Don’t give money to Haiti

By Felix Salmon
January 15, 2010
Twitter campaigns and the telethons and the corporate donations and therecord sums raised through text messages, you can be sure that an enormous amount of cash is going to end up being raised to help Haiti. This is not necessarily a good thing.

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Between the Twitter campaigns and the telethons and the corporate donations and the record sums raised through text messages, you can be sure that an enormous amount of cash is going to end up being raised to help Haiti. This is not necessarily a good thing.

For one thing, right now there’s very little that can be done with the money. There are myriad bottlenecks and obstacles involved in getting help to the Haitians who need it, but lack of funds is not one of them. For the next few weeks, help will come largely from governments, who are also spending hundreds of millions of dollars and mobilizing thousands of soldiers to the cause. But with the UN alone seeking to raise $550 million, it’s going to be easy to say that all the money donated to date isn’t remotely enough.

The problem is that Haiti, if it wasn’t a failed state before the earthquake, is almost certainly a failed state now — and one of the lessons we’ve learned from trying to rebuild failed states elsewhere in the world is that throwing money at the issue is very likely to backfire.

What’s more, charities raising money for Haiti right now are going to have to earmark that money to be spent in Haiti and in Haiti only. For a Haiti-specific charity like Yele, that’s not an option. But as The Smoking Gun shows, Yele is not the soundest of charitable institutions: it has managed only one tax filing in its 12-year existence, and it has a suspicious habit of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on paying either Wyclef Jean personally or paying companies where he’s a controlling shareholder, or paying his recording-studio expenses. If you want to be certain that your donation will be well spent, you might be a bit worried that, for instance, Yele is going to be receiving 20% of the proceeds of the telethon.

Meanwhile, none of the money from the telethon will go to the wholly admirable Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders, which has already received enough money over the past three days to keep its Haiti mission running for the best part of the next decade. MSF is behaving as ethically as it can, and has determined that the vast majority of the spike in donations that it’s received in the past few days was intended to be spent in Haiti. It will therefore earmark that money for Haiti, and try to spend it there over the coming years, even as other missions, elsewhere in the world, are still in desperate need of resources. Do give money to MSF, then, but if you do, make sure that your donation is unrestricted. The charity will do its very best in Haiti either way, but by allowing your money to be spent anywhere, you will help people in dire need all over the world, not just in Haiti. Here’s the message on MSF’s website:

We are incredibly grateful for the generous support from our donors for the emergency in Haiti.

MSF has been working in Haiti for 19 years, most recently operating three emergency hospitals in Port-au-Prince, and is mobilizing a large emergency response to this disaster. Our immediate response in the first hours following the disaster in Haiti was only possible because of private unrestricted donations from around the world received before the earthquake struck. We are currently reinforcing our teams on the ground in order to respond to the immediate medical needs and to assess the humanitarian needs that MSF will be addressing in the months ahead.

We are now asking our donors to give unrestricted funding, or to our Emergency Relief Fund. These types of funds ensure that our medical teams can react to the Haiti emergency and humanitarian crises all over the world, particularly neglected crises that remain outside the media spotlight.

The last time there was a disaster on this scale was the Asian tsunami, five years ago. And for all its best efforts, the Red Cross has still only spent 83% of its $3.21 billion tsunami budget — which means that it has over half a billion dollars left to spend. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s money which could be spent in Haiti, if it weren’t for the fact that it was earmarked.

It’s human nature to want to believe that in the wake of a major disaster, we can all do our bit to help just by giving generously. And if there’s a silver lining to these tragedies at all, it’s that they significantly increase the total amount of money donated to important charities by individuals around the world. But if a charity is worth supporting, then it’s worth supporting with unrestricted funds. Because the last thing anybody wants to see in a couple of years’ time is an unseemly tussle over what happened to today’s Haiti donations, even as other international tragedies receive much less public attention.

Update: Saundra Schimmelpfennig has a great list of what to do and what not to do when you’re making donations in the wake of a disaster; it includes, of course, that donations should be unrestricted. And the Philanthrocapitalists suggest that you “match fund what you have given to Haiti with a gift to someone suffering just as much, but less dramatically, elsewhere in the world”.

Update 2: Sophie Delaunay of MSF USA responds in the comments. And in case this blog entry isn’t clear, let me be explicit: DO give lots and lots of money to MSF’s Emergency Relief Fund. Give now, because the tragedy in Haiti is in the news and because you want to do something to help; MSF is there and is helping and is a great cause. And then continue to give in the future, because there are many other equally tragic situations elsewhere in the world, where MSF is doing just as great a job, but there isn’t the same degree of media coverage and there’s much less money flowing in. Earmarking your funds for Haiti in particular is not helpful. But that’s no reason to give nothing at all.

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