How Not to Help Haiti

Sending your old, useless stuff to a disaster zone is exactly that: useless -- and a disaster.


The Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer has offered the following thought experiment: Imagine you’re walking by a river when you see a child struggling to stay afloat. If you jump in to save him, your new pair of shoes will be ruined. But would anyone think twice about ruining the shoes to save the child?

The point of Singer’s argument, of course, is that you should not hesitate to give to organizations that save lives around the world — not that you should cast away your favorite pair of loafers at the first sign of trouble. Despite this, however, a number of charities have taken it upon themselves to start collecting used and new shoes on behalf of the shellshocked victims of the Haiti earthquake.

One of these, the unfortunately named Soles4Souls, has made significant progress toward its goal of shipping 50,000 pairs of shoes to Haiti, assisted by the inevitable celebrity endorsement from a remarkably wooden Jessica Simpson, seen here plugging her new reality show seconds before imploring viewers to donate.

The prospect of cargo containers full of free sneakers landing in the middle of what is still a logistical nightmare has been met by resistance and skepticism from some in the development community. One common observation is that the donated goods are often available domestically, making it redundant to ship in foreign alternatives, at great cost, that have the potential to undermine local markets (imagine yourself in the shoes of a Haitian cobbler when the first Soles4Souls shipment arrives).

These concerns have done little to stop similar ventures in the past. There are a myriad of well-meaning but mostly useless aid projects around the globe intent upon providing the poor with basic but redundant imported goods. The most visible is the used clothing that has flooded much of sub-Saharan Africa, resulting in an absurd number of rural Africans sporting Iron Maiden T-shirts. One of the most controversial is imported food aid, which is often shipped in at great expense from subsidized Western markets. Other projects border on creepy paternalism, shipping recycled soap, new and used underwear, and even teddy bears to developing countries.

However, cost-effectiveness and the marginalization of local markets are not the only worries. When Clowns Without Borders, an NGO that provides free clown-based services to the poor, lands in Port-au-Prince, the main concern is not the harm they might cause to the Haitian miming industry, but whether flying in imported clowns is an efficient use of resources.

The only metric for the efficacy of the programs should be: What would the Haitians do with the dollar equivalent of 50,000 pairs of shoes? If the answer isn’t "buy 50,000 pairs of shoes" or "unleash the clowns," then we should be worried. While dropping money out of helicopters might not ultimately be the answer (though cash-transfer programs are an increasingly popular method of reaching the poor), experienced charity and aid workers on the ground, working in conjunction with the local government, are well-placed to understand what a disaster-stricken people actually need. Single-item charities such as Soles4Souls have little in the way of the feedback mechanisms necessary for such careful targeting. They only exist to collect, deliver, and move on, or "stop and drop," as humanitarian aid blogger Saundra Schimmelpfennig has labeled the practice.

In-kind (non-cash) aid is notoriously inflexible; containers full of shoes, teddy bears, or Scientologist ministers cannot easily be converted into antibiotics or emergency rations (though with the Scientologists there would be little harm in trying). Unwanted aid may end up being simply thrown away or used for some unintended purpose. In Malawi, I once discovered a fishmonger wrapping fish with paper from a consultant’s discarded report.

Charities — and governments — prefer the flexibility of cash donations, allowing them to divide each dollar according to the requirements on the ground. Some charities would even prefer that donations be allowed to be sent elsewhere in the world, as bottlenecks can limit the amount of immediate good that can be done in disaster zones (the Red Cross is still spending its 2004 tsunami budget). Understandably, donors can become nervous at the idea of unrestricted funding; we’d like to be reasonably sure our donation will be put to good use and not vanish into someone’s pocket (as was the case with World Vision in Liberia last year). Still, the appropriate response to such reservations is to do some research when choosing a charity and help the most effective ones with a cash donation — not something out of your closet.

One of the truly startling aspects of the Haitian orphan smuggling debacle was the inability of the charity workers to understand what they had done to deserve the scorn of the Haitian government. It is also this uncritical, overzealous certainty of doing the right thing that will lead to the dumping of heaps of shoes on Port-au-Prince. Please, save your soles and write a check instead.

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