2.10.2012

You Can't Throw T-Shirts at the Problem

I'm glad the Chicago Bears were Super Bowl winners
somewhere in the world - kinda. (Source: World Vision Blog)
There have been a lot of conversations the last week about World Vision's decision to donate the pre-printed merchandise with the Super Bowl's loosing team on it to various countries in Africa.

Let me preface this by saying that I am not meaning to bash World Vision's work or mission. They work in over 90 countries and I've seen them at work in Sierra Leone. I'm sure that most of what they do is good, and I know they have good intentions, but I merely want to point out some faults in their latest decision. 

Earlier in the week, World Vision announced that it would yet again accept gift-in-kind donations from the NFL with the Super Bowl's losing team on it. This means that 100,000 t-shirts, hats, and foam fingers sweaters will be shipped off to Africa (exact countries are unknown).

This all feeds into the larger argument about a little thing we call SWEDOW (stuff we don't want). Many organizations, and not just World Vision, accept gift-in-kind donations of stuff that we don't want and ship them off to the developing world. 
Support local entrepreneurs!

I understand their intentions are good at heart, but if we want these countries to actually, well, develop, then inundating their local economies with SWEDOW is not the way to do it! By dumping our SWEDOW in say, Mbale, Uganda, then we detract from their local industries. Instead of supporting the growth of local entrepreneurs, people become dependent on Western SWEDOW, which doesn't develop, but actually (de)develops. If World Vision wanted to truly lift people out of poverty and encourage development, then they would support the local fabric makers instead of taking away their business by handing out Patriot merchandise.

Also, this whole dumping the West's unwanted items into the developing world sends the message that we need to 'clothe the unclothed and destitute masses'. Although I haven't found an organization that says it in words like that, the gift-in-kind donations (such as clothes) send that massage. In case anyone didn't know, Africans don't lack clothes and they sure as heck don't need our SWEDOW. They have local industries. They have clothes (and for those that don't wear them, it is normally a choice). MA over at Wanderlust explains it perfectly:
Those of us in this industry have been to enough poor countries to know that very few people genuinely lack t-shirts, and even if they do, there are probably a lot more things they’d rather you spend your time doing. Like spending the shipping and distribution funds of unwanted t-shirts on improving water and sanitation programs, or vaccinating children against childhood diseases- the sort of thing that actually kills kids. Last time I checked, the World Health Organization had no global figures on fatalities caused by lack of t-shirts.
(Wanderlust)
By publicizing gift-in-kind donations such as this, it perpetuates the false stereotype of those in the developing world that they are naked, destitute, helpless, and dependent on us and our SWEDOW. Believe me, they aren't. All this enforces the colonial mentality that we are 'saving (fill in the blank with a continent name)'. Sorry, but this thinking needs to stop. Instead, support local merchants and local industries!

All of this is part of an even larger problem of America's mass production. Why do we print 100,000+ t-shifts if we know that they will not be bought? To me, it seems like a waste of money that would be better spent stocking the food pantries in major U.S. cities. MA at Wanderlust again explains it far better than I:
Do you think you should instead be turning to the American public and saying to them, “How can you justify this sort of disgusting wastage on such a symbolic level- mass-producing something in the public eye that you know will be thrown away- when there are billions of people living in absolute poverty?” Couldn’t you use the Superbowl platform as a great opportunity, together with other like-minded organizations, to instead remind the American people to think about their consumption and waste habits as citizens in an increasingly interconnected global community, and remind them how privileged they are to enjoy such opulence?
I agree 100%. 

All in all, what I'm trying to get at is that there is a difference between good aid and bad aid - and unfortunately, I think this is an example of the bad kind. Again, I'm not trying to detract from the good that World Vision does, but I think that they, along with other organizations who accept gift-in-kind donations like this, need to seriously take a step back and do a cost-benefit analysis and rethink their approach to remedying global poverty. (I'm also trying to save one more poor African from suffering from an unfortunate fashion mishap, like the well-built man I saw in Sierra Leone proudly sporting a women's Curves t-shirt. Tisk-tisk). 

But, at least for this year and until World Vision rethinks its approach, some unclothed Africans will happily receive Super Bowl XLVI t-shirts, believe that the Patriots won, and will have missed the awesome performance by Madonna.

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