As I reflect on the fact that it has been a year since I felt my building tremble in Santo Domingo while Haiti experienced its worse tragedy in many decades, two things come to mind: 1) my first meal in Haiti and 2) the water truck in Port au Prince.
When I ventured to Haiti with a team from Fondation Avenir in the aftermath of the earthquake, we carried with us all sorts of provisions. We were concerned about the availability of food in Haiti. We packed dried mangoes, granola bars, canned mackerel, nuts, and a variety of other non-perishables for our personal consumption, along with bags of rice and beans and boxes of medicine for the Haitians who might need them.
A buffet lunch
Armed with a mini-van full of food, you can imagine my surprise when our first meal at a caf? in a middle class neighborhood of Port au Prince was a buffet. That’s right. For $15, you could fill your plate with all the rice, goat meat, chicken and vegetables you liked. My introduction to Haitian cuisine was delicious, but it made one thing clear: Haitians did not need planeloads of canned sardines, rice and beans. They needed access to cash. For those with cash, food was abundant in Port-au-Prince.
Water for sale
The second image that comes to mind is that of a water truck. In addition to foodstuffs, we had brought with us many gallons of drinking water. I purchased wet-wipes and alcohol-based hand cleaner, in case access to water became an issue for us. It did not. There was no running water in Port-au-Prince, but a truck filled with water came to fill up the water tank of the building where we were lodged. There were other water trucks on the streets of Port-au-Prince that sold five-gallon buckets of water for US$1 if you brought your own bucket.
When I saw the water truck, I recalled a scene from the Santo Domingo airport a few days prior. I watched a Spanish plane land on the tarmac whose cargo load was filled with 500 ml plastic bottles of water. What a tremendous waste of resources! Haitians did not need these plastic bottles to further pollute their land. They needed access to cash to purchase water from the water truck.
Cash, gourdes, dollars in short supply
I was fortunate that I carried some cash with me to Haiti, as cash was indeed in short supply. The bank ATMs were out of service. The tellers were unable to make international transactions. No one was accepting credit cards. Without cash, the buffet meal and the water truck would have been out of my reach.
Access to cash was one of the greatest obstacles to survival for many Haitians. Haitians formed long lines at Western Union to receive money transfers. They waited all day to purchase and activate cell phones so they could contact relatives abroad, let them know they were alive, and ask for cash.
Cash, gourdes, dollars, hard currency. This is what Haitians needed so they could survive. Instead, they got tons of rice, beans and sardines ? much of which remained stored at the airport due to distribution complications. Moreover, once Haitians got the dried food, they still needed cash to purchase water, oil, and fuel to cook a meal.
Cash would have been much easier to distribute and more effective. The World Bank has found that cash disbursements can be highly effective in the aftermath of a disaster. Despite their known efficacy, cash payouts were not common in Port-au-Prince in January 2010.
There are two principal reasons why in-kind donations are more common than cash, even though cash may be more effective. The first reason is that there may be a benefit to the donor to give in-kind donations. The dumping of surplus US rice on Haiti is a classic example of this. Post-disaster donations might work in a similar way, on a smaller scale. The second reason is that donors might feel better about giving in-kind donations as opposed to cash, as they can control the consequences of their giving, hoping to ensure the gift is used as the donor intended. Many people, for example, prefer to take canned food to a food drive than to give cash to beggars on the street.
Both of these potential reasons are highly problematic. I will not further explore them here. I simply will point out that, as we reflect on the response of the international community to this disaster, it is crucial to ask why so little direct cash assistance was sent to Haiti. Why didn’t we give Haitians cash so they could purchase their own food, water, and fuel?
TANYA GOLASH-BOZA is on the faculty at the University of Kansas. She blogs at: http://www.stopdeportationsnow.blogspot.com/