Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A response to an emailer who said we should not help

Editorial Time: This is in response to an email I received today from a professor at our university who felt that volunteers are not needed in Haiti.

While I can thank you for taking time out of your busy day to share you your insight, I must respectfully disagree on much of it.

Yes the UN is paying people. And yes the Haitian people desperately need jobs, but after those points I must largely disagree.

After almost every disaster to which have responded there has been some agency (FEMA, MEMA etc) paying locals to "help." For instance, in Galveston the rate was $18 an hour, in Enterprise $14 etc. In all of these cases this rate was well over the [predisaster] market clearing rate. But the problem is that the survivors are often too stressed to help, and do not have the time since they have family issues and injuries to care for on top of their normal day to day living.

So while I do agree that they need jobs, I respectfully disagree on the need for volunteers as well. The already weak system is overloaded. We would not be replacing, but working with Haitians thus speeding the process. Instead of living in a refugee camp or in crowded conditions with family, we will be speeding up the process.We will be getting them into homes sooner.

Also I suggest that you do not give the volunteers enough credit when you call them unskilled. While they are not professionals, some of them are quite skilled and will definitely help getting Haitians back into homes, or indeed in some cases into homes for the first time.

My largest disagreement however comes to the idea that the trips are "feel good" trips. This exact argument was made prior to the big-post Katrina trip by another SBU professor. Namely that it could be most cost effective to pay for people down there. He was wrong then, and I believe you will be proved wrong after our trip as well.

There are several problems with your interpretation. First, it is a static analysis. It assumes that the volunteers would donate the same amount regardless of whether they go or not. This is unlikely the case. As any psychology, marketing, and even behavioral finance study shows that once you let someone have "equity", that is take ownership, their behaviors change.

Let me put numbers to this. In our analysis of this particular trip, because no SBU endorsement has been forthcoming, we have assumed that no BonaResponds money will be allowed to be used to to help subsidize the cost ( in the past we have tried to pay about 20% of the cost for students since they are in the worst position to pay). So let's assume zero subsidy and a cost (a conservative figure) for airfare and food of $500. I would like to ask you how many people (let alone students with very limited incomes) will give that much to help? Which is to say we have expanded the pool of available funds (dynamic vs static analysis).

Additionally, just to let you know, BonaResponds is not funded by the university. We do not even get money from SGA. So any donation you make to SBU would not be going to pay for any of our trips. Indeed Sr. Margaret is so careful about this that a few years ago when demand for a trip was so high that we needed additional transportation and had gone over our proposed budget, I asked for $1500 of Univ funding, we were turned down.....

I have always maintained when a trip does not make economic sense, we should not do it. After each trip we document how much value we add to the process. I am very confident that at the end of the trip we will again have positive value added. I might add that as a finance professor I am heartened that others are considering the economics of the trip as well as the economics of how others donate their time and money. It is an encouraging sign.

But before we give over importance to the economics, we can not ignore the non pecuniary benefits. I can give you many many many names of those we have helped and I will bet with almost no exception, economics will be the last thing they talk about. They will tell you they had lost hope, they had given up, they felt no one cared. It is the one absolute I have experienced after every trip we have done from Biloxi to Buffalo, Gowanda to Greenville, Newton County (MO) to New Orleans.

Volunteers being there is important. It shows the Haitians that people care. Our going gives them hope.

As much as the work that our volunteers perform, merely being there gives the survivors a shot in the arm. It was that way after every disaster we have been to. The people say they were ready to give up, that the world had forgotten them. I kid you not that was even stated in Buffalo only 2 days after the storm. We change that. It is the most important thing we do. More than building. More than taking down. More than cleaning up. We will give confidence and hope. Confidence and hope that would be lost forever if we wait. I do not want to turn this into a mushy soap box, but I would be very surprised that our going would not safe lives.

That said, I should remind you that we will likely be going just as US citizens. And that under no circumstance is anyone "sending us". We are being called to go. I invite you to come with us and see for yourself the difference a volunteer can make.



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