Thursday, August 18, 2011

Better to Buy Local

A perfect example of when good intentions are not always enough, or, as a friend put it: good intentions + desire to help + lack of engagement with the people you decide to help = Church to send more than 20,000 jars of peanut butter to Haiti.

And, I quote: ""What we are hoping to do is send about 28,000 jars of peanut butter to Haiti. The children there just don't have a good source of protein. Peanut butter is a wonderful source..." says the church's associate minister, Mike Cohoon."

It's true that many children in Haiti are malnourished - in fact, according to UNICEF, up to half of child deaths in Haiti are caused by malnutrition. But, peanut butter? There is peanut butter produced in Haiti. I know a beautiful woman in the mountains above Port-au-Prince that struggles to support her family making the most delicious peanut butter, called mamba (sometimes spicy, sometimes sweet, with your choice of added ginger or sesame). Imagine what a boon it would be to peanut butter makers like her if the Landmark Christian Church in Lake Hallie would contract 28,000 jars locally. Imagine how much it undercuts the living she and others are trying to make when peanut butter is sent to Haiti by well-meaning but oblivious donors. We also know folks in Northern Haiti that work for Meds & Foods for Kids making medika mamba, a nutrient-enriched peanut butter designed specifically to treat malnutrition.

I wrote the following article in December 2009, not about peanut butter, but about shoes. Shoes are another popularly donated item that risk undercutting local entrepreneurs.

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.


In my mind, the same principles most definitely apply to peanut butter. If you're interested in delving deeper into this issue, Pooja Bhatia wrote a fantastic article last June, A Tremor for Haiti's Aid Industry, about the ways that outside organizations are threatening Haiti's production of medika mamba.


Rebecca said...

Thanks for writing the post I wasn't quite up to writing - when that news feed popped up on my google update all i could do was sigh - deeply. Kenbe fem. Nap sonje ou.

Alexis said...

See this great post from Corrigan Clay, too:

thomas said...

Thanks, I hope your post will have many readers. I linked it on facebook. I remember a conversation with a non-profit rep who didn't understand why our church wouldn't help send shoes to "poor children overseas." I told her that we rather use our money to support local shoe manufacturing; that way, it's not just a pair of shoes, but an investment. They continue to buy cheap shoes and dump them on markets all over the world.

nerkert said...

At the risk of sounding shallow, I've got to ask how it is that I didn't know about this peanut butter with ginger. Yum! Maybe you could help the woman set up an export business.

Anonymous said...

Applause. Applause from an NGO working in Haiti. (We still succumb to the pressure to send in "stuff" but are trying VERY hard to shift to the "buy local" manta.

Thanks for posting this.

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