WASHINGTON -- In the hardest line taken yet by government and international relief agencies to the outpouring from the public in a crisis, officials are accepting only monetary donations for Kosovar assistance after a series of troubled relief efforts that left workers overwhelmed with inappropriate contributions.
"That's a lot better than sending goods that may or may not be suitable," said J. Brian Atwood, the U.S. Agency for International Development administrator.
Atwood was appointed Monday by President Clinton to head a multiagency humanitarian team.
Corporate donors, too, are being discouraged from contributing goods instead of money.
In fact, at one point this week, a major outdoors outfitter offered one relief group a supply of shoes only to be told that, while appreciated, such an offer was impossible to deliver.
"The quickest way to get what we need is cash," added Panos Moumtzis, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
"We would love to tell people to send us blankets. But we're learning from past experiences," Moumtzis added.
In the wake of Hurricane Mitch in the Caribbean, for example, people sent unneeded supplies, such as heavy coats, which couldn't be used.
Not only does sorting items tie up relief workers, but the cost of transport to Kosovo is also prohibitive, say officials, and it is faster and easier for humanitarian organizations to purchase what they need nearby.
"I know it sounds harsh," said Moumtzis. "People want to open their hearts. But the best way to make an impact is to have cash now."
To send a can of beans, which costs about 50 cents, he said, would cost an agency $4.
Federal officials and relief groups are counting on Americans being moved by the sight of refugees who fled their Kosovo villages with little more than the clothes they were wearing and two days ago set up 1-800-USAID-RELIEF (1-800-872-4373).
The 800 number has received more than 15,000 calls. Those calls are referred to relief organizations such as CARE or Save the Children, which are accepting the contributions of money.
First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to make a public service announcement today with an appeal for help and to publicize the 800 number. Atwood said there was also discussion of a high-level group, including the first lady, going to the region "at the right moment."
The United States is dispatching planes on a daily basis and ordering purchases of everything from blankets to biscuits as part of the international response to the plight of the refugees.