Clothing: the unwanted necessity in earthquake ravaged Haiti

Volunteer boxes clothes donated for victims of the earthquake in Haiti at the Multi Ethnic Community Center Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010
As the global call goes out for clothing to be immediately shipped to earthquake ravaged Haiti, some international relief agencies are asking people to hold onto their clothes and instead send badly needed cash.

While sending clothing is certainly considered an act of good will by organizations such as the Red Cross and Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, according to some relief agency experts, clothing drives can actually compound the natural disaster.

Says Richard Muffley, spokesperson for the Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI), “We find that shipping clothing is not nearly as efficient or even convenient as making a cash donation because clothing is almost universally available.”

Nonetheless, as word rapidly spreads via the world-wide web for emergency food, medical and other supplies, retail chains from around the world are organizing an effort to send clothing to the near destroyed Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.

According to Carla Fattal, the director for Fashion Delivers, a charitable organization that organizes clothing relief efforts from designers, retail outlets and others, not only for clothing donations, but also bedding, “The need is so great that we are appealing to the industry to step forward…We expect to send several containers, and will continue sending until donations reach their destinations.”

Some of the varieties of clothing being sent include sneakers, sandals, and blue jeans that would normally be stored unused and unsold in cardboard boxes as “extra inventory.”

For all its benign intent, Fattal’s more than $1 million strong clothing efforts stand in the face of Tom Hazelwood’s no-clothing-for-the-needy philosophy. So says the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) representative, “Clothing is the worst gift that anybody could give…You get a whole bunch of stuff and they (clothing) all end up in the landfill somewhere because no one can sort them. Clothes are the second disaster of every major disaster.”

Why would something so essential as clothing be considered so disastrous?

Again, according to Hazelwood, clothing drives are labor intensive and costly. This cost in labor is then transferred to the already hurting disaster struck area. Adds Muffley, “We find that typically in disaster locations, there are still people who are marketing, who are selling, who have commodities and are wishing to sell it into the disaster need.”

But why buy the clothes you need from local vendors when they are being provided for free via charitable donations? Muffley concludes, “We would rather see cash flow into the local economy, flow through the clothing dealer, let him do his purchases and make it an element of the rebuilding process.”

And in a country as poor as Haiti, pumping badly needed cash into the local economy makes good financial sense. Pumping large amounts of cash into the local economy can also happen a lot quicker than shipping large, bulky, heavy containers of clothes. A cash stimulus is also essential for the rebuilding of an urban capital like Port-au-Prince. It would be a welcome windfall to those already struggling, uninsured, local merchants who’ve lost everything in the earthquake and who have no choice but to rebuild or starve.

With no argument being waged over the need for essentials like food, clean water, shelter and medical supplies for the survivors of the Haiti earthquake disaster, the debate over whether or not to send clothing will no doubt continue between those who would rather see money injected into the country and those who would rather find a good use for some unused fashions.

Vincent Zandri for RT