Mon, Jan 25, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Note to world: What Haiti really needs is money

Boxes of high-heeled shoes, used toothbrushes and broken bicycles do nothing to help the afflicted in disaster zones. French TV dinners and baby formula aren’t that much better

By Stephanie Strom  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE, NEW YORK

Don’t send shoes, send money. Don’t send baby formula, send money. Don’t send old coats, send money.

Nonprofit groups rarely look a gift horse in the mouth, and the relief effort in Haiti is desperate for resources. The experience of wasteful giving in the past, however, coupled with the ease of speaking out via blogs, Facebook and Twitter, has led to an unprecedented effort to teach Americans what not to give.

One particularly influential blog is being written by Saundra Schimmelpfennig, an international aid expert who once worked for the Red Cross. Schimmelpfennig’s blog, Good Intentions Are Not Enough, is attracting more hits in a day than it used to get in a month, as everyone from the US State Department to the White House seeks information about giving.

The advice appears to be reaching a tipping point — former US president George W. Bush echoed the message when he joined US President Barack Obama and former US president Bill Clinton last week to announce a new venture for the Haitian relief effort.

“I know a lot of people want to send blankets or water,” Bush said. “Just send your cash.”

Every aid worker has a favorite story about useless donations. Raymond Offenheiser, the president of Oxfam America, the US branch of the British relief group, recalled being in Bangladesh after a cyclone had killed 200,000 people and watching local women trying to make sense out of French TV dinners — “complete with croissant,” he said — that required a microwave.

“There isn’t always a lot of thought that goes into these gifts,” Offenheiser said. “The impulse is just to do something, anything.”

Water is heavy and bulky, takes up precious cargo space and requires distribution. Better to back an organization working to get emergency water systems up and running, the experts say.

Blankets have many of the same issues, requiring getting them to port, clearing them through customs, distributing them and deciding who gets them — when other organizations on the ground may have plenty of blankets already.

Another widely circulated blog post, “No One Needs Your Old Shoes: How Not to Help in Haiti,” was written shortly after the earthquake by Alanna Shaikh, an international relief and development expert working in Tajikistan. It suggested giving money, not goods; going to volunteer only if you have medical expertise and are vetted by a reputable organization; and supporting the far less immediate task of rebuilding Haiti.

The comments on Aid Watch, a blog managed by the Development Research Institute at New York University, underscored her point. One person wrote about the bewilderment of survivors of Hurricane Mitch in Honduras upon opening a box of donated high-heeled shoes, while another tells of the arrival in Congo of boxes of used toothbrushes, expired over-the-counter drugs and broken bicycles.

“The Asian tsunami taught everyone a huge lesson because the problems with aid there got so much attention and saturated the media and the Internet and Facebook,” Shaikh said. “So I do think more people are aware that there is a right way and a wrong way to donate, but at the same time, there’s a certain level where people aren’t stopping to think, they just have an impulse to help.”

Shaikh gets particularly worked up about misguided donations of baby formula.

“A woman who is breast-­feeding is given a can of formula when clean water to mix it is unavailable and her baby needs the support of her immune system more than ever,” Shaikh said.

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