"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


some alternative ideas to donating t-shirts

Most of you have by now heard about the 1 Million Shirts for Africa project, of which several development bloggers became aware yesterday thanks to a Tweet from @jonvwest.

Others have already given commentary on the plan ranging from snarky to insightful (in that order):
Late yesterday, I got a Tweet from @gentlemandad, who actually talked with Jason Sadler, the guy behind the project. He said that Jason is open to better ideas, and Jason and I have exchanged emails. While I get the sense that he still wants the project to involve t-shirts, I'm going to offer a few that don't. This is because I just don't see the need for such an approach. There's no shortage of used clothing on the continent.

So, how else could Jason - who, I should note, is really mad at the aid blogging community about this - direct his well-intentioned efforts to help people?
  • How about raising funds and awareness for an established organization? One of the stated goals of the project is to help widows establish businesses selling these shirts. Rather than spending the enormous sums it will cost to send $1 million shirts to the continent, why not instead direct those funds to an organization that already provides small business loans to widows or victims of conflict or disease?
  • Where to do that? One organization I really like is Heal Africa in the D.R. Congo. They provide small business loans to foster families who are willing to take in orphaned children. The families use those loans to start businesses, which help with the expense of housing, clothing, and feeding an extra child. They then repay the loan and the money is used to help another foster family. This is a sustainable, well-thought-out project that meets a critical need in a culturally-appropriate way.
  • There are tons of other programs that undertake similar or related activities. Fundraising for Kiva or a reputable, country-based microfinance institution like Ethiopia's Amhara Credit and Savings Institution is another a great idea. Again, these organizations have long experience with providing loans to small-scale entrepreneurs who want to get a business started.
  • Why not help African textile manufacturers? @tmsruge (who is actually from Africa) suggested on Twitter the idea of buying 1 million shirts from African vendors to donate to children in need stateside. This would provide African workers with desparately-needed jobs, income, and stability, in both the manufacturing and the cotton-production sector while meeting a need here as well.
  • @AfriNomad suggested using the Hope Phones model, which collects used cell phones, sells them in the US market, and uses the money from those sales to buy new phones in local markets. Those phones go to local health workers in several developing countries. On average, each donated phone lets them buy three phones in the field. This is a great idea, and while I'm not sure it would work directly with t-shirts (there's not a huge demand for used t-shirts in the US market, either), there are creative ways to make t-shirts into other products that are in high demand here in the west. Maybe women in a poor community here in the states could make rugs, coasters, magazine racks, or baskets from old t-shirts, sell them, and use the profits partly to provide themselves with a steady income and partly to support women in Africa. There are tons of possibilities.
  • Could you auction off some of the most popular shirts from the I Wear Your Shirt project? Or convince celebrities to wear or sign them before auction? That would be a great way to raise a lot of money quickly, which could then be donated to a reputable charity.
  • Check out Saundra's post on questions you should ask before donating goods overseas. This is a helpful tool for evaluating the idea and for thinking about other alternatives.
  • Ask people what they need. Look for established charities doing something called "community-based needs assessments," in which they survey people in poor communities about their needs, wants, and hopes for the future. Partner with an organization that is doing these kinds of assessments. Find out what the community needs. In almost fifteen years of studying African communities, I've never heard of a community saying that clothing is its greatest need. Things like access to clean water, better sanitation, easier transportation options to markets and schools, and basic security are far higher priorities. Direct your efforts as a response to needs the intended recipients have directly expressed.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to help those in need. But when we're not experienced or familiar with the people we want to help, the biggest mistake many Americans make is assuming that we know what poor people on the other side of the world need. I've learned over time that we're usually wrong. Poor people know what they need, and what seems like a good idea to us many be completely inappropriate for the culture, climate, or community norms. Since bad aid can actually be worse than no aid at all, it's really important to get it right.

The good thing about this is that it's not that hard to figure out how to make a real, lasting difference in someone else's life. All you have to do is ask.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, I get that giving a million shirts might not work, because really—people can get by without shirts. What if he changed it to a million pairs of shoes instead?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010 11:10:00 PM

Blogger JOBitek said...

Thanks for the posting, TIA. Remember brassieres and boxers without borders? How about all the above for emotional trade? I get rid of my crap and feel better about other people using them. A million t-shirts to Africa would add to the already decimated cotton and clothing industries in Africa...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010 11:36:00 PM

Anonymous csocci said...

Thanks. Great post.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 12:12:00 AM

Blogger Nedra Weinreich said...

If the project must involve t-shirts, perhaps the can retain that piece of it but shift the geographic focus. There are plenty of people in the US who are homeless and need some new clean clothes, or who arrive at a domestic violence shelter with only the clothes on their backs. By having people donate t-shirts and other clothes to organizations in their own community, the monumental shipping costs are avoided, and needy people are still helped without putting other people out of business.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 2:47:00 AM

Blogger Matt Vielkind said...

Fantastic post! It would have been easy to just point out the problems with this campaign, but you actually provided alternatives that are a better use of resources, which is constructive. On his website he makes the connection between that to create new clothing would use a lot of water and that 1 in 8 people do not have access to clean water. I fail to understand what the connection is between donating clothing and increasing access to clean water for the world's poor. If he's so concerned about increasing access to clean water, why not raise money for an organization already working to do so?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 6:33:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Great suggestion, Nedra.

Matt, I felt the same confusion over the connection between access to clean drinking water and t-shirt production. Amanda's post (linked to above) talks about this a little.

Please leave other suggestions here in the comments - I'll add them to the post as the day goes on.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 7:54:00 AM

Anonymous Joe (@gentlemandad) said...

Not really an ideal solution, but I'd think he'd be better selling the donated t-shirts (either individually or in bulk to a wholesaler (who might well then ship them to Africa..)) and then using the money to invest in projects and/or buying local t-shirts. If it is really true that people will pay to send a t-shirt but not pay donate the value of the postage, then at least the value of the donations are secured without having to waste time/money organising the shipping across continents. As I said elsewhere, I think our friend is probably generally better just STFU given that this whole thing appears to be little more than a vanity project for him.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 8:09:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used to send second hand clothes to people in Africa. Not only is it very expensive - shipping, customs etc - but what looks good in cold weather northern hemisphere may look dull in sunny Africa. It would be far better to divide up the all the costs and give an amount of money to lots of people which they can spend locally. Even if you are poor you want to look as sharp as you can. It is better to let people make their own choices in the market. In one country I know a t-shirt would not be the first choice. A shirt with sleeves and a collar is smarter.

As for the African textile industry, I am no expert but I am told that the Chinese can produce most things more cheaply. Not sure about the answer to that.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 8:21:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jason's dog looks cute.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 2:06:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Onion saw this one coming in 2006.


Thursday, April 29, 2010 2:06:00 AM

Blogger Mary Hoyt said...

Thanks so much for the Heal Africa link - I've been looking for creative empowerment programs in the DRC to support! This is such a unique and creative program - empowering the people to care for their own orphans in a long-term self-sustaining way - I look forward to learning more about their work, and I love your blog! You must spend hours each day reading all the other blogs/resources and putting all these links together for us - what a gift!

Thursday, April 29, 2010 5:29:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Mary, I love, love, LOVE Heal Africa - please email me texasinafrica(AT)yahoo(DOT]com if you have any questions or need more info. They are a model of how to do community-based development with international support. They also do a lot of work with rape victims, helping them to develop skills and rebuild their lives. I am a big supporter.

Thursday, April 29, 2010 9:39:00 PM

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Wednesday, May 05, 2010 5:16:00 AM

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Friday, October 29, 2010 6:37:00 AM


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