Making a Gift to Haiti That Matters

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
CCAI Co-founder

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.

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  1. Eric M. Jones says:

    Of course, alleviating the suffering is the first duty. But then what?

    It is easy for me to believe that there are no good solution to some problems. This may seem a radical position.

    But if one could wave a magic wand and change the lot of Haiti–what would this change be? Certainly changing things to the way they were–the way they ever were–would be pointless.

    How about just putting the UN in charge of failed states?

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  2. John B. Chilton says:

    It bears emphasizing that situations like post-earthquake are ripe for child trafficking. The government has become vigilant about this, perhaps over vigilant.

    But wonders where some aid groups are breaking rules because they believe it is right to violate the decisions of the elected Haitian government.

    10 Baptists from the US just found out what the Haitians think:

    http://www.ajc.com/news/nation-world/haiti-arrested-baptists-may-287897.html

    Quoting: The Baptists from Idaho were waiting Monday to hear if they will be tried on child trafficking charges for attempting to take 33 Haitian children to the Dominican Republic without official authorization. Guards waved off reporters who tried to enter to meet them.

    Child welfare groups expressed outrage over Friday’s attempt, saying some of the children had parents who survived the Jan. 12 earthquake. Prime Minister Max Bellerive denounced the group’s “illegal trafficking of children” in a country long afflicted by the scourge and by foreign meddling.

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  3. avirr says:

    I think that as long as the private jet didn’t interfere with more critical organized work, getting food aid to the orphanage was a great idea.

    But overseas adoptions in general are problematic. Child “trafficking” does not just mean buying children as factory or sex workers. It also means swooping in, taking a child out of their culture, pulling them away to a very different place, and expecting them to be happy.

    Many kids in orphanages have family, even living parents, who can’t take care of the kids for a while. That’s why the documentation is so important. Not just useless paperwork!

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  4. AaronS says:

    I would also propose giving to OPERATION COMPASSION. If I understand correctly, 100% of your gift goes to the need at hand.

    Since this is a church organization, it empowers them to send food AND volunteers to help. One of my friends has already returned from Haiti after going to help one of our denomination’s orphanages that has suffered damage, along with other people in need.

    One thing I heard, over and over, was the need for a portable X-ray machine. Right now, doctors cannot do much but guess what’s wrong.

    Also, OPERATION COMPASSION was listed by Forbes as one of the most efficient charities on earth.

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  5. Alex says:

    i wonder if this truck parked and unloading outside the orphanage wouldn’t make it a target for possible hijackers?! the worst is to imagine some vile people who may well have enough for themselves seeking to profit, making a market of stolen goods, taking everything out of desperate people. Security is fundamental to enforce equal opportunities and to reach those who need the most.

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  6. Grant says:

    Steven, thank you for weighing in on the Haiti front.

    Your sense of reason and observation, your “human capital” in its unique form, are desperately what is needed in regards to Haiti.

    Our organization knows those similar revelations of simple ingenuity, soft innovations, if you will. Thank you for sharing.

    Without the many acts of individuals and organizations like Josh and Lily’s moving as quickly as they did, the loss would be even more extreme.

    To answer Mr. Eric Jones, as the phase of alleviating immediate suffering completes, groups must answer your question; now what?

    Though the answers would vary depending on the groups answering them, their missions, and/or the resources available to them, I believe that all forward-thinking organizations would recognize this event as the best opportunity to create holistic, systemic improvements.

    With the population of Port-au-Prince returning to other cities and farming areas, the governmental bodies facing complete physical reconstruction, and the international influence causing all sorts of pressures for ideological reconstruction, I would say that this is the pivotal moment for visionary Haitians and Haitian humanitarian workers to take the charge.

    Possibly a new Charter of a Visionary, Healed Haiti would help guide the way, provided key local and international leaders would be involved to keep the destabilizing factions from continuing to wreak havoc.

    Or, we could just wait like everyone else for this particular news item to fall off the front pages and return to life as usual: keeping the Haitian problems out of sight, out of mind.

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  7. Anon says:

    With all of the reports of the Haiti airport turning away aircraft because it is overcrowded, it’s my guess that this act of “good will” actually caused more harm than good. Because this private jet landed, a US Army c-130 carrying 40 times more goods could not land. Congratulations. I believe this is called opportunity cost.

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  8. ej13 says:

    Monetary donations are obviously extremely valuable to the Haiti relief movement, but there really is something special about offering your own time and services. If we all just dumped money into Haiti, what would the devastated people do with it? They need the doctors and “good will” driven people to put the money to use and find those who haven’t yet been helped.
    ….as for the crowded airports, if the private jet wasn’t turned away then it must not have been too crowded at the time….and a 2 hour stay at the airport seems like a pretty efficient and meaningful visit to me.

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