Listening to CBC last week, I caught development economist Charles Kenny discussing his article in the November issue of Foreign Policy magazine. The title really says all you need to know: “Haiti Doesn’t Need Your Old T-shirt.” Neither, for that matter, does any country with its own apparel industry and developing economy. And they don’t need your surplus grain — or Pop-Tarts! — either.
Using the example of the thousands of shirts donated to World Vision after every Super Bowl by the NFL (it prints “Super Bowl Champions” shirts for both contenders in anticipation of post-game merchandising, then has to dump the losing team’s), Kenny argues that while such “gifts in kind” may be given “with all the right intentions,” they do more harm than good. (A common theme in “development,” no?)
How can gifts be harmful? Well, there are a few notable ways:
- Whether we’re talking t-shirts, teddy bears for kids in refugee camps, yoga mats for Haiti (WTF?), or panties for Sub-Saharan Africa, it would be much cheaper for a charity to buy these items locally, from local producers. As Kenny says, “When you buy that shirt in Africa rather than getting it in the United States, you help the local clothing industry.” Kenny admits that in some cases it’s hard to source needed items from local markets — e.g. tarpaulins in an emergency — but even in those cases the needed item should be purchased as close as possible to the site of the emergency.
- They may decrease donations of money, which are especially needed to provide assistance in the case of humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters. If you’ve already donated your old shoes (and feel good about yourself), well you’ve done your part, haven’t you? As Kenny says, “What they really need is money, frankly, and the ability to buy the goods and services that they are in a much better position to know that they need than we are.”
- Most importantly, people in “developing” countries do know what they need. As Kenny says, if you ask people what tops their list of priorities, “rarely would come back the answer, ‘You know, what we really need is an NFL t-shirt.’”
Even more nefarious than gifts in kind is food “aid.” The US Food Aid program, for example, dumps surplus crops — and sometimes, literally, Pop-Tarts — on recipient countries, a practice that has a huge impact on local farmers who must now compete with free food. American rice exports devastated Haiti’s own rice market.
We’re not advocating that you should not help people who are truly in need. We’re just asking that you consider and respect the needs — and dignity — of the intended recipients. The best way to do no harm with your best intentions is to ask people what they need. When we film with sustainable community initiatives, we ask how viewers can help. The Centre for Popular Education and Human Rights (CEPEHRG) in Accra, Ghana, for example, told us they need:
- Female sexual health stats/fliers/articles/literature
- Donations of female/male condoms, lubricant and dental dams
- Support for the provision of HIV testing kits (rapid response) — actual kits, money or contacts
- Support for local volunteer outreach and training — logistics, money or contacts
- Support for STI treatment, medical drugs for the Drop-in centre — medical drug donations, money or contacts
- General support for office activities
- Portable stereo with batteries for community outreach
- You can hold a CEPEHRG awareness event in your neighborhood!
Let’s deconstruct this list. The material goods — safe-sex materials, HIV testing kits, medicines, and the portable stereo — would ideally be sourced locally. Notice how many times money is listed. Notice the requests for information, contacts and general support. Most importantly, notice that CEPEHRG wants you to spread awareness of its community-based work.
Here’s another example. The Parkdale Tenants’ Association (PTA) in Toronto, Canada, asked us to invite you to:
- Encourage governments to adopt policies that help tenants secure safe and clean living conditions.
- If you live in Toronto, join the Parkdale Tenants Association’s building maintenance campaign.
The PTA’s wish list reminds us that we must speak out and get involved if we want to undermine the systems that cause poverty and injustice. “Giving” people stuff they don’t need or want won’t do anything towards eradicating either.
If you’d like to donate to or get involved with the community initiatives we’ve filmed with, find out what they need here. If you’d like to get involved with Good Evidence, see what we need here. Thank you!