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

2.13.2011

on world vision

I've thought long and hard about doing a post on the World Vision/NFL 100,000 t-shirts controversy. Quite frankly, I'm not sure what more there is to add to the discussion; Saundra has collected all the relevant posts here and they cover the major issues, which, as I see it are:
  • We know this is bad aid. We know that GIK gifts of items (like clothing) that are readily available in a country undermine local clothing markets, create dependence, and deprive poor people of work and the dignity work provides.
  • We know this is unnecessary aid. There aren't any places in the world where t-shirts are not available at a market price determined by the local economy and affordable to local consumers.
  • Both the NFL and World Vision get to claim benefits (the NFL for taxes, World Vision for its bottom line), look good in the public relations arena, and don't owe anyone an explanation of whether the t-shirts actually do anyone any good.
  • There is an opportunity cost associated with shipping 100,000 t-shirts to communities that don't need them and that have other serious development needs.
What makes this so frustrating, of course, is that World Vision knows all these things. Every one of them. I've heard from friends who work there this week. Some are defensive about the issue, others are pounding their heads against their cubicle/Land Rover walls. World Vision isn't 1 Million Shirts' Jason, who was trying international development work for the first time and showed a willingness to learn from his mistakes. They know better.

World Vision responded to many of these criticisms in a post late Friday. Their argument, as I understand it, is as follows:
  • We don't conduct these activities in isolation.
  • We only take targeted donations.
  • Our field offices want shirts.
  • We need the engagement of the American public.
  • Goods in Kind are not ipso facto bad aid.
I agree that all of the above propositions are true. There are lots of GIK that are quite good and necessary for sustainable development activities. Anti-retroviral drugs, technical items for constructing wells - any item that is not readily available in a developing country is a great donation that World Vision can and should use.

The problem lies not with the general idea of using GIK, but rather with this GIK. As we've discussed ad infinitum, ad nauseum, t-shirts are not in short supply anywhere. This is not even about undermining local manufacturers; WV has been very careful to note that they're handing out shirts in places that have textile manufacturers, but that's not the point. Someone in each of these areas sells clothing, and that someone will lose business as a result of WV's donation of these t-shirts. As an organization that claims to be in the business of sustainable development, WV is directly and clearly undermining its own goals, not to mention those of the donors who give in the expectation that their goods will contribute to poverty alleviation. There's no way around it.

As for the notion that local staff in WV request the goods, I find this to be an unconvincing argument. People want things that are not good for their communities all the time. Since the evidence on the negative impacts of t-shirt donations is so solid, why would World Vision not use this as an opportunity to educate local field staff about the issue?

There's another issue at stake here, and it's one that many aid workers are uncomfortable talking about: World Vision is a Christian organization. They market to Christians and fund many activities through a child sponsorship program that is marketed primarily through Protestant churches in the US. Their stated purpose:
World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.
It says something sad about our society's materialism and greed that we can't wait a few days for the NFL to print up accurate t-shirts while not wasting money on printing ones it knows will not be sold. But it says something even sadder when an organization that purports to be engaged in poverty alleviation with a faith-based motive won't tell the NFL "no" when it is asked to do something that actually contributes to the causes of poverty and injustice. It matters if theology motivates your behavior, and that should be reflected in decisions the organization makes about GIK.

World Vision, I think you can do better.

5 Comments:

OpenID Hiyamaya said...

I guess you need to keep writing these posts as long as organizations keep promoting sending 'stuff we don't need' as an aid model.

Your post brought up something that few others have mentioned on this issue, which is that t-shirt aid and other gift-in-kind distribution schemes are disproportionately promoted by christian organizations.

The groups that Jason of 1,000,000 shirts were working with were faith-based, many of individual clothing drives and other send bras/send shoes/send school supplies schemes are rooted in church-mission relationships. Then there are the larger gift-in-kind organizations like Soles4souls and Samaritan's Purse.

This is not to criticize all faith-based organizations, but I do think it is worth asking why, despite good standards more faith based organizations than others think it worth spending donors money to transport and distribute stuff that is donated.

As you say, World Vision is a big and professional organization and they know enough to do the calculation comparing A and B, the value of the item to beneficiaries, and the cost to get it to them.

Why have they come to such a different conclusion to most other (non-faith based) organizations? I wonder whether there is an implicit 'value C' which is to do with the value to their religious mission of the person-to-person connection involved in distributing personal items, and the everyday reminder of the gift and the giver? For proselytizing organizations like Samaritan's Purse this is a strong reason why they ship individually wrapped shoe boxes of personal items around the world. And even for non-proselytizing organizations like World Vision I wonder if it isn't an implicit consideration for their local church partners.

I hope that World Vision open and honest look at their GIK program, and take the opportunity to lead discussion and transparency amongst their peers w. This would perhaps be more powerful than any number of patient aid bloggers, in getting the message and discussion into the organizations that are doing most to promote SWEDOW.

Sunday, February 13, 2011 3:57:00 PM

 
Blogger texasinafrica said...

@Hiyamaya, I think that's a really important point. I thought for quite awhile about whether to even bring up WV's Christian affiliation, and am not sure I was entirely fair to them here, but this idea of needing a personal touch - there's something to it. Of course, we know that there are better ways to do that; I think Compassion International's model of child sponsorship, which encourages letter-writing between sponsor and child, is one example. If a Compassion sponsor wants to give a gift, he/she gives money, which a local staff person then uses to buy something the child's family needs in a local market.

I keep meaning to write a series of posts on the disconnect between faith and aid and faith-based and non-faith-based aid. You've given me good food for thought, thanks.

Sunday, February 13, 2011 6:51:00 PM

 
Blogger Jonathan Chan said...

I think another part of it might be the "we'll take what we can get" attitude that a lot of Christians find at their local church. The nursery is stocked with donated toys and supplies, the clothes closet is filled with used clothes, church dinners are pot-luck style, etc. The same goes for human resources, as many roles are filled by volunteers. It's pretty easy for us to not think critically and assume that if we can do it at home, we can do it abroad.

As someone who interacts with the average donor an a daily basis (secular and religious), I've got to agree that that personal, relational touch is incredibly powerful. People want a tangible way to connect with the work on the ground. I've seen first-hand the palpable excitement on the day when the Samaritan's Purse truck pulls up and church volunteers fill it with shoe boxes.

It's a vicious cycle. A lot of us (myself included), buy things we don't actually need, and then to assuage the guilt over our conspicuous consumption, we off-load them onto the poor. It becomes more about the donor then the recipient, more about guilt alleviation than poverty alleviation. And as Saundra pointed out, organizations can use that to game a flawed system.

You're right, WV can do better. After all, they've got one of the most captive audiences of any aid organization. They know where the vast majority of their donors are gonna be Any Given Sunday (morning).

Monday, February 14, 2011 12:54:00 PM

 
Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks, Jonathan, that's a great point. I do think our mindless consumerism and greed as American consumers are at the root of this entire issue.

Monday, February 14, 2011 5:13:00 PM

 
Anonymous Al (formerly very poor) said...

I find the comment "..A lot of us(myself included), buy things we don't actually need, and then to assuage the guilt over our conspicuous consumption, we off-load them onto the poor." to be a naive comment born out of Jonathan's and perhaps other peoples' personal feelings of guilt that they are well off and should do something to help the needy. Is that so bad? When some of you on this blog come to the conclusion that you are all blessed to be North Americans, Europeans or from ANY wealthy nation, you might remember that having nothing to eat, no decent clothing, non-potable water, diseases due to poor health and so on--when you remember that you are from the 1 % rich--in relative terms--not the 99 %, maybe your motivation to join an NGO or other group to help the 99% of the worlds population who are mostly teetering on the brink of death by starvation--the sooner we can do more on a social/political level to motivate those who have the resources to get out of our comfort zones and do some real work to help the poor. I have been poor. I am qualified to comment. Most of you are not poor and have no idea how miserable poverty can be. It is easy to dump on the Samaritan's Purse organization or WV for example, which provide more than dolls and teashirts but water systems and programs to help the poor. Hopefully, 8,000,000 children will receive shoeboxes full of Christmas gifts(whether they are Christian or not), so why not help with this worthwhile project instead of being negative. I am not a member of SP but I admire their work over these last many years.

Thursday, November 03, 2011 10:56:00 PM

 

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