Lessons from Haiti in response to famine in Africa

Q: Should I donate to the Red Cross for the African famine relief effort?

Hi Mr. Weber.

I just finished watching Poverty, Inc..  Very interesting and thought provoking!

I'm curious about your thoughts on the current famine in Africa (South Soudan, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria).  My simple understanding is that conflict/war and resulting destruction of agricultural land + displacement of people are among the main causes.

In this type of situation where the need it immediate and where the ability to produce food locally is significantly reduced, do you feel donations are appropriate? Does it help or hinder?

Not sure if this would impact your answer, but I was planning on donating to the Canadian Red Cross famine relief fund, esp since donations will be match by the Canadian government up until June 30th. 

Thanks in advance!


It is a difficult time for Africans in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen. Drought and war are threatening 20 million lives. Many Poverty, Inc. viewers are wondering, what is the right thing to do in this situation. There are no easy answers to such a tragedy. First, those who are putting their lives on the line to address it should be commended for their initiative; just as important, they should arm themselves with principles gleaned from the past.

Relief aid hindered the Haiti earthquake recovery

Take the Haitian earthquake as an example. In crisis situations like that, international support is absolutely necessary. It’s a human moral imperative. The question is how. As Etienne Gilson writes, “Piety is no substitute for technique.” Too often we are content to grade ourselves on a very lenient curve because we have good intentions. The debate becomes polarized between helping or not helping, as opposed to the moral judgment being contingent on how effective we are. Imagine a patient who just experienced a heart attack. The decision on how to treat is critically important, more important than simply whether or not we do treat the patient. Surgery could save the patient; it could also kill the patient. This is a decision that requires prudence. Doctors are trained to first attempt remedies that are least invasive to the body, and to use surgery, which is highly invasive, as a last resort. In development, we tend to do the opposite. 

In Haiti, one of the things that we don’t often think about is that the farms were not destroyed by the earthquake. Most of the food supply remained intact. Yes, many perishables in Port-au-Prince were destroyed due to lost power and collapsed buildings, but much of Haiti’s food supply sits fresh in open markets. It was the exchange of food for money that froze. This is a classic mistake. We think the problem that needs to be solved is food. In reality, the problem that needs to be solved is exchange. 

A farmer who made his or her living growing food then selling it at the market was devastated much less by the earthquake than by these two facts: 1) his or her customers couldn’t access enough cash to buy his product, 2) by the time cash began flowing again, the market had been flooded with food aid to the point that selling food for a profit was a futile endeavor. We think there was a food shortage after the earthquake; in reality, tons of Haitian food went to rot because the distribution mechanics of the market economy were suspended by the lost medium of exchange (cash) and then the aid only made it worse.

Unfortunately, thinking locally first runs counter to U.S. policy and law, which requires you to “buy American” when providing aid. The rationale being, if we’re going to spend taxpayer money helping people, we can do it in a way that provides a stimulus to our own economy and creates jobs. Remember, USAID is under the State Department, whose explicit priority is to advance American interests. Unfortunately, in many cases, this mentality ends up undermining the supposed goal of “aiding” people. 

In Africa, source regionally and ensure recovery

There's much to learn from the Haiti earthquake recovery. In principle, in a severe crisis when a country's ability to produce enough food to sustain life, yes there are appropriate food relief measures that can be taken. Still, efforts must be made to work through local organizations and source food from the region as much as possible rather than one shipping food from Europe or the United States. The key is to ensure that the relief effort doesn't inhibit the ability of the country to recover from the crisis, as it happened in Haiti.