Tarnished Philanthropy: China Questions Recent Medical Supply Shipments from U.S.

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Two U.S.-based philanthropic organizations faced considerable embarrassment this year when their donations to China were found to contain large quantities of expired medical supplies and second-hand medical equipment. While the details surrounding the cases have yet to be unraveled, the frequency of such events should raise alarm bells.

The latest problematic donation was made by Salt Lake City, Utah-based LDS Philanthropies, a charitable arm of the Mormon Church. The group's contribution of US $4 million worth of supplies was sent to mainland China's largest non-governmental charity group, China Charity Federation, and arrived on November 7. Two of the four containers were delivered to Wuhan City in Hubei Province, one to Hefei City in Anhui Province, and one to Beijing.

It was Anhui authorities who first discovered the problem. According to Xinhua News Agency, four personnel from the Anhui Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau examined the container between November 9 and 11. The load of 926 boxes, comprising $114,542 worth of supplies, included 47 boxes of expired medical supplies, 60 boxes of medical supplies without expiration dates, 2 boxes of second-hand medical equipment, 2 boxes of expired detergents, 87 boxes of used children's items, and 41 sets of used rehabilitation equipment—adding up to 239 boxes of unusable supplies or equipment.

The three loads sent to Beijing and Wuhan fared no better. They contained not only expired and used supplies, but also suspiciously red-stained, mildewed, torn, or faded bedding and clothing. The donations were intended to be used for setting up health clinics for orphanages. Upon discovery of the poor-quality items, all four containers were resealed and sent back to the United States on December 13, according to Beijing News.

Responding to inquiries from China Watch, Kim Farah, Church spokeswoman for LDS Charities, stated that "LDS Charities is investigating the incident and looking for a resolution." According to China News Agency, the group has pledged to make an equivalent cash donation to make up for the loss. None of LDS's past donations to China, either in material or cash, have been found to be problematic.

A similar incident occurred several months ago with a donation from Chinese Agape Foundation, Inc., an independent charity based in Peachtree City, Georgia. The $30,000 donation of medical supplies to Wuhan City of Charity Federation in central China arrived in two separate shipments in late June and mid-August. According to Market News, a weekly economic paper published by China People's Daily, the combined donation of 138,647 items contained mostly expired medical supplies and second-hand devices.

The shipment included heart surgery kits, medical outfits, medical gloves, pledgets, adhesive tapes, waste bins, catheters, sutures, and other accessories. According to China News Agency, most of the first batch of donations had expired in June 2005, while nearly all items in the second batch of 387 boxes had expired between 1990 and 2004. The disposable syringes contained a suspicious fluid and had lost their sterility through exposure to the air, while reagents and disinfectants had leaked, contaminating other items. Wheelchairs showed signs of disrepair, many with dysfunctional wheels. The donated medical supplies were packaged in old boxes bearing labels for foodstuffs, electronics, and even Coca Cola and KFC, many of which were soiled by mildew, oil, and dirt stains and emitted strong odors.

Experts at Wuhan Medical University, who examined samples of the donated items, asserted that the shipment appeared to be more a dumping of medical waste than a donation, according to Market News. The two loads were incinerated on October 21 under the supervision of Hubei Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau.

Ron Brown, director of Chinese Agape Foundation, Inc., told China Watch that one of the containers had been delayed in shipment, causing some supplies to expire. The donations were made through Project C.U.R.E., an international volunteer aid organization that delivers medical supplies and equipment, which had secured and shipped the items, Brown said.

Brown asserted that local Chinese authorities had destroyed usable supplies along with expired ones, noting that the reasons behind this were dubious. "The key is that we reduced paying bribes to them," he said. Brown admitted that the Foundation had made two previous donations of second-hand medical equipment, to Shaoyang City of Charity Federation in Hunan Province, in 2004, to supply its open heart surgery mission in the region. Those donations were held up by Shenzhen Customs upon entry into China, according to Shenzhen Economic Daily.

In general, the United States has a rich tradition of philanthropic giving. A 2005 report by Giving USA Foundation shows that charitable giving in the country increased 5 percent in 2004, to nearly $250 billion, and that 70-80 percent of Americans contribute annually to at least one charity. The country has been generous in its giving to China as well, with various foundations, individuals, and corporations donating cash, materials, or volunteer time to a range of poverty alleviation, disaster relief, environmental protection, and disease control efforts.

The two latest examples of problematic donations are not isolated incidents; similar concerns have arisen in the past, though at a smaller scale. If goodwill channels are not properly supervised, a small group may benefit while the needy continue to suffer, contributing to distrust of otherwise well-meaning benefactors. To prevent such incidents from recurring in the future, closer cooperation between donor and benefactor countries is urgently needed to guarantee the true charity of such deeds.

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