I just discovered Hand in Hand, a soap company. I love handmade soaps, especially the ones made with natural ingredients that don’t give me sneezing fits, and the local company I used to buy from seems to have gone out of business. I was hopeful about Hand in Hand – their soap looks really nice, and they use natural and fair trade ingredients. So far so good.
Then I saw link to “buy a bar, give a bar.” Oh boy. I steeled myself, clicked on it, and guess what: if you buy a bar of their soap, they ship off a bar of soap to an orphanage in Haiti – “to help save a child’s life.”
Unfortunately, this marketing tactic (because that’s what it is) didn’t do it for me. It has, in fact, completely dissuaded me from buying their soap.
There are several things I dislike about the project – one of them is the lack of disclosure on things like needs assessments and monitoring and evaluation. There are plenty of responsible-sounding claims on their website, but nothing concrete to back them up. They don’t even prove that they’ve donated one bar of soap for every bar purchased. It’s not responsible behaviour when one of your main selling points is the good work you’re doing.
These issues aside, the important point is that Hand in Hand probably isn’t helping. Here are the main reasons why I think sending bars of soap to orphans in Haiti is a bad idea.
1. The problem isn’t access to soap
In Haiti, nearly one in three people (31%) does not have regular access to clean water. That number rises to 49% in rural areas. And “clean” water doesn’t mean water that’s safe to drink – it just means water that’s not so contaminated that you can’t even wash in it. A bar of soap is useless if you don’t have water.
More importantly, a staggering 83% do not have access to even a decent pit latrine, let alone a flush toilet – 90% outside of the cities. Lack of toilets is the reason it’s so critical to wash your hands in the first place. It’s not pleasant to talk about, but it’s simple: if people don’t have a safe and clean place to poop, then they will go somewhere out in the open, and the poop will eventually find its way to peoples’ hands, into the water system, and into peoples’ mouths. It’s why diarrhoea kills millions of children every year, and it’s why diseases spread so rapidly in poor countries. Take it from the World Health Organisation.
Without proper toilets that prevent the spread of illness in the first place, and without clean water, a couple of bars of soap are pretty useless in stemming the tide of sanitation-related deaths.
2. They already have soap in Haiti
It may be hard to believe, but there are markets in Haiti where you can buy lots of stuff, including soap. And there are thousands of people in Haiti who make their livelihood from selling stuff in the market – including soap. It’s true! Here’s a photo someone took, to prove it!
The people who sell stuff in the shops and markets of Haiti, as in other developing countries, aren’t rich businessmen. Most of them are poor; they set up shop by the side of the road or in bustling public markets, making up part of the vast informal economy. Their customers are poor too, and they sell their goods at low prices that other poor people can afford. Giving out free stuff hurts these vendors – they can’t undercut “free.”
In a strange, roundabout way, it’s also possible that giving out free soap will actually help a few vendors. At 18$ for two bars, Hand in Hand is a luxury item even by Canadian standards. If the orphanages Hand in Hand donates soap to have any sense, they’ll sell the free luxury soap to market vendors to resell, and use to money to buy other important things. Like many, many bars of regular soap. Or maybe food. This is exactly what one blogger noticed happened with donated TOMS shoes in the very same country.
The point is, donating soap, especially expensive soap, isn’t the best way to get soap into the hands of orphanages. For every one bar of expensive soap you ship to Haiti, you could probably have bought ten bars of regular soap in the market, helping out a local business at the same time.
3. Giving people soap doesn’t mean they’ll wash their hands
This is the most important part. There are lots of reasons people might not wash their hands regularly. Lack of water and soap is one reason, but a more important one might be that they’re just not in the habit of doing it. Hand washing is a behaviour, and behaviour change is incredibly difficult to bring about.
I spent eight months in Zanzibar, Tanzania, where even the most modest roadside food stalls have hand washing facilities (even if it’s just a jug and some powder detergent). When you eat in someone’s home, the hostess comes out just before the meal with a pitcher of water she’s warmed up on the stove, a large bowl, and some soap, and goes to every guest in turn, pouring water so that they can wash their hands. It’s an important ritual in a country where people traditionally eat with their hands, but it’s just as important if you eat with a fork.
This isn’t the norm even in hygiene-obsessed Canada – how many dinner parties have you been to where all the guests line up to wash their hands before sitting down to dinner? When there was panic about the H1N1 flu, posters appeared in public bathrooms explaining how to properly wash your hands. How many people do you suppose were convinced to scrub for 20 seconds and turn off the tap with a paper towel? More importantly, how many of those who were convinced are still doing it now?
The point is, even if you’re a rational adult who fully understands the risks of a behaviour, the chances that you’ll change are slim. It’s why handing out free condoms can’t single-handedly stop AIDS and doling out free bednets hasn’t miraculously eliminated malaria. Simply giving away bars of soap won’t cause people to start washing their hands.
So what should Hand in Hand do instead?
It looks like Hand in Hand makes great soap. They’re obviously good at marketing, and they get a lot of things right – they use fair trade products, environmentally friendly packaging, and donate to environmental initiatives. This is all fantastic. But they should stop the “buy a bar, give a bar” campaign immediately.
Right now, for every bar of soap purchased, they’re effectively donating the manufacturing cost of one bar of soap plus shipping every time someone buys a bar of their soap. I have no idea how much money that represents – for the sake of argument, let’s call it $3.
Instead of the free soap, they could give the $3 directly to the orphanages, and let them decide how to spend the money. If they really need soap, they’ll use the money to buy from local vendors, and I’m guessing they’ll get way more than one bar for $3. They could also use the money in different ways, depending on their needs – maybe to buy more nutritious food, or to pay for vaccinations, or school uniforms.
Better yet, if Hand in Hand really wants to help reduce sanitation-related illnesses, they could give the $3 to an NGO that’s tackling water and sanitation problems. Oxfam, for example, set up gigantic “bladders” of clean water for people displaced by the devastating 2010 earthquake so that they could drink, cook, and wash. Now that’s something I’d donate $3 to.