Re-thinking shoes for Haiti this Christmas
There's a cobbler at the end of our street. Lukner Clernier sells beautiful handmade sandals for men, women and children for a little over $7.00. He has five children, two of whom help him cut out, glue and sew together soles and straps. Business has been pretty slow lately - Lukner tells me he has a fraction of the sales he had this time last year.
Part of my job as MCC's advocacy coordinator and educator in Haiti is to analyze how actions and policy in North America affect the lives of Haitians. In order to do that, I read a lot of newspaper articles that reference Haiti. Recently, an increase in the number of North American shoe drives, requests for shoes to shod Haiti's barefoot children, has been bothering me.
For Lukner’s sake, I am asking you not to send shoes to Haiti. Here's why: sending your used shoes (or, alternatively, new shoes mass-produced by cheap labor in a country like Haiti) makes it really hard for Haitians like Lukner to stay in business.
Although well intended, this kind of international assistance works a lot like food dumping. When subsidized agricultural goods produced in North America are “dumped” on overseas markets they disrupt local markets, depress crop prices, and discourage local food production. In this case, shoes are being sent to Haiti for free and Lukner can't begin to compete with free. Many donated shoes also end up being resold on the street at prices that, compared to the cost of Lukner’s materials and labor, may as well be free.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't be trying to put shoes on the feet of Haiti's barefoot children and I'm not trying to single anyone out for criticism. I know that the intentions behind shoe drives are loving and good and the children on the receiving end of these shoes are ecstatic to receive them. It’s just that when I talk to Lukner, I realize how desperately we need to rethink the way we do aid, not only on a macro level but on a personal, church and/or community level. When people send anything free to Haiti - shoes, blankets, soap - that Haitians are trying to produce for themselves, it doesn't address the deeper, structural reasons for the fact that many Haitians don't have shoes, blankets and soap. What it does do is constantly put Haiti on the receiving end of our leftovers and cheaply produced goods. Instead, let's encourage entrepreneurial and visionary Haitians like Lukner who in turn will reinvest the profit from his business into his local economy.
Especially now at Christmastime, if you're thinking about ways to give shoes to children in Haiti, I challenge you to go about it in a new way: raise money, get in touch with someone here that can order locally-made shoes from a Haitian cobbler with a business to run and a family to feed and know that you'll be making a creative and sustainable difference in someone’s life.
Alexis Erkert Depp is the Advocacy Coordinator for MCC Haiti and is based in Port-Au-Prince.