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Challenges of dealing with unsolicited donations during emergencies

A house damaged by flooding

By Sawsan Rawas, UNICEF DPRK

Thanks to the UNICEF Representative in DPRK, Balagopal Gopalan, for his guidance and support throughout the whole process.

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) experienced very heavy rainfall that caused severe floods in six provinces of the country during August 2007. This caused severe damage to infrastructure, and made some villages inaccessible due to damaged roads and bridges. An estimated 102,400 were made homeless and 54,160 homes damaged.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and UNICEF were the first agencies to respond to the population affected by the floods. Water purification kits and essential medicines were rushed to the affected areas. Following this, the UN Country Team set up the mechanism for a coordinated response to the floods. This involved all the resident agencies, as well as the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who function in the DPRK under European Union programme support unit identities.

Unsolicited donations of milk powder

In response to the emergency, humanitarian aid started to come into DPRK from many sources. The UNICEF office was alerted to incoming and unsolicited donations of milk powder and baby food. A donation of milk powder from a neighbouring country, which was being supplied as bilateral assistance through NGOs without the knowledge of the Ministry of Public Health, was identified in an OCHA situation report (21 August 2007). A second donation, of 28.5MT of 'baby food and milk products,' from another neighbouring country was disclosed at an interagency meeting.

The immediate concern of UNICEF was that powdered milk would be misused for feeding infants under six months, and would negatively impact on breastfeeding practice and expose all infants to increased risk from diarrhoea. There was a need to advise donors on the appropriateness of the commodities provided as emergency assistance.

Efforts by UNICEF

Figure 1: Leaflet developed as part of DPRK response

Having picked up the issue from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs OCHA report, UNICEF immediately moved to raise the issue of the danger of such donations with the originating donors. A letter was drafted and sent to the US-based Missions of the countries contributing these commodities (located in New York) and UNICEF staff met with the representatives of the Missions. Efforts to prevent the donation from coming to the country were not successful and so efforts were concentrated on arranging for an appropriate agency to receive the donation, in order to plan and control the use of the commodities. The Operational Guidance on Infant and Young Child Feeding in Emergencies (IFE) was shared with the Mission in New York and also sent to the capital of the donor country. A request to mobilize support from the UNICEF National Committee was issued from the country office.

Regarding the second donation, the donor had a resident mission in the DPRK. UNICEF drafted a letter to the local Mission and met with diplomats of that country, to underscore the importance of the issue. Our serious concerns were also communicated to the UN Mission of the donor in New York.

In addition to these actions with the donors, a letter was sent to the Government of DPRK in which they were advised to refuse any donations of Breast Milk Substitutes, including powdered milk. It was suggested that any donated milk powder that was unavoidable could be added to fortified blended food or to complementary foods for infants after the age of 6 months.

Follow up by UNICEF

In the Health cluster meetings, UNICEF emphasised the role that breastfeeding plays in protecting the health of infants. The benefits of early and exclusive breastfeeding to both families and the nation were integrated into the training of health personnel. Two million leaflets were developed and printed on diarrhoea prevention and highlighting the role of exclusive breastfeeding (see Figure 1). In addition:

The renewed attention on infant and young child feeding has moved to strengthening country capacity. For example:

Results and Lessons learned

A road made inaccessible through flooding

A huge effort was made by UNICEF to try to stop unsolicited donations to the DPRK during the extensive flooding in mid-2007. There was great difficulty in even identifying donations and tracing them back to their source. In this case, UNICEF used diplomatic channels at country, regional and international level to try to inform foreign governments of the global policies and recommendations against the inappropriate use of breastmilk substitutes in emergencies and the problems presented by donations.

Even when pending donations were identified, there was great difficulty in preventing or diverting them and took up a lot of staff time. In the end it was not possible to stop the donations. However it is hoped that the experience and advocacy that took place will influence the nature of donations in the future. This experience highlights that advocacy and raising awareness should be continuous in preparedness for these challenges and not just happen when an emergency strikes.

For further information, contact: Sawsan Rawas, UNICEF, email:

Show footnotes

1Operational Guidance on IFE available at

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Reference this page

Sawsan Rawas (). Challenges of dealing with unsolicited donations during emergencies. Field Exchange 34, October 2008. p41.



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