After a tragedy like the earthquake in Haiti, many people are moved to make financial contributions. For some people, as my friend and colleague John List‘s work has made clear, it is simply the “warm glow” that one feels from giving, or a sense of duty borne out of social pressure, that drives giving. For others, actually making a difference in the lives of Haitians is paramount – the impact of the contribution matters.
Given the chaos that comes with disasters of this proportion, especially in a country that has little remaining infrastructure, it is easy to believe that much of the aid that goes to Haiti will not be administered very efficiently. The need is so great, however, that one might nonetheless feel that the marginal benefit of the aid far exceeds the marginal cost.
As is so often the case, one of the scarcest resources in this setting is what economists call “human capital,” by which I mean people with the skills and knowledge to solve the problem at hand. It is “easy” to write a check for $10,000 to a charity; it is much, much harder for the charity to get the goods that money can purchase into the hands of the needy.
What follows is an example of how generous contributions combined with human capital can have a real impact in a crisis. It is an email we received on January 20th from the founders of Chinese Children Adoption International (CCAI), unlikely heroes in the Haitian disaster. The married couple who founded CCAI, Josh and Lily, have always inspired me. They helped us adopt our two daughters from China. There was little question they cared deeply about the lives of these children. After the Chinese government slowed down the pace of international adoptions, they started working with a Haitian orphanage as well.
Here is what they wrote:
We landed at Port-au-Prince International Airport at 13:59 pm yesterday and hand delivered your contributions to the orphanage staff and volunteers in the form of water, formula, medicine, food, and $10,000.00 cash.
Maison des Enfants de Dieu, an orphanage that has been caring for about 130 kids, was badly damaged by the powerful earthquake that hit the poor Caribbean nation last on January 12, 2010. Although no children were severely hurt, their dorms were devastated beyond repair. The older children have been living under five tents and the babies are being cared for in the trunk of a big truck. Fox News and CNN managed to reach the orphanage three days after the quake, but their reports of the terrible conditions did not lead to the immediate and adequate aid of food and water that they desperately needed.
On 1/17 at 18:24, Patrick, an American missionary from Denver sent us an urgent message, pleading, “We need water, food, medicine, and charcoal quickly!!!”
We immediately contacted one of our long time supporters who had offered their family private jet for emergency use the day before. They wholeheartedly supported our request to use their plane to send supplies to the orphanage. We spent the next five hours storming several Wal-Marts and Walgreens purchasing formula, medicine, food, water, and charcoal. At 5:30 am, over 2000 pounds of supplies were loaded onto the jet and the plane took off at 6:33 am Denver time.
Five and half hours later, at 13:59 pm, we successfully landed at the war-zone like Port-au-Prince International Airport in the midst of many dozen landing and taking-off aid aircrafts and helicopters from around the world.
We were totally surprised as soon as we opened the gate. Five orphanage staff and volunteers including Patrick and his wife, Kim, were right there, ready and waiting with a SUV and a truck! We had no idea how in the world they were able to drive and park right by our plane.
We have never in my life seen people so excited, so thankful and tearful, nor who hugged so hard!
We unloaded the supplies as quick as we could and covered the truck with tarps. We offered them an advise we received prior to our departure from another pilot who has been transporting aid to Haiti the day before: Cover the supplies with tarps and let a couple of guys lie on top of it pretending dead so supplies will not be high-jacked on the way back to the orphanage.
At 16:00 pm, we left the airport with seven completely exhausted American and Belgium doctors who had been working in Haiti non-stop for over three days! A free ride in a fancy private jet could provide a little physical and emotional comfort to these heroes.
A huge thank-you to all of you unsung heroes who took action to care and to love. Thank you for entrusting us with your loving donations.
Please visit www.haitiadoption.org to view our Haiti trip photos.
For The Haitian Children,
Josh and Lily
The most striking part of that letter to me is the need for people to play dead on top of the truck, so that would-be hijackers believed their only cargo was corpses. It is amazing to think that all of this money and hard work might have never reached the orphanage if that one little piece of ingenuity had been missing.