Three bad ideas for helping Haiti

plane over Haiti

In the rush to engage on Haiti, a lot of well-meaning groups are jumping in to help. Some are brand new, and some have never worked on a disaster like this before. Most of these groups are going to be useless. Some will actually do harm to themselves or others. A tiny minority will have a positive impact. I wish those odds were better, but they’re not.

I’ve seen three bad ideas for helping in Haiti floating around recently. I don’t want to single anyone out for criticism – after all, everyone is trying to do good here. But in this case, the culture of nice may be letting bad programs hurt people. I need to say something.

Bad idea #1 – 50,000 Shoes The idea is to donate 50,000 shoes in 50 days for Haiti. They are asking for a $5 donation for each pair of shoes. The problem with this idea is that it’s based on an assumption – that lots and lots of shoes are what Haitians need right now. What if they need clothes? Or food? Or water purifiers? Should they sell their new shoes and use the money to buy those things? Has anyone done an assessment to find out if shoes are needed? To decide what kind of shoes are needed?

The shoes could end up wasted and useless, absorbing people’s donations without providing any benefit. They could clog supply lines that also bring in desperately needed medicines. They could keep the local shoe suppliers from rebounding after the earthquake, and if badly chosen for the Haitian climate they can give people disgusting fungus.

This is almost a good idea. The time-delimited fundraising with easy to remember numbers will drive people to donate, and they’ve got celebrity endorsements that are raising their profile.

How it could be a good idea – call it $500,000 in 50 days instead of 50,000 shoes. That would double their fundraising goal (since they are trying to provide $250,000 of shoes) but I think they could pull it off, considering their level of media attention. Then they could make a high profile donation, including a ceremony with one of those oversize checks on poster board to Partners in Health.

Bad idea #2 – Flight to Crisis Volunteer doctors and nurses are banding together to charter a flight to Haiti and help with medical care. It’s brave, it’s scrappy, and it shows amazing initiative. It’s also a horrible idea. The people don’t seem to have any plan from bringing in their own supplies and haven’t set up a place to stay in Haiti. They don’t have a hospital to work out of or any background in responding to this kind of disaster. This is exactly the kind of misguided effort I was afraid we’d see, because Haiti is close enough to the US to make it possible. For more information on why this is such a bad idea, read this account of another group of health care providers that chartered a plane.

[Edited to add: please see comments below for a response from Flight to Crisis. They are better organized than their page makes them look.]

How it could be a good idea – in about three months, when rebuilding gets serious and Haitians have time to think, this group could choose a Haitian hospital to partner with. They could fundraise to help it rebuild, and donate supplies and equipment. They could visit the hospital quarterly to train the providers there as needed, and make sure that the equipment is in good shape and well maintained.

Bad Idea #3 – The Global Volunteer Network Haiti Project This project, which volunteers pay to support, is seeking people to volunteer for the following projects: working with children, teaching, health/medical efforts, building and construction, counseling, and business development. They say that volunteer trips can run from one week long to six months. This list seems designed to please volunteers, not meet the needs of people in Haiti. You already know that I am not a supporter of trips where you pay to volunteer.

This, however, is even worse than usual. This isn’t just useless feel-goodery for rich people. This will hurt people in Haiti. Traumatized children should not be making emotional attachments to volunteers who will be gone in six months. Volunteer labor for building and construction will keep Haitians from getting paid jobs to do the work themselves. And no outsider volunteer has any business providing counseling; counseling needs a background in local culture and context that a visitor won’t have.

How it could be a good idea – It’s almost impossible to rescue this one, but short-term volunteers could offer brief, targeted English or French classes to Haitians who needed them. They could cover technical topics that local teachers might not be able to offer. Not in a week. There really isn’t anything useful you can do in a week. But two months might work. It really wouldn’t qualify as disaster response – or rebuilding – but it would at least be useful.

For more information on how to help in Haiti, take a look at my Aid Watch post.

Photo credit: simminch

Things I don’t believe in #10 – Donating stuff instead of money (June 2008)

Pile of used clothes

Note: August is looking like a crazy and stressful month for me, with no time to blog here. To make sure no one gets bored and abandons me, I am going to re-run some of my favorite posts from the past.

Give money. Don’t send food, bottled water, clothing or useful-seeming stuff. Give money.

Your old stuff costs money to ship. It is almost always cheaper to just buy it in country, and doing it that way benefits the local economy. It’s also more respectful to survivors of humanitarian emergencies, and allows relief agencies to procure exactly what is needed instead of struggling to find a use for randomly selected used junk. Disaster News Network talks about the used clothes problem in “The Trouble with Trousers.” which features a really depressing anecdote about Hurricane Hugo.

Your food costs money to ship, too. It is probably not food anyone in the recipient area would recognize. How exactly will the people of Burma know what to do with canned refried beans or artichoke hearts? Sending donated American food doesn’t drive income to local farmers or help local retailers start selling again. Buying in-country gets food people will actually understand how to cook and supports the local economy.

Here’s another example – some people wanted to send their old tents to China to house earthquake survivors. A sweet idea – provide quick, free housing. But every different kind of tent would have different set-up instructions, and how many people save their tent instructions once they’ve learned how to do it? It would take a huge time investment in figuring out each type of tent, and then training for the people in China who had to set up the tents. All of this time translates to a delay in providing housing, and it’s time used by paid staff, which means it is also squandered money.

Interaction, the coalition of disaster-relief NGOs, has a nice piece about why cash donations are most effective. They mention needs-based procurement, efficient delivery, lower costs, economic support, and cultural and environmental appropriateness as advantages of cash. World Volunteer Web has a good explanation too, breaking down the myths about post-disaster aid.

Usually people end these kinds of articles with links to the three or so places who will take your old clothes and possessions for international donation. I am not going to do it. Don’t waste everyone’s effort that way. Give your old stuff to Goodwill, the Salvation Army, or St. Vincent de Paul; they’ll make the best use of it. They’ll sell your things locally and use the money for their charitable purposes.

Giving stuff instead of money is easy for you, it’s cheaper for you, and it’s quick. It is not quick, easy, or affordable for the NGOs who are actually trying to help people.

If you want to help, give money.

[Picture of old clothes in Haiti from Flickr by Vanessa Bertozzi]

May 2008 – What’s the difference between relief and development?

Palestinian Refugees

Note: August is looking like a crazy and stressful month for me, with no time to blog here. To make sure no one gets bored and abandons me, I am going to re-run some of my favorite posts from the past.

May 2008 – What’s the difference between relief and development?

The simplest breakdown goes like this:

Humanitarian relief programs are focused on rapid start-up, and rapid impact. Implementers of humanitarian programs need to gear up as fast as possible, and start providing necessary assistance as fast as possible. Their primary focus is not building local capacity, sustainability, or monitoring and evaluation. Their primary focus is getting help to people in need. They end when the emergency ends. Relief can come from the outside, and it is a response to some kind of breakdown or disaster.

Development programs are focused on achieving long-term change of some kind, with the intent of improving people’s lives and the lives of their descendants. They involve rigorous planning and ongoing operational research. They are rooted in local capacity building, because they are aimed at change which continues after the project ends. Even if it has outside support, development in the end has to come from inside.

In practice, however, it’s not that simple. (it never is, is it?) Sometimes the emergency doesn’t end. Situations that look like short-term humanitarian emergencies can go on for years, or even decades. Somalia, for example, Afghanistan, or Sudan. Programs designed to provide immediate assistance become a way of life for people in crisis. It would be nice if those programs could be converted into development programs, but it’s very hard to turn a relief program into a development program. The skill sets for the staff are different, for one thing. Building latrines and building community capacity can be a long, long way apart. You can hire new staff, though, or retrain your people. The other hurdle – usually the big one – is that relief programs and development programs have different donors.

Relief programs are generally funded by private donations and specific government donors. The US government, for example, funds emergency relief through the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Relief. Development programs are far less popular with private donors, and they’re funded by a different set of government agencies. If you want to change the focus of your program, you have to get different different donors. Which mostly you can’t do. Donors don’t like to take over each other’s programs, you won’t be familiar with the new donor’s procedures and evaluation requirements, and development donors plan their financial priorities a long time in advance. They often won’t have money to pick up your newly transformed relief project.

Everyone’s perfect ideal for relief is to give aid that empowers the communities who receive it. Immediate assistance that also builds skills and improves quality of life for the long term. You could, for example, truck in water to a community struck by drought. Then you could dig wells and turn the wells over to local management. You could train a local engineering association or the Ministry of Water on well-digging and irrigation management and safe drinking water. We just need a funding structure that makes it happen.

Photo Credit: Castielli
Chosen because the Palestinian refugee camps are a classic example of emergency relief that has been going on far, far too long.

Dear Enough Project, refugee kids are people

(photo from Enough blog)

Updated on July 13 – Enough has issued an apology for this poorly handled distribution, and committed to doing better in the future. You can see their apology here. I was impressed; it was like a case study in how to take criticism with grace.


The Enough project works in advocacy against genocide, particularly on Darfur. All well and good. I don’t know much about the intricacies of Darfur, or the intricacies of advocacy. I know some people think Enough is too heavy on the celebrities, and others think they do good work. That’s not what this post is about.

This post is about the idiotic, dehumanizing, tacky stunt they pulled in a refugee camp in Eastern Chad. They brought a limited number of New York Knicks jerseys on a visit to the camp, and made the kids fight for them. You don’t believe me? I will quote the blog:

“(We) separated the children into groups based on which blocks in the camp they lived. Then we began to hand the jerseys out as evenly as possible. The scramble began, and within minutes the jerseys were devoured. Though we informed them that we had no more to give, the children still scrambled up to us to peer into the empty bag to ensure a jersey had not escaped our notice.”

Okay, not fight – scramble. And note the dehumanizing language – devoured – like the kids are starving animals. This makes me mad. Refugee children are human beings with human dignity who should be treated as such. Enough just came and taught the kids that there isn’t enough for everyone and the good stuff goes to the strong and fast.

Now you ask – what would I have wanted them to do? Well, first of all, I would posit that there is no reason to bring New York Knicks jerseys to a refugee camp except to feel good about yourself. If you are determined to bring the jerseys I still have three suggestions:

  • Bring enough jerseys for all the kids (a lesson many of us learned in kindergarten)
  • Give the jerseys to schools to use as prizes or rewards for high-performing students
  • Use a transparent lottery system to select parents to be given jerseys for their kids

All of these would take more time and effort than just carrying basketball jerseys to a refugee camp and throwing them at kids. It’s worth it.

At this point, I would like Enough to make sure this doesn’t happen again. I’d like them to develop guidelines on appropriate donations and methods of donations for visitors to camps. They should refuse to visit camps with any group or individual who does not follow those guidelines. And they should publish those guidelines on their blog for public review and comment.

PS – If you don’t want my advice on how to handle a distribution to refugee children, may I recommend the Sphere standards?

I’d appreciate it if anyone who reads this post would go over to the Enough post, tell them what you think of this dumb stunt, and leave a link to this post.

Last note: Before you post a comment telling me that Enough means well and we shouldn’t criticize them, read this post.

Relief and Development, Part Two

Adrienne had some great questions in the comments on my last post; I thought they deserved a longer response than another comment would permit.

1) What happens when a relief agency realizes that the emergency isn’t over, but leaves anyway? (And a sub-question – why do they do this? Is it only about the funding?)

It’s almost always about the funding. NGOs that respond to emergency needs are dependent on individual donations and government funding. They do not tend to have endowments or any other financial capacity to fund long-running programs without outside support. Therefore, when UNHCR or OFDA decides to stop supporting their programs in Kashmir or Lira, if they can’t fundraise to keep those programs going, they have no choice but to close up shop and depart. And fundraising for long-running humanitarian emergencies is very difficult – these situations are no longer in the news and they trigger donor fatigue because they begin to seem hopeless.

There are also a few NGOs, such as Doctors without Borders (Medecins sans Frontieres), who have very strict criteria for what constitutes an emergency. They may leave very quickly, because they see their role in the response as over.

I can tell you from the inside that having to close an office where you know there is need is horrible. It’s heartbreaking, and makes you feel like you have failed everyone who depends on you. Closing an office feels like death, and not unreasonably so.

2) How many organizations claim to be in development, but are really just providing relief? (This one in particular bothers me.)

This is a tricky question. Development and relief are not a binary system, or even a continuum. They’re…more of a pie chart. And how much capacity building do you have to do before it counts as development? Also, when you say “Claim to be in development” – do you mean in an analysis of their overall portfolio of programs or the makeup of each individual program? I don’t think anyone is setting out to deceive, but every program is heavily dependent on donor intent.

There are some capacity-building things that every relief program should do. Hire your staff from your target population. Contract out everything locally that you can. Never provide direct services if you can train or support someone in-country to do so instead. Give the communities you partner with a voice in your programs – ask them to evaluate if you are succeeding. Professional organizations do these things, so nearly all provide some level of development assistance.

3) How can relief truly help? If, like you say, relief should “give aid that empowers the communities who receive it,” then shouldn’t relief be kind of like mini-development?

The problem with doing relief as proto-development is the timeframe. In Burma, for example, people need clean drinking water, anti-cholera drugs, emergency food relief, and places to live. We can truck in water, hand out drugs to clinics, and distribute rice and tents very fast (or, we could if there was access) and the faster we do it, the more lives we save. If we train people to build sturdy, sustainable houses and then sell them at an affordable price to people whose houses were destroyed, a lot of people are going to suffer, or die, while they wait for those houses to be built.

In my opinion, there are two powerful cases for pure relief activities, when they truly help. The first is in situations where functional, prosperous communities are damaged by unexpected events. Relief can then sustain life and restore livelihoods so that communities can return to their pre-disaster quality of life. The second is to keep everyone fed, clothed, and housed until the development projects can begin.