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Chap Stick? Some aid fails to meet refugees' needs

Last month, Project Hope, the American medical charity, shipped $1.5 million worth of emergency supplies to the Kosovo refugees. But relief workers desperate for syringes, penicillin and insulin found many of the hundreds of boxes instead contained Chap Stick, Preparation H and anti-smoking inhalers -- given by U.S. companies that got a tax break for the donations.

The outpouring of aid from corporate America and elsewhere for the roughly 700,000 refugees that flooded Albania and Macedonia during the war between NATO and Yugoslavia was indeed massive and included many badly needed medicines. But the World Health Organization said about a third to half of all of the shipments were essentially useless and are likely to just gather dust in warehouses or be destroyed at government expense.Some shipments contained medicine not suited to the needs of the refugees or drugs that would expire before they could be given out, according to the World Health Organization and some of the relief agencies on the ground responsible for overseeing medical care.

The problem arises, critics say, as there remain far too many incentives for companies to empty out their warehouses, regardless of need, and for charities to ferry the supplies along. What particularly upsets the critics is the belief, especially prevalent among American donors, that any gift is better than none.

The shipment from Project Hope, the Milwood, Va., charity best known for health education, for example, included lip balm, hemorrhoid ointment and bottles of Robitussin cough syrup, courtesy of American Home Products, according to an inventory of the items. Other boxes contained Nicotrol anti-smoking inhalers and endless varieties of Tylenol, including a children's fruit-flavored remedy for sinus pain, all contributed by Johnson & Johnson.

"I can tell you from being in refugee situations in the last eight years, refugees need Chap Stick, Preparation H and Robitussin," said Jack Bode, the vice president of development and communications for Project HOPE.

Items like Chap Stick and Robitussin represent only a tiny fraction of the nearly $5 million worth of shipments that Project Hope said it is sending to Macedonia. Of that, most drugs are either antibiotics or gastrointestinal drugs. The charity also said that all of its donations were reviewed by the Ministry of Health in Macedonia, which requested the items -- including the Nicotrol inhalers for use in a pilot anti-smoking program.