Josie Pagani is director of the Council for International Development which can be contacted at www.cid.org.nz

Imagine waking up the morning after a major New Zealand earthquake. Water supplies are limited. Some people are injured - but there aren't enough medical supplies to go around.

You're worried about your kids - where will you send them with the schools closed? When will they be able to sleep again without fear of another quake? You're going to have to lay off staff and who knows when you'll be able to rebuild your sight-seeing business, or even if the tourists will ever come back.

On the horizon you see a ship. Relief, at least.

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A landing party steps ashore, delivering boxes and supplies of goods. You lift the lid on the first box and find ... a teddy bear, underwear and a toaster.

Not the kind of relief you'd been hoping for. And yet, this is the reality for our Pacific neighbours when they open up some of the dozens of shipping containers sent by well-meaning New Zealanders every year after a disaster.

When humanitarian crises strike and many people's lives are in danger, most Kiwis want to help in one way or another. We're generous people and we pride ourselves on being good global citizens.

But sometimes well-meaning actions do more harm than good. This is especially true after a disaster, when the desire to help is greatest, but sending the wrong help slows down recovery and can even risk lives.

Sending free food, clothes, and supplies can undercut local businesses desperate for customers. Containers of used goods - toasters and toys, computers and cutlery - take up space and slow down a response. They take time to unload and sort, holding up supplies for the most immediate of needs. Locals are often left with the bill for Customs duties, even though the contents may not be worth it.

Channelling generosity into the right assistance at the right time is the difference between helping and hindering in a disaster.

That's where New Zealand's disaster relief professionals come in. New Zealand has many humanitarian non-government organisations (NGOs) which provide assistance to disaster-affected communities in 40 countries. In the Pacific, New Zealanders can be found at the forefront of any international response.

These are the first responders who know what the most pressing needs are, and precisely where needs are greatest. After decades of experience we know how best to distribute the right kind of relief - fast, working with Pacific Island responders in the lead.

When Cyclone Winston, one of the strongest storms ever, hit Fiji last summer, 12 New Zealand NGOs stepped up. They delivered emergency water, food, shelter and hygiene supplies to more than 24,000 Fijian in just 72 hours.

But relief agencies and their local partners are only able to deliver this kind of expert assistance if their work is adequately funded. The most urgent need in times of crisis is money. No other type of donation can match its impact.

Money directed to people in need is the most effective disaster relief tool. Money allows people in a disaster to decide their own priority needs, and to meet those needs through local markets. Money is quick to transport and distribute, and doesn't get bogged down at ports.

Cash donations to transparent and accountable Kiwi NGOs is the best way to make money count. New Zealand humanitarian NGOs are adept at making sure money flows to the people who need it most, where the need is greatest, for the greatest possible impact. Our NGOs can quickly deliver the vital supplies that disaster-affected people can't always buy for themselves - clean water, medical supplies, temporary shelter, counselling support for children and families.

And yes, our NGOs also invest in fundraising, which means a few cents of every dollar you give helps to generate many dollars more for the relief effort.

Not everyone can afford to give money. But there are still many ways to translate generosity into effective aid. Donate your goods - teddy bears, clothes and toasters - to a New Zealand charity shop. A shop will sell your goods in New Zealand, turning them into cash to assist overseas.

Or you can organise a fundraising event and donate the money to an NGO responding to the crisis.

Or simply contact a professional New Zealand humanitarian NGO to find out how best to help.

You can find a complete list on our disaster relief website.

This cyclone season, when you want to step up and help when disaster strikes in the Pacific, remember that in the professional hands of a New Zealand humanitarian NGO, money rather than goods will always do the greatest good.