Last week, I dropped by Sterling Memorial Library to return a Borrow Direct book. As I walked up to the circulation desk, I noticed a large cardboard box. Inside were two pairs of shoes, neatly packed in a plastic bag. Supported by the Yale Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Yale African American Affinity Group, Asian Network at Yale, Yale Latino Networking Group and the Yale Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Affinity Group, the national aid organization Soles4Souls hopes to give one million shoes to “aid in the recovery and rebuilding process” in Haiti.
If you read anything in this column, please read this: Do not donate your shoes to Haiti. If you can, donate money.
Haiti has been hit with the worst natural disaster in its history. It’s estimated that more people have died in this catastrophic event than in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. At least 230,000 people have died — that’s one of every 40 Haitians. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, the damage is estimated to be between 104 and 117 percent of Haiti’s economic output. Compare this to the tsunami damage in 2004, which equaled 2 percent of Indonesia’s economy. The need of the Haitian people cannot be overstated.
However, there are right and wrong ways to go about helping Haiti. David Roodman of the Center for Global Development, in an article about Haiti, highlighted one of the many problems with aid efforts: that many go awry because the giver decides what the receiver needs (by the way, Roodman doesn’t support giving shoes).
To give some context, let’s look at the transport infrastructure in Haiti. The main port in the capital, Port-au-Prince, just reopened last Tuesday — more than a month after the quake — after sustaining heavy damage to the docks and cranes. Planes have been delayed for hours at the international airport. The Brazilian-led United Nations peacekeepers in Haiti are working hard to clear the roads to ensure that supplies can be moved around the country. But when essential goods such as food and medicine is having a hard time getting into Haiti, what place should shoes have in the queue?
The Haitians have been clear with their needs. President Rene Preval announced Wednesday that priority should be with finding shelter for the one million people displaced by the earthquake. Preval also has said that it may take up to three years to clear the rubble. There was no mention of shoes.
USAID has too tried to give guidance to Americans looking to donate, compiling a list of in-kind donations that are needed by Haitians on their Web site. Shoes are not on it.
Those on the ground give a more vivid account. On Jan. 29, a development worker who has now been in Haiti for more than a month wrote on her blog Talesfromthehood, “I’ve lost track of the number of street sellers I’ve seen in the past two days with rows and rows of brand-spanking-new Nike, Adidas and Converse sneakers for sale along the streets of Port au Prince. True, they might be fake. But they’re still shoes.” She attached a photo of a Haitian woman carrying a tub full of shoes on her head to her blog post.
International development expert Alanna Shaikh lists some more reasons why in-kind donations may be bad ideas on the development economist Bill Easterly’s blog, Aid Watch: “The shoes could end up wasted and useless, absorbing people’s donations without providing any benefit. They could clog supply lines that also bring in desperately needed medicines. They could keep the local shoe suppliers from rebounding after the earthquake, and if badly chosen for the Haitian climate they can give people disgusting fungus.”
I have been impressed with the outpouring of sympathy and support for Haiti on this campus. The activism and devotion of Yalies to helping solve the world’s most intractable problems cannot be denied. However, those interested in helping Haiti should better educate themselves about Haiti’s situation; they should actively seek out the best ways to help Haiti. It is sad that misguided efforts like Sole4Souls can command this much support and attention. And the institutional support that Sole4Souls has at Yale is sadder still.
I donated money to Haiti in January after the earthquake. Because everyone — from President Preval, to the U.N., Brazil and the U.S. — is saying that the reconstruction efforts will take years, I will donate again. I will not donate my gym shoes.
Jerry Wei is a senior in Davenport College.