• Josie Pagani is director of the Council for International Development, an umbrella organisation for New Zealand's international non-government organisations. The council can supply a complete list of code-compliant organisations.

As you head to the beach, spare a thought for New Zealand's humanitarian professionals. They're on call 24/7, a mobile phone in one hand and a mince pie in the other.

Along with a core team of Foreign Affairs staff, New Zealand's international charities remain on high alert because it's cyclone season in the Pacific and they may need to respond within hours if a disaster hits.

The effects of climate change and rising sea levels mean that when storms do hit the Pacific they are likely to be more intense and the damage more extreme.

Advertisement

It's not being on call that worries staff in charities, it's getting the message out to the public that if a cyclone hits - please, send cash, not stuff. Every year charities end up with container-loads of gifts that are not only useless, they get in the way of relief efforts.

New Zealanders are generous and want to help. But containers of used goods like toasters, toys, computers or cutlery take up space and slow down a response. They take time to unload and sort, holding up supplies for immediate needs. Locals are often left with the bill for customs duties, although the contents may not be worth it.

Sixty per cent of goods sent to a disaster site are not needed.

During Cyclone Pam in 2015, 77 containers of donated goods arrived in Vanuatu. Two years later, 10 containers remain on the wharf, at a cost of about $3.5 million in storage, handling and container rental fees. Half the food items had expired by the time they got there.

The donated skis, high heels, woolly jumpers and bras sent to Fiji during the devastating Cyclone Winston in 2016 remain unused, as are the weight-loss drinks and chandeliers that arrived in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.

Haiti got fertility drugs after an earthquake flattened the country. The victims of the 2004 tsunami got a container of left-footed shoes from a shoe company wanting to help.

Sixty-seven thousand teddy bears were sent to Connecticut after the Sandy Hook shooting that killed 20 children.

Sending stuff that you think will help, often doesn't. The first wave of 600 tonnes of medicines sent to Ache by well-meaning doctors after the 2004 tsunami had to be rapidly destroyed because they were either out of date, damaged in storage, or the instructions were in a foreign language. It cost nearly $5m to destroy them.

Advertisement

That money could have bought roughly 2000 shelter kits, 4000 tarpaulins, 50m litres of locally produced water, and 3000 kitchen serving sets - helping nearly 9000 families in need immediately.

Some New Zealanders don't want to give money. They hear stories from overseas of money not reaching people and decide to send goods instead. An international survey this year revealed that for the first time in decades, trust in charities had fallen from around 70 per cent to about 50 per cent.

But in New Zealand the international charities that belong to the Council of International Development (which is most of them) must sign up to a code that makes them fully transparent and responsible for spending public donations on the people they say they are helping. The public can trust our international NGOs (non-government organisations).

If you can't afford to give cash, there are other ways to translate generosity into effective aid. Donate your goods to a New Zealand charity shop. A shop will sell your goods in New Zealand, turning them into cash to assist overseas.

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.

Channelling generosity into the right assistance at the right time is the difference between helping and hindering in a disaster. In Cyclone Winston, New Zealand's disaster relief professionals delivered emergency water, food, shelter and hygiene supplies to more than 24,000 Fijians in just 72 hours.

They know where the need is greatest in a disaster, and how best to distribute the right kind of relief, fast.

So give them a break over the holiday season. If a disaster happens and you really want to help, send cash.