Friday, March 5, 2010

Misguided Charity

Fully half of the items on my shopping list were not on the shelves when I went to the grocery store today.  They were out of split peas, 2-pound bags of black beans and rice, dark brown sugar, and trail mix.  After about the forth missing item, I thought 'this is ridiculous' and grabbed an assistant manager that was wandering around doing inventory.

It turned out that most of the items were missing because of some program where people fill buckets with food to send to Haiti.  The manager explained this and gave estimates of when the food would be restocked.  While some of them would be in tonight, the others were missing completely from the warehouse.

This is exactly the wrong way to do charity.  If you want to help people, you either give them money directly or hire specialists, like my friend, who know what they are doing, know what people really need, and know how to spend money so it does the most good.

Haiti has plenty of food at the moment.  There were systems in place to feed the country before the quake, these systems were not really disrupted, and there are now 200,000 less people to feed.  There is so much food being given away for free that the local food merchants are going out of business, which is making the economic situation even worse. 

Even if they did need food, this would be the wrong way to supply it.  It would be far cheaper and more efficient to give a charity money to buy and ship wholesale truckloads of food, rather than filtering the food through a retail establishment in South Carolina.

What the Haitians really need is shelter.  That means building materials, construction equipment, and people who know how to direct its use.  The actual labor can and should be supplied by the Haitians; they would love a chance to get an honest job building houses.  Charities also need vehicles to move stuff around.

But the sad fact is that, when giving charity, people care almost nothing for the actual needs of the recipients.  If they did, they would just give people money.  What people really seem to care about is their own emotions.  They want to feel like they are doing good, and pulling beans off a Wal-Mart shelf to put in a bucket apparently accomplishes that goal.

This kind of misdirected aid can actually be counterproductive.  The Haitians are asking for specific things, and we are failing to give them what they actually need.  We are giving them the things we think they should want.  This breeds resentment.  Haitians are real people, just like you and me, and they are just as good at figuring out when people are just feeding their own egos or buying bragging rights instead of really thinking about making a difference.  Probably even better, because they deal with that kind of thing a lot more.

Whenever possible, aid money should be spent in the country being helped.  This helps develop an independent economy, building a network of small businesses that serve their own people.  As things recover and people start exporting things and earning their own money, they can transition relatively easily to economic independence.  But shipping goods in destroys that.  There is no development of local capabilities, and the people will either remain forever dependent on aid or suffer when it is stopped.

1 comment:

Andrea said...

My fried Alice will be going down to Haiti for her second trip. Her requests were cotton underwear for the women in the hospital and small candies to calm the children after medical treatments, as well as other specific things. That is the best way to give. I know who will be giving it and it makes since.