This slogan, which translates roughly into "Down with used foreign goods!" has been scrawled on walls all over Delmas since shortly after the earthquake. It makes a good point. For years - and especially now, post-earthquake - people have been sending hand-me-downs to Haiti. While well-intended, the reality is that donated goods can actually hurt a place like Haiti more than they help.
[I would like to take a moment to add that there has been some appallingly crappy stuff being sent to Haiti, like expired medicine and rusty medical instruments. Our material resources committee has to sort through daily offers for donations (often from companies that must just want a tax deduction for donating things that they can't sell). 10,000 Crocs, anyone? The Haitians on our team poo-pooed that one. Just because "it's free and they're poor," doesn't mean that Haitians want whatever stuff we're trying to get rid of. Why do we think that Haitians would want things that we are not willing to use?] Sorry, just needed to get that out.
Following a disaster, material aid (which basically means non-food aid) is necessary and appropriate. In the urgent short-term, things like shelter, hygiene kits, kitchen kits, buckets, water filters, soap, medicine and medical care can quickly help meet people's basic needs. I firmly believe that these things have a made a huge difference in the quality of peoples' lives since the earthquake.
We need to be aware, though, that any influx of free stuff can have a long-term damaging affect on the local economy. I write this in part to respond to the many comments that have appeared on this blogpost since the earthquake. So many people have read it that if you google "Shoes for Haiti" it will come up on the first page. Even though I wrote the article in that post at the beginning of December, the earthquake hasn't changed the fact that many Haitians are trying to make a living as cobblers, as tailors, as farmers and by making jam, peanut butter and other value-added products. Many Haitian entrepreneurs and small business owners lost their businesses in the earthquake and are doubly screwed because many of the goods they are competing against are now available for free from NGOs or mission groups.
There is a tension that exists for many development organizations in balancing meeting people's urgent and immediate needs and in contributing to the creation of a sustainable, healthy Haitian economy in the long-term. We're at a crucial point in time in responding to the earthquake in which many organizations, international and Haitian alike, are phasing out their emergency response and looking at ways to create jobs and to provide people with capital or training to restart their businesses. No matter where they're from, most people would rather have a job or a business that allows them to feed their families and build their homes on their own than receive hand-outs.
If you want to help meet people's needs in Haiti, I would ask that you encourage your school, church group or family to think about these issues and consider donating money to an organization that is actively trying to do what will be best and most dignifying for Haitians in the long-run.
If you are part of an organization that is working in Haiti, please encourage your bosses and colleagues to think about these issues as well, and do all that is within your means to support the local economy. When aid agencies purchase services, food and other goods locally (ie. build a house using Haitian labor and supplies purchased in Haiti), this money generates taxable revenues for the Haitian government, creates business opportunities for Haitians, and restores livelihoods by creating jobs and supporting national agricultural production. This approach has the potential to have a more long-lasting impact than just about any short-term development project.