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Jessica Simpson’s Shoes ≠ Relief for Haiti

January 27, 2010

Photo: Mark Rosenberg, Partners in Health

Relief efforts for Haiti are gathering momentum, while the suffering rages on. Though celebrities want to help, and often can more than the rest of us, they don’t always have the beat on the street.

Take, for example, this headline: “Jessica Simpson Gathers Shoes for Haiti Relief.”

It made me laugh out loud, having just read a very sensible and insightful post by Blood and Milk’s Alana Shaikh entitled, “Nobody wants your old shoes: how not to help Haiti.”

Popular hipster shoe proprietor Tom’s is also, of course, on the shoe bandwagon.  How many shoes will people need exactly?

It’s not that shoes are never helpful, but Shaikh’s point, and it’s a good one, is don’t get too creative with your attempts to aid relief. Just send money, or wait for the cue from people on the ground and in the know.  If you don’t believe me, this New York Times article is chock full of sad stories about useless donations.

While it’s great that disasters like Haiti often bring self-absorbed celebrities (and everyday people) out of the woodwork and into the philanthropy world, we should all be residing in that world more often. I often think about Peter Singer’s provocative piece on poverty, which cajoles us into at least facing the fact that we often don’t want to give to others, though we should.

However when we do, the results can be uplifting. The recent Haiti telethon raised an amazing $60 million.  Yet it’s true that celebrities get much more in return for their donations than the rest of us. While Jennifer Aniston pledge $500,000 to three organizations on-the-ground, publishing that bit of news is worth more to her career than that half a mill might be to the people of Haiti.

I know it’s just the way our celebrity-crazed society works, but it’s a bit discomfiting to realize that while celebrities’ millions ARE going to bolster critical relief efforts in Haiti, most would not be so generous if their names were anonymous, or they had to wear a bag over their head while answering phones at a telethon.

As Kevin Nealon, former “Saturday Night Live” cast member, Tweeted (safe to assume sarcastically), “My agent really dropped the ball by not getting me exposure answering phones at the Haiti telethon.” Exactly.

It’s no wonder that Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian economist and author of Dead Aid,   rails against Bono and other “good willed” celebrities enmeshed in what she calls, “glamour aid.” Though her argument won her the unhappy title the, “anti-Bono,” girl’s got a point.

Sometimes the hoopla is not helpful.

We should care less about the who’s who of donors and more about the money that’s actually flowing in. Or goods. And whether those goods, like one million shoes, are even wanted.

The torrent of celebrity around Haiti relief efforts is also clouding an opportunity to take a long, hard look at the troubled history of US-Haiti relations. As GAB Editor Elizabeth pointed out, Haiti is bad now but it was also bad before, except no one really paid attention.

Nonetheless, some are still waiting for relief. Partners in Health is a great organization to support, which lives and breathes Haiti. As Shaikh sensibly reminds us, if you want to donate goods because you’re afraid your money won’t be well spent, well why are you donating to an organization you don’t trust?

Do your homework and give generously within your means.

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