Monday, January 25, 2010

Haiti is broken: send money -- and nothing else

Yesterday, while researching the answer to a question about solar power that came up in an on-line forum, I landed on the web site of a large supplier of solar panels and equipment. I was disturbed to find there a plea for the collection of a large number of items for Haiti relief, including clothing, blankets, and prescription medicines. I was equally disturbed to learn a couple of days ago that well-meaning but ill-equipped civilians from the US have been spontaneously showing up in Haiti "to help." (I am not talking here, of course, about materials collected by legitimate and well-established relief agencies, many of whom are asking for specific donations such as medical supplies, or about volunteers being sent to Haiti by these agencies, which are both needed and logistically supported.)

While both these efforts are most certainly well intentioned, they are actually counterproductive to real, meaningful relief in Haiti. Rather than spend another several paragraphs here explaining why, I will just refer you to the following excellent articles:

This article from the New York Times does an excellent job of explaining why anything other than cold, hard cash is not worth the cost of delivering and processing it. We can confirm first-hand the part of this article that mentions piles of donated items rotting on the gulf coast after Katrina -- it helped virtually no one and diverted actual relief resources to deal with it.

This article from MSNBC does a good job of explaining why unsolicited volunteers are not helpful. Again, we can confirm first hand that there is very little a relief agency can do with an untrained, unbriefed volunteer from outside the area -- Haiti has no shortage of manpower right now, as virtually the entire capital is out of work, and able-bodied locals need the focus that self-rescue brings. Believe me, if we thought we could help, we'd be there -- and we're highly trained responders with specific technical knowledge that is badly needed there on the ground. (Some of our colleagues, who are certified for international deployment, are already there.) Without arriving under the auspices of a bona-fide aid organization, there would simply be no way for our skill sets to be put to use, and no provision to house or feed us while we're there.

In a related item, I will share that the cruise ship we sailed back at Christmas, Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas, has been stopping in Haiti every other week (our week was the other half of the itinerary, so we did not make that stop). Royal Caribbean invested millions of dollars into a private beach area on the north shore of the island for its passengers; this concept is nothing new, as most cruise lines sailing the Caribbean have done something similar, mostly in the Bahamas. They directly employ over 200 Haitians, and many other islanders come to the beach to sell their wares on port calls.

RCI has taken something of a black eye for electing to resume port calls to Haiti. (The private beach, in Labadee, is a long way from Port-au-Prince and was undamaged in the earthquake.) This despite the fact that they did so only after consulting with the Haitian government, who understandably were eager to have that economic activity resume. In addition to continuing to employ many Haitians (who otherwise would have to be laid off) and providing loads of direct revenue to local merchants, RCI has stated they will donate all net proceeds from Labadee operations to the relief effort, and the ships have even been delivering pallets of aid supplies.

While some cruise passengers are understandably conflicted about sitting on a beach in Haiti sipping cocktails while millions are suffering on the other side of the same island, morally speaking that's not any different from them sitting instead on a beach in, say, Jamaica, doing the same thing. I applaud RCI for sticking to its decision to continue to provide this business to Haiti rather than shifting it elsewhere; I remember how hard it was after Katrina for the gulf coast to reclaim its tourism business, which, in many communities, was the only industry at all. So if you really want to go to Haiti, take a cruise and spend some money there.

Read more about the ethics of cruising to Haiti right now in this article from the New York Times, and this one from CNN. If you would like to donate to the relief efforts in Haiti, we've added a link in our sidebar to the American Red Cross International Response Fund.

Photo: Talia Frenkel/American Red Cross


  1. I've been curious as to why Haiti is so poor. I understand that at the moment they have an immediate need for "fish," but long term where can we donate to teach them to fish rather than keeping them dependent on us continuing to hand them more "fish" every year?

  2. @DaVE: I can speculate, but I'd rather not, since I don't really want the blog to become a forum for political discourse.

    One of the things we like about the Red Cross and why we donate both time and money there, is that the relief provided is based strictly on the disaster and not on the financial circumstances of the victims. When your house is destroyed, it doesn't matter whether you lived in a 6,000 square foot mansion or a cardboard box in a back alley; the Red Cross will feed you, house you, and clothe you, and everybody is treated exactly the same.

    Right now, the problems of housing, food, water, sanitation, medical assistance, and communications are overwhelming and would not have been fundamentally different had this happened in a less poor country. At some point, long after the relief operation is over and the reconstruction process has begun, people will have to face these harder questions. I will point out, though, that we had exactly this issue in New Orleans after Katrina, and here we are five years later without having dealt with it. And that's in the US, the wealthiest nation in the world.


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