote the self-esteem of each child, since many child laborers have fallen behind in their classes.
One vital component of this program is a sports methodology, in which children participate in non-competitive physical activities such as yoga, learn basic soccer and basketball skills, and are taught gender equality, conflict resolution and life skills as well as respect for the body – something particularly important for children who have been sexually exploited.
Our Material Aid team facilitated the donation of 20,000 units of sports apparel, equipment and footwear to this program, to be utilized by children when they participate in sports activities. Last year, I traveled to Mercy Corps Colombia to help establish systems for the safe and effective use of this product – which is critical in urban areas, where a child wearing brand-name athletic shoes can be a target for theft or even violence.
My most recent visit was to ground-truth some of the parameters initially developed, to monitor the donation, and document lessons learned for future donations of this kind.
Here are some of my observations:
- During my trip, I had the opportunity to observe separate groups of children participating in sport activities both with, and without, product. The children wearing uniforms and shoes seemed to take the sport activities more seriously, and be more excited to participate. Although children certainly do not need product to participate in — and benefit from — sport activities, donated product can help create a feeling of group cohesion, and adds an element of excitement and “professionalism” to sport activities, particularly if children are only allowed to utilize product during these activities.
- Donated product can be an excellent way to encourage parental participation in programs. In this case, the donation became a means to encourage parents to attend coordination meetings about the program in which their children participated, and should encourage children’s attendance and participation in the program, since only those who attend at least 85 percent of the time will receive product permanently at the end of the program.
- When possible, branding product with a Mercy Corps (or other) logo is an excellent idea and well worth the cost. In the case of this program, in which children participating in the same program received uniforms in various styles and colors, branding the product helped create a feeling of group cohesion.
- Not allowing children to take product home (to diminish the risk of product being stolen or sold) is only feasible if there is a secure location in which to store it. In some cases, the risk of theft is actually lessened if children are allowed to take product home.
- I was already aware of this, but the danger that brand-name product can pose for children in urban areas really hit home during this trip. In the case of Bogotá, it is simply too dangerous for children to wear product home – it absolutely must be kept on-site, for children’s safety. Luckily, in Bogotá, there is secure storage for product at most project sites, unlike in Cartagena and Santander.
- When product is kept at project sites, how to wash it is always an issue and a challenge for the implementing organization. Budgeting for the cost of washing product is something we should encourage recipients to consider at the outset.
- When providing partners with product, it is important to train them in inventory management and distribution.
As you can see, much goes into the strategy, methodology and use of donated materials.