Ignorance and Charity: One Man’s Garbage…

photo by CP

Correction in text–12/1, 12:38

This Foreign Policy blog post was put on the Facebooks today by a friend (h/t Kelly), “Haiti doesn’t need your old t-shirt.

True, too true.  Here’s the gist, and it’s a good read and a good introduction to actually thinking about what you’re doing in the world, but it also leaves out quite a bit once the author decides to give you advice about how to be charitable.

It begins by detailing the grotesque world of marketing materials and American sports business.  Pre-Super Bowl (useless waste of world energy and brain capacity, but hey, that’s me) companies make t-shirts proclaiming both teams to be the winners so that they can sell them immediately once the game is over.  The loser shirts get “re-purposed” to the “have-not” parts of the world like Haiti.  You see, being mindlessly charitable as a business strategy is profitable.  This is “uncharity” really.  I might suggest you look at the work of Huxley again on this.  And the FP piece makes this point.

Everyone wins, right? The NFL offloads 100,000 shirts (and hats and sweatshirts) that can’t be sold — and takes the donation as a tax break. World Vision gets clothes to distribute at no cost. And some Nicaraguans and Zambians get a free shirt. What’s not to like?

He let’s us know something of “what’s not to like.”

Here’s the trouble with dumping stuff we don’t want on people in need: What they need is rarely the stuff we don’t want. And even when they do need that kind of stuff, there are much better ways for them to get it than for a Western NGO to gather donations at a suburban warehouse, ship everything off to Africa or South America, and then try to distribute it to remote areas.

Worse, this form of charity we might just call “dumping”, primarily undercuts local economies.

Garth Frazer of the University of Toronto estimates that increased used-clothing imports accounted for about half of the decline in apparel industry employment in Africa between 1981 and 2000. Want to really help a Zambian? Give him a shirt made in Zambia.

Further consider that our “dumping” becomes a kind of waste economy, a way of living.  Call it the underside of your glorious capital advance–or the progress of humanity.  Here’s one example of this, e-waste in India.  (Perhaps this is what one friend of mine has called “opportunity”.)  From the lost soul of comedian Dennis Miller on “sale” specials in department stores: “folks, two of shit, is shit; if they really want to screw you they’ll give you three of these things.”  What about giving 50 million tons?

But the author of this piece, Charles Kenny, has the “bottom line” (yes, let’s get down to it) advice for giving:

Donations of cash are nearly always more effective. Even if there are good reasons to give stuff rather than money, in most cases the stuff can be bought locally. Economist Amartya Sen, for example, has conclusively shown that people rarely die of starvation or malnutrition because of a lack of food in the neighborhood or the country. Rather, it is because they cant afford to buy the food thats available. Yet, as Connie Veillette of the Center for Global Development reports, shipping U.S. food abroad in response to humanitarian disasters is so cumbersome it takes four to six months to get there after the crisis begins. Buying food locally, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has found, would be 25 percent cheaper and considerably faster, too.

While this makes good sense, Kenny stops right when he needs to keep going.  I’ve highlighted above the very real issue: there are resources at hand, they are just made unavailable by the masters of the economic levers of poverty and domination.

Instead of going into the role of US intervention, of NGO intervention, in actually creating much of the conditions for starvation including political strife encouraged by “client” governments, Kenny just says, send cash.

While I cannot offer a deep analysis of this, I have continued to find that skepticism is my only friend in these days of the “doers”.

1995 paper out of the African Studies Center  Ben Parker Alex de Waal, in “Humanitarianism Unbound: The Context of the Call for Military Intervention in Africa” summarizes our projects in 1995:

The powers of analysis and the rigors of accountability have not increased in step with the NGOs’ influence

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. There are internal discussions within the agencies on these questions, to be sure, but the moment that there is a hint of public debate, the moral armor is donned, and the shutters of self-censorship come down. On several occasions, NGOs have reacted with outrage to the arguments presented here, but then refused to join the debate. It is in this context that the call for military intervention has emerged: ungrounded in a sober and professional appraisal of the situation, unencumbered by demands for accountability, and subject only to the hasty demand to ‘do something’ by an array of organizations that have monopolized the moral high ground. Can the NGOs really call for the military occupation of a country with complete impunity? Are they really accountable only to a fawning and forgetful press?

As we continue to “do something” via lobby groups like Invisible Children we continue to actually increase the difficulties in places like Africa, Haiti, Nicaragua and so on, while doing nothing at all to confront the results of intervention–the history of European and US “intervention” in Africa is long and troubling if not entirely damning.  Yet we continue to invade the land and impose a Western ideology on the people.

But should we, you and I, feel a responsibility about this?  “We” can’t be responsible, can we?  We are small, insignificant…  It’s our government and what can we do about that?

Wrong.  We must see ourselves as culpable; all of our own daily spending and income creates the fund of this project.  We are the military; we are the CIA; we are these NGO’s.

What’s worse is that now high-minded aid organizations are encouraging our most vulnerable minds to confront violence and injustice with violence and injustice.  Our terror mentality is being taught via “charities” to our school children.

Listen to that again–We are teaching that a right and honest way to be charitable is to fund military intervention.

Again, it’s time we stopped doing and started thinking a little more.


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  1. Douglas Storm December 1, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    I looked at this. I don’t see much “about” on this site other than as a governmental “partner”. Do you know anything about it?

  2. S.S. December 2, 2011 at 11:51 am

    A lot to think about here. You know what bugs me? When organizations try to get you to donate to a cause by offering you something, i.e. donate $10 and get a free tote bag. I find this incredibly insulting and to be in line with our wasteful mentality. How about you just give the $10 plus the real cost of the tote bag to the group I was trying to donate to? Furthermore, how likely is it that the group I’m trying to help with a monetary contribution was involved in some type of slave labor trade to make the tote bag?

    1. Douglas Storm December 2, 2011 at 11:53 am

      good point, a consumption bribe to off-set lack of the ability of some folks to consume even food.


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