Thursday, January 14, 2010

Quilts for Haiti -- I don't think so

This morning somebody on a quilt/art email list wanted to know whether anybody was collecting quilts to send to Haiti. I couldn’t help but groan – here we go again!

Every time there's a disaster the knee-jerk reaction of many folks is to send stuff. Remember after Katrina people were loading trucks with bottled water and the old T-shirts straight off their own backs and god knows what all kinds of other stuff for New Orleans? We might also recall how most of those shipments did not reach actual victims, or at least not until much, much later. (Part of that was due to government incompetence, but part was due to the very nature of ad hoc relief.)

Quilters seem to take this knee-jerk reaction to another level -- sending not just stuff, but handmade stuff.

I think that in planning our response to disasters we need to make distinctions between things that are needed and things that are emotionally pleasing. Immediate needs are far better satisfied by relief organizations that can buy in bulk and have established distribution channels.

Just run down a fast mental checklist – Do they need warm bedding in Haiti (it’s a tropical climate)? If so, do they need quilts, as opposed to fleece blankets or other warmer, more durable coverings? If so, do thousands of people have a nice (but not too nice) quilt sitting around that they would be willing to put in the mail today? If so, can you imagine a more inefficient form of getting the quilts to actual people? Relief agencies who can buy blankets by the container-load can certainly provide ten or a hundred times more blankets for the money than we can individually, and get them there overnight.

In the later aftermath of disaster sometimes people benefit from the emotional payoffs of handmade stuff. For instance, it may be nice for a bereaved/bereft person to get warm vibes from a connection to the individual who made a quilt. It may be even nicer for a bereft person to get an individual gift that incorporates the victim's own story -- as, for instance, the souvenir quilts made of clothing from 9/11 victims, or Operation Kid Comfort, which makes quilts for children depicting their soldier-parents in Iraq or Afghanistan.

But more frequently, I suspect, the lovingly handmade and donated quilt is appreciated no more, and maybe less, than the mass-produced fleece blanket. I also suspect the major benefits of such gifts go to the givers, not the recipients.

I am too young to remember World War 2 but I have read how the famous collection drives where people donated their bacon fat and other household wastes "to the war effort" were actually shams -- they didn't need the bacon fat but the shared sacrifice and enhanced patriotism of such activities were good for people and good for the country. That's fine -- I think shared sacrifice is something the US needs a lot more of these days -- but don't you feel kind of lied-to and patronized by such approaches?

Anyhow, if you want to feel all warm and fuzzy right this minute, send money to an organization with a good reputation for disaster relief, a low percentage of donations diverted to overhead, and a presence on the ground in Haiti. I did that this morning via Lutheran World Relief and I feel fuzzier than if I went down to my studio to make a quilt.


  1. You're right about much of this, Kathy. When thinking about how I could help, I thought about what the Haiti victims need, need now, and how to get it to them fast. I chose Doctors without borders, who are there, treating the injured in makeshift hospitals. My few dollars might buy some bandages, antibiotics, or water purifying chemicals. A little analytical thinking could get us past the common response of making something, or giving hard goods. The intent is good, but the real need is to get help, on the ground, now. It does feel good to have done something, even something small. Perhaps later, it might be appropriate to offer a handmade something to a particular person. But for now, water, food, medicine, rescue people, and machinery to clear the way is what's needed. Prayers can help, too.

  2. To distribute goods, you need an infrastructure. Rebuilding one will be the first priority in Haiti once search and rescue/recovery operations have ended.

    Even in third world countries which have not experienced a specific disaster, it can be difficult to move goods to the people for whom they are intended. Graft, corruption and greed are pandemic. A secure supply line is critical, and that doesn't exist in Haiti now outside the military and experienced organizations.

    Another problem are people who want to "go help". If they don't arrive as totally self-sufficient units capable of coordinating with other groups, they're part of the problem, not the solution. Folks with the completely understandable and admirable impulses to help out might, for example, devote time and energy to fund-raising here in the States.

  3. Excellent post, excellent opinion !

  4. Money is good, but remember that "teaching" youngsters that they "can do" something, is also an important task, and accomplishment. The kind of thinking that you outline so well, is part of the "teaching" that is needed. Make sure that the quilts are practical. Lightweight denim, for instance, could be useful as a barrier on the ground. Allowing young people to participate in making very simple, and practical, quilts will hopefully foster a lifeskill of being willing, and able, to see other's needs as more pressing than one's own. Following through, by working with an organization that does have a track record with a viable infrastructure, is also part of the teaching. And, yes, as a parent, I also model the behavior of sending money.

    Sandra Howell

  5. oh well, I was part of a 24/7 quiltingbee where we produced 320 quilts that doctors without borders are bringing along to hand out to children in need. Sure we do know Haiti is a tropical climate, but if you have nothing to sleep on, wouldn't a quilt be nice ? A child that lost everything may really enjoy a colorful blanket with lots of pictures to look at, instead of a gray fleece blanket..............just my 2 cents. We had several school children coming in to sew with us, and it's nothing wrong wanting to give your time and work when you don't have money to spare................EvaLena

  6. Why is it that something as simple as wanting to make a quilt to comfort a child cause such an uproar. If you don't want to send a quilt don't. Send the money or whatever. But please do not try to tell people that what they are doing to try to help is in any way unneeded or unwanted. I quilt with a bunch that makes blankets year round for Project Linus. We have incorporated Haiti in to our efforts. Do what you think is best and so will we. Thanks Mary