Sunday, April 18, 2010

"Aba blan pepe!"

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.


Matt said...

very well said.... you should send this as a "letter to the editor" or opinion piece to one of the major news magazines. JRD

Kim and Patrick Bentrott said...

I agree with Matt. This needs to be broadly read and considered.

Bravo, my friend.

The Jeltemas said...

I actually volunteered at a place that said anything we can't sell, put in that big box for Haiti. People made fun of stuff as they tossed it into the box...I couldn't believe my ears...and they are Christians..I started putting all kinds of the nicest things I could find in that box..
anyway check out this site
it's micro-loans for people all over the world. My husband and I have done this for a couple of groups in Haiti and have actually had some of the loans paying back. It's amazing!!

Marcia Erickson said...

Ben and Lexi...Thanks for articulating this so well. Blessings,
marcia erickson

Kristen {RAGE against the MINIVAN} said...

Very well said.

I remember reading an article about a swanky local gym collecting used yoga mats to send to Haiti. Used, sweaty yoga mats. Because we couldn't possibly send new ones. Or send money.

Also, your translation is generous. :)

Anonymous said...

Sorry to bother... but what is wrong with 10,000 crocs, especially if the shoes are new.

I don't undertand why the haitians would think new crocs (which are all weather shoes) are bad.

camilla said...

I thought the same thing about Crocs until I read the whole article, which explained that I JUST DIDN'T THINK ABOUT WHAT THAT DOES TO THE COBBLER IN HAITI WHO IS TRYING TO MAKE A LIVING. Sending 10,000 SHOES that you can get for FREE decreases the likelihood that he will be able to sell any shoes he's made, or decreases the chance that people will take their shoes to him to repair when they can get a new pair for free. Good intentions can hurt some Haitians in the long term.

Thanks for a well written honest piece.

Kenneth L. Kunkle said...

Great point that is not made often enough.

The same holds true (if not more so) for food donations. A massive influx of food aid may be necessary for the short term, but if the food economy of a nation is suddenly replaced by an influx of food grown in other parts of the world, the local farmers no longer can sell their product at a sustainable price.

Anonymous said...

Wow, my appologies for the non parishable food items that I donated at the request of the American Red Cross. My mistake. I'm sure the local food bank wouldn't have complained about it.

Next time you want to complain about 10,000 pairs of new Crocs, do yourself a favor and DON'T post a 170 photo PowerPoint show containing pictures of people, most of which, DON'T HAVE SHOES! Did you bother asking any of them if they needed them? I'm sure they would have greatly appreciated them. Your bit about putting the cobblers out of work is laughable. You must be really bad at math. 10,000 pairs of shoes to a nation of more than 9.8 millin is roughly 1/10 of 1%. I doubt that will put anyone out of work because 99.9% of the market still remains.

After reading your article, I will be much more careful of where I donate. It will go somewhere that it's needed and appreciated. It sickens me that someone would show such lack of respect to those who gave in some of the toughest times since the Great Depression.

Ben said...


Thank you for your comment and thank you, too, for the donations that you've made to Haiti. Although Alexis didn't discuss food aid in her post, food and other donated items like tarps and medical supplies have been greatly appreciated (and saved many lives) since the earthquake. We are not complaining about the appropriate donations that have been made. I would like to point out that it was the Haitians that we work with that refused the shipment of Crocs, in part because of some of the complexities of aid that Alexis addresses. It's true that some Haitians - especially in the countryside - could use a new pair of shoes (including many of those depicted in my photographs). However, the way we approach aid needs to be considered in terms of the long-term consequences that it can have on the local market. Most Haitians, like most Americans, would rather have a job and be able to buy themselves shoes than receive free shoes from us. This post was not intended as an insult to those who have generously donated items to Haiti (unless you sent rusty medical supplies), but rather as a thoughtful reminder that are long-term issues at stake.

Kaveh H. Azimi said...

Hahaha, read below!

chip said...

your blog was recently posted on urbanvelo's blog for the bicycle video. i happened to be skimming through the rest of yours and read this entry. i find it ironic since urbanvelo endorsed Chrome's "turds for gold" shoe exchange where people sent their old shoes to Chrome, and they in turn sent new ones to us. They received over 5000 pairs of shoes, a good percentage of which were donated to a charity in nashville that sent them to haiti. hmmmmm....

Anonymous said...

Even though I totally agree with your post, you didn't get the meaning of the actual sentence. "Aba pepe" would have normally lead to this article whereas "Aba Blan pepe" has a different meaning. Normally, "Aba blan" would mean no more foreigners. I am assuming that the association of the two will lead to the following understanding " no more fake foreigners". Seriously I can't tell you towards who it might be geared. I just wanted to point out the semantic difference!

Katie Jobczynski said...

I came across your blog through another, not quite sure, but this is an issue that I have been extensively researching this very issue in Haiti. In February I went on my second trip to Haiti. This trip was to Port au Prince, and it was 1 week long. Previously I went to Cap Haitian for 6 weeks. I was astonished by the differences in mannerisms between the two cities. In Port, people were more apt to walk up and ask for my things, earrings, camera, water bottle, etc. People we also vultures when the group came to passing out things, toys, shirts, candy, etc. I was deeply moved by God to research and observe what the "generosity" of the Americans are doing to the Haitians. I am thankful that I found these posts that give a view that I felt my eyes were being opened to in the 7 days I was there.

Restoring Haiti is all about showing Haitians what THEY are capable, not sending them our aid and cast offs. Yes, there are instances where aid is needed, like the woman who cannot take care of her children because she has been infected by HIV AIDS because her husband was unfaithful, or the girl who was raped, now has a child, and wants to learn how to support herself and child on her own. Creating consumerism, jobs, and opportunities will benefit these creative and intelligent people much more than extra tee shirts and old shoes ever will.

Thank you for shedding light on this issue and starting a conversation that I was scared to bring up.


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