A term coined by a follower blogger and aid expert Tales From The Hood. It’s a tongue-in-check term used to describe ludicrous gifts in-kind (GiK) donations. Many examples abound but recent ones include 1million t-shirts, Soles for Soul, Flip-flops for Africa, recycled soaps (yes, you read right!), used bras (or Bras Without Border as they preferred to be called), and so on. In some cases GiK donations work especially immediately after a disaster or war because they provide immediate relief, directly address the needs in the field and are cost effective for donor/aid organization involved in the aforementioned relief projects. For example, the clothing, blankets and medical kits given to victims of the Haitian earthquake immediately after the earthquake. However, in most cases GiK are often problematic. This is because they hardly ever come in the right quantities needed, at the time when needed and at the right place. As a result, aid experts and analysts advice donors to give monetary donations instead.
Few weeks back, the 1 million t-shirt campaign caught the attention of aid/development experts/enthusiasts on twitter and on blogshere because of the idiocy of the campaign- collecting 1 million used t-shirts and sending it Africa. This led to HUGE uproar and many blog posts criticizing the idea and plan of the organizer, Jason Sadler. The end result was an internet round table discussion between Jason and some development/aid experts, and of course a coverage in Time Magazine.
Indeed, from the uproar and discussion that ensued the following key points rung the loudest.
1. The danger with donated goods: Many critics pointed out the economic impact of this project if successfully implemented, which includes but not limited, to flooding the market with used t-shirt and as a result depressing the local cotton and textile industries. This is because local manufacturers and sellers cannot compete with excess influx of subsidized goods. Millions of households depend on revenues from cotton in places like Mali, Togo, Burkina Faso and are in danger of disappearing due to influx of cheap goods into the African market. Combine the above with the effect of US government subsidy on cotton – and you will get the clear picture of the slow but sure decline of local textile and cotton industries in different African countries.
2. Many development and aid analysts such as Aid Watchers, Alanna Shaikh, Marieme Jamme to mention a few all pointed out the folly of this campaign which is this: good intentions are, sometimes, not enough. It is all well and good that many well-meaning people want to set up organizations or have project that provide used goods to people in developing countries but have they carefully thought about their project(s)? Imagine the logistical nightmare of sending 50,000 pairs used shoes to, say, Haiti? Or the thousands of dollars that will be spent in clearing these shoes at the port? There are serious costs involved with GiK such as costs when organizing collection and sorting, handling and shipping, cleaning and repair, costs for port clearance and so on, which renders the aims of GiK- for relief and development- pointless.
3. Ask questions and tons of it: if you’re not clear on what a charity wants to do with your donation, ask for details. It means you are being a well-informed donor and it is not rude. If a charity organization have a well thought out mission, it will be easy for them to answer your questions. However, if they aren’t ready for questions from donors, then they are not ready to run an effective aid project and you should not donate to their cause.
However I want to add the the above points.
4. Aid makes a difference, but we Africans must control our own fate
While it is easy to blame and point fingers at foreigners and charity organizations for sending outrageous GiK to Africa, we must realize that there can be no change neither will these practices stop, unless we jointly refuse and reject these donations. We must be frank with ourselves and accept that change must come from within. The truth is, if these charity organizations don’t find willing receivers in Africa, they wouldn’t be sending their used junk to our continent. We need to reset our mindset here in Africa that not everything sent from outside the continent is good nor must we accept. The continent is vibrant and not simply a place of enormous need. This simple fact reminds us that “our all accepting behavior”, which encourages this destabilizing and dehumanizing cycle must stop.
We need to be vocal about our needs and we definitely do not need used bras or recycled soaps, good intentions notwithstanding. Rather, we should insist on funds used in the collection, sorting, shipping and clearing (to a mention a few costs connected with GiK) be invested in sending women to sewing schools, so they can make locally-sourced shirts and support their families with the income. Or for direct investment in local soap making industries to create more jobs for the burgeoning youth population. Or for the funds to be channeled into upgrading the machineries in footwear/textile industries to make them more sustainable, supporting indigenous industries in the process. I’m sure many of these “poor” people would prefer a consistent and sustainable stream of income to be able to afford the things they need, rather than one-off t-shirt that would only last for few weeks. So why don’t we tell these donors and other grass-root organizations working in conjunction with them on what we actually need?
The bottom line is this: we need educate donors on how to give to Africa but this education will not start from the top nor from ‘outside’. There is only so much aid and development experts can do to inform the rest of the world on the dangers of GiK. But the onus of responsibility lies on us Africans to educate the rest of world on the ‘thorny’ impact of dumping goods on a national market, which is basically what it comes down to. We don’t need to wait for another 1 million t-shirt saga for us to take up to blogs and twitter to voice our opinions. We can start today by writing to various aid organizations (those receiving these goods), international media outlets and social media networks but until we start, containers filled with a million t-shirts will continue to offload on our ports.