We’ve all seen ‘em. Most of us have likely done ‘em. The donate-old-stuff-to-poor-countries charity drive is a staple of many do-gooders’ campaigns. But like most things that make you feel good without much effort, it’s not usually effective at alleviating poverty, and can often hurt the people you’re trying to help.
This applies not just to donating old stuff, but to the practice of sending goods to developing countries in general. Here are a few reasons why, with examples drawn from food aid and clothing drives:
The Economics of Food Aid
Food aid is a favorite form of sending supplies from rich countries to the poor, but it’s often quite harmful. Haiti’s rice production was self-sufficient just 35 years ago, but today it imports 80% of its rice and 60% of its total food – thanks in large part to food aid. Bill Clinton recently issued a mea culpa for participating in the destruction of Haiti’s agricultural system by exporting over-subsidized US rice to Haiti: “I have to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did.”
Unequivocal evidence of the damage caused by this practice came from the Global Development and Environment Institute in their recent study on the effects of the US dumping subsidized corn on Mexico. The takeaway? US corn dumping cost Mexican farmers $12.8 billion over 9 years. For more on the mechanisms that cause this, check out this discussion of why “Food Dumping [Aid] Maintains Poverty.”
So how could we help feed people in Haiti in a more respectful manner that doesn’t destroy Haiti’s economy? Buy the rice that farmers in Haiti produce, and help distribute it. Or support an organization like the What If? Foundation, one of our partners, who takes that approach. This encourages local production, rather than wiping it out, and allow Haitian farmers to avoid competing with low-cost rice imports from the US.
Food aid, of course, isn’t the only type of sending. As for the rest – the economics argument applies in some cases more than others. Sustainable structural change, though, is much more likely to come by promoting the domestic economy in the country we want to help than by sending goods there. Even without a better alternative, there’s a strong argument for not donating goods simply because it’s expensive, ineffective, and likely to get in the way in a disaster relief situation, as Alanna Shaikh explained here after the earthquake in Haiti.
Respect and Clothing Drives: Or, Nobody Wants Your Old Stuff
In the blogosphere, used clothing sent to poor countries is sometimes referred to as SWEDOW (Stuff We Don’t Want). SWEDOW is a favorite target of ridicule for international development experts. One disaster relief professional even had a Best in SWEDOW contest earlier this year.
The problem with SWEDOW, a label that applies to much donated clothing/shoes/blankets/etc., is simple: if we don’t want it, why would someone in a developing country? As noted by Professor Laura Seay following the 1MillionShirts kerfluffle, there are local options for buying clothing nearly everywhere in the world, and rather than sending someone low-value, used items from our closet, we could simply send them money. Then they could decide if they need clothing and purchase the clothing they want, rather than the clothing we don’t.
Agency in Development: Listening to Local Voices
When we do send donated goods overseas, it tends to reflect our priorities rather than the needs of the people we’re trying to help. The main finding of the Listening Project, which sought out the voices of people on the receiving end of aid, is that people in many countries feel the US doesn’t listen to their needs when we give aid. One of the major culprits they identify is, unsurprisingly, unnecessary donated goods.
“Promoting Partnerships,” “Enhancing Self-Sufficiency,” “Ending Dependence” – all of these are catch phrases in the international development community these days. If those phrases are to be more than empty words, we have to let Haitians (and people in developing countries everywhere) define their problems, identify solutions, and then play a supporting role as we jointly pursue the future outlined by those local visions. Sending goods is one symptom of a mindset that assumes that American definitions of, and responses to, Haitian problems are better than Haitian definitions and responses.
In short, it’s usually a bad idea to simply send things to other countries. There’s growing evidence for and mainstream acceptance of the idea that cash transfers are one of the most effective forms of aid. This suggests, in contrast to the mindset that tends to promote sending, that perhaps Haitians and others in the developing world know their own needs best. Recognizing this is the first step toward promoting justice-based solutions to problems abroad.
The answer is not necessarily to abandon all efforts that involve sending goods, but to be mindful of their motivation and (unintended) effects.