“Teddies for Timor” and the Perils of Good Intentions

This is the first article in a three-part series about applying behavioral science in the context of international development, with a focus on the ways good intentions can go amiss, the pitfalls of misperceptions, and lessons from designing and implementing interventions in the field. Read the second article here. (Third article forthcoming.)

August 30, 1999, could have been a day of celebration. East Timor, or Timor-Leste, saw nearly 99 percent of its residents participate in a vote for independence from Indonesia, with over three-fourths marking their ballot for independence. However, after the vote, the country, which occupies one half of a small, arrowhead shaped island between Australia and Indonesia, erupted into violence.

Pro-Indonesian military groups began attacking residents and destroying buildings. Chaos and conflict ensued for several weeks before the Indonesian government agreed to withdraw its forces and an Australian-led military mission entered to restore peace. A 1999 article described the severity of the situation:

In what is evidently a planned campaign of savagery, militias backed by the Indonesian military continued their attacks on the people of East Timor on Monday and today, burning homes, killing residents and forcing many thousands to flee into the barren hills for safety.

When the conflict ended, East Timor was in desperate need of aid. For Australians, the fate of their northern neighbor was very much on their minds. The Australian government had helped push for the independence referendum and it was an Australian-led military effort that helped stop the violence. Many Australians wondered what they could do.

During the crisis in East Timor, many good-hearted Australians participated in a Teddies for Timor campaign, sending thousands of teddy bears to the grieving country. The image of a child being comforted by a teddy bear was strong and tangible.

Unfortunately, it was just an image.

Thousands of teddy bears ended up taking up valuable shipping and warehouse space. The teddy bears were also an alien concept to Timorese children, and the stuffing and surface of the bears became unsanitary in the tropical climate.

Thousands of teddy bears ended up taking up valuable shipping and warehouse space…and the stuffing and surface of the bears became unsanitary in the tropical climate.

There have been many similar wasted campaigns since–in Fiji after Tropical Cyclone Winston, in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and in Newton Connecticut after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In the latter case, The New York Times reported that in the aftermath of the shooting:

Merchandise arrived by the truckload, including 60,000 teddy bears and more bicycles than Newtown has children. So many flowers and stuffed toys clogged intersections that the town gathered, composted and burned them, aiming to incorporate the resulting ‘sacred soil’ into a memorial to the victims.

Analyzing the response to tropical cyclones Pam in 2015 and Winston in 2016, the Australian Red Cross found that unsolicited physical goods (put simply, tangible, physical goods like clothing or blankets) arriving from Australia had created considerable costs for local governments and disrupted the humanitarian supply chain.

The Australian Red Cross’s report identified that in the aftermath of tropical cyclone Winston, “Fiji received 133 (shipping) containers, plus 8147 pieces of loose cargo (ranging from packages to pallets) totaling 83,315 m3 of goods: enough to fill over 33 Olympic swimming pools.”

Despite numerous campaigns asking for cash instead (see image for a typical example), people persist in giving goods. These block the arrival of vital supplies, often end up in landfills, and cost millions of dollars to store and dispose of—ironically negatively impacting life-saving efforts.

People persist in giving goods…These block the arrival of vital supplies, often end up in landfills, and cost millions of dollars to store and dispose of—ironically negatively impacting life-saving efforts.

Why do people donate goods, which can often be impractical to transport and not always useful, rather than cash when a disaster hits? And is there any effective way of dissuading them?

If we want to change this behavior, we first need to understand the drivers that underpin it—the inner beliefs that motivate donors to send goods rather than cash.

There’s little previous research into the motivations to unsolicited physical goods. Neither had there been any research assessing whether the “cash is best” message has altered the behavior of likely donors or whether there might be a more effective approach. We, The Behavioural Architects, partnered with the Australian Council for International Development, to try to better understand the roots behind donors’ decision-making. Our goal was to generate more effective ideas for how to change this behavior—to stop people giving goods and instead, encourage them to give cash.

To understand the motivations that drove this donor behavior, we conducted a series of in-depth contextual interviews and a longitudinal ethnographic study with donors who had previously sent unsolicited physical goods. Our research revealed a number of insights:

  • Though their intentions are good, people do not stop to consider where their donated goods really end up, nor whether the donations actually had a positive impact. When deciding to donate, they tend to operate in an emotional, intuitive frame of mind rather than a reflective, considered mode of thinking.
  • Donors tend to assume their goods are practical, immediate, incorruptible, always reaching the intended beneficiary, and generally a better form of donation, compared to cash. Instead of searching for information that disproved these beliefs, our research showed that people actively sought information that confirmed these beliefs (confirmation bias).
  • Donors’ availability bias (when we think that what easily comes to mind is more likely to happen) meant they thought cash donations would not reach the destination due to corruption, whereas they were easily able to envisage people receiving and using physical goods. Tangible items felt less corruptible, especially as the aid industry has suffered from considerable negative publicity in recent years, a result of a few high-profile cases such as the Oxfam sex scandal, which was in the media at the time of the research.
  • Once donors have decided to send goods to a humanitarian crisis, they often announce their intent to friends and community groups, making them feel more committed (commitment bias) and therefore more likely to donate.

Below are images drawn by a donor to illustrate the assumptions they make in their decision-making process of donating goods.

Donor illustrations reveal their assumptions about what happens to the goods they send. Image: The Behavioural Architects.

Further research indicated that to change donors’ behavior, we would need to disrupt the incorrect beliefs and narrative that donors have about where donated goods end up, rather than simply communicating a “cash is best” message. This wasn’t doing enough to change beliefs or behaviors about donating goods. To generate more donations of cash, we needed to make salient why this is a better choice, not necessarily in its own right but because the alternative (donating physical goods) is not meeting the needs of those who donors are trying to help.

We developed and quantitatively tested a series of alternative messages derived from our research:

  • In times of disaster, ONLY cash will rapidly transform into what people need most.
  • In times of disaster, donated goods clog supply chains, blocking essential supplies. Cash goes straight to the disaster zone and doesn’t clog supply chains.
  • In times of disaster, sending goods takes anywhere between 2 to 4 months to arrive in the disaster zone. Most people donate cash because it provides help faster.
  • Many donated goods sent to a disaster zone end up in a landfill because efforts on the ground are focused on lifesaving aid, not unpacking goods donations.

One of the messages was far more successful than the others. People who were told that a majority of physical donations ended up in a landfill reported that they were 50 percent less likely to donate physical items in future. More importantly, this message was two times more effective than the existing and widely used message that cash is best.

People who were told that a majority of physical donations ended up in a landfill reported that they were 50 percent less likely to donate physical items in future.

While donating money is not perfect either, the consensus is that sending cash is far more effective than physical goods after a disaster.

Messages such as the one above that vividly alert donors to the potentially negative ends of their good intentions could save and improve lives. This could be game changing for organizations dealing with humanitarian crises, as it will help them work more efficiently to get aid to those who need it and avoid wasting money and resources in the process. More broadly, it is also a good illustration of how first spending time to understand people’s (mis)beliefs can reap considerable rewards when developing an appropriate behavioral change strategy.