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March 7, 2012 2:07 AM   Subscribe


 
A friend works for a local food-for-those-who-need it agency, and while she appreciates every donation, what she can do with cash versus what you can do with cash to buy food to donate is an order of magnitude. She can heartily feed a single person for less than a dollar per day, if it's given in cash. (For example, she can get potatoes for 1 cent each.)

Donating stuff feels good, but if you're thinking of buying something to donate, maybe consider just giving your favorite organization cash.
posted by maxwelton at 2:55 AM on March 7, 2012 [19 favorites]


This is a Thing even in local stuff. I volunteered once at a clothing center that got massive, massive quantities of crap that was patently unwearable... and considerably more than that, things that nobody would actually want to wear. Or you get the Saturday free lunch that is inevitably massively unhealthy and made up of the cheapest food that the donating group can come up with (lots of white bread and casseroles made with condensed soup, no fresh fruit/veg). Those people could make their own casseroles with help signing up for food stamps, but that doesn't give the volunteers the same feeling of accomplishment.

Admittedly, it's worse overseas because the poverty problem is usually far worse and the travel costs are just stupid. A church I attended once sent a group of college kids over to Kenya, which cost several thousand dollars each, to do manual labor... and one of the organizers mentioned to me afterwards that they hated it because the kids needed so much supervision, but that just soliciting enough money to pay the relatively minuscule amount for manual labor *there* would have been more difficult. Because nobody gets to pad their resumes with "I gave $20 to pay a guy to build a retaining wall".
posted by gracedissolved at 2:57 AM on March 7, 2012 [37 favorites]


Donating stuff feels good, but if you're thinking of buying something to donate, maybe consider just giving your favorite organization cash.

The message I glean from the fine collection of links divabat put up suggests that it is charity itself - and not necessarily its form - which is the problem. The economic danger link (which is an NPR transcript) posits that plain-old, profit-motivated capitalism produces better results:

INSKEEP: You just said with the Chinese coming in, is their approach to Zambia different than the Western approach to Zambia?

Ms. MOYO: Completely different. Their interest is couched in business. They are there to make money, and my view is that that is a good thing. Now, that's not to say that the Chinese should come to Africa carte blanche and there should not be some dialogue with African policy makers on how Chinese money coming to Africa can be beneficial for Africa; that of course is a very important piece of it. But even in the worst case scenario, there are now roads where there have not been roads in Africa for 60 years. People in Africa now have jobs where they haven't had jobs over the 60 years when the Western - ostensibly Western rule was in place.


The mobile communication networks erected across the continent during the 1990s were not put there for reasons of charity, but have provided wide-ranging social and economic benefit.

Viewing Africans as potential customers instead of victims of colonialism in need of charity and aid might be anathema to liberal, progressive ideology, but it seems to work.

So instead of giving cash money to aid organizations, invest in those companies which invest in Africa.
posted by three blind mice at 3:17 AM on March 7, 2012 [17 favorites]


New York Times story related to clothing donation from 2002.

It was arresting enough when I read it 10 years ago that I dragged the clipping around for a long time and just now managed to Google the thing!
posted by liketitanic at 3:37 AM on March 7, 2012 [14 favorites]


The problem with many of these charity notions is more the failure of those donating to realise that perhaps it is infact their own lifestyle that is doing more harm than it is possible to correct by these charitable donations.

If you look at somewhere like Haiti where it is arguable that the poverty is a direct result of the trade practices adopted there under the duress of the IMF that destroyed their local economies. Whereas the USA continues to spend billions each year on farm subsidies to prop up its agriculture.

Are these Free Trade Zones (ie Sweatshops) set up in South-East-Asia really benefiting the local communities as much as they are benefiting US in our ability to have cheap goods.

We, and our expectation of cheap manufactured goods and food are the real problem.
posted by mary8nne at 3:39 AM on March 7, 2012 [11 favorites]


I'm not sure that profit-mindedness is really necessary. Tools. Tools are necessary.

I'm more into local charitable work, but it's like... I'm happy to see an unemployed person get a job stocking shelves at Walmart, absolutely, and I think that goes much further than just giving them a free meal. But I'm happier if that person starts learning to be an electrician. It might take a little longer, but in the long run, it's not better to have your life owned by Walmart than to have it owned by the government. I don't think it's an improvement to have "Africa, a wholly owned subsidiary of..." over "Africa, a dependent child of...".
posted by gracedissolved at 3:40 AM on March 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


It's not unsurprising, that in consumerist societies we tend to prefer to 'gift things' rather than credits.

'Things' are what we equate value with, not the credits we use to purchase them. A gift card has less utility than plain cash, yet people prefer them to cash. "But it's the thought that counts!*"

Why else do we have wedding registries? Sure, the couple might want that slow cooker, but if everyone just gave them money they might choose to refit a new kitchen with the aggregate funds.

Except people like to shop and buy things. It gives them a buzz even if they're shopping for someone else.

Also, 'gifting' unwanted stuff they've bought is a +1 easing of guilt for being a consumerist.

*Make your own card and put some cash in it!
posted by panaceanot at 3:41 AM on March 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


Viewing Africans as potential customers instead of victims of colonialism in need of charity and aid might be anathema to liberal, progressive ideology, but it seems to work.

There's an interesting tension between development and environmental causes here. I think at some level a lot of Westerners *want* Africa to stay undeveloped so that it remains a mysterious land of jungles and veldts. Or the world's largest game preserve.

Even without going that far there is room to worry about what the Chinese investment will bring with it. Strip mining is a job. Dumping poisonous waste is a job. Just ask India what Western investments have brought.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:45 AM on March 7, 2012 [12 favorites]


I thought this was a rather good critique of many issues with Aid: http://matadornetwork.com/change/7-worst-international-aid-ideas/
posted by mary8nne at 3:47 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Donating stuff feels good, but if you're thinking of buying something to donate, maybe consider just giving your favorite organization cash.

I sometimes think this about schemes where someone can buy a present of a donkey etc. for an impoverished community - not sure if these are a UK only thing, but over here, around Christmas time, there are a few charities that suggest that instead of buying someone a present, you can buy a donkey, or a vaccine, or some other aid item in their name instead. Part of me sees these and feels that there is something smug about donating to charity in someone else's name - giving the message that 'I am so antimaterialistic that I gave your present to Africa', rather than giving for its own sake. When I see things like Toms and read about cultural capitalism I totally agree with the idea that it makes us feel good to buy something rather than do something.
posted by mippy at 3:54 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


I volunteered once at a clothing center that got massive, massive quantities of crap that was patently unwearable... and considerably more than that, things that nobody would actually want to wear.

That's an issue with charity shops (I think these are the same as US thift stores - secondhand, donated goods sold for charitable causes. We don't really have non-charity ones here). They get a lot of unusable crap, and the other problem they have is that people think 'Well, they got it for free, so why should I pay £2 for a book?'

The other side, though, is that one charity which runs a chain of bookstores will throw away (literally, in the bin) books that look vaguely read, and due to the popularity of 'vintage' (rails of last year's poor-quality vintage copies) and fast-fashion (ie. big, cheap stores which sell 90% of stock for under a tenner) stores are marking items very highly and pricing out people who shop in them as a necessity rather than as a way to get cool old stuff.
posted by mippy at 3:58 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


My guess is at the core these programs are less about actually helping people and more about signaling to others in your social group that you care about other less fortunate people that you'll never have to see.
posted by AndrewKemendo at 4:03 AM on March 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


Posted a few times before, but if you haven't seen it: Slavoj Žižek on on consumerist charity.
posted by clarknova at 4:05 AM on March 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


Because nobody gets to pad their resumes with "I gave $20 to pay a guy to build a retaining wall".

Yeah, this kind of "aid" really gets my goat. It is aid for American youths, and looks better than an internship.

The Peace Corps English teaching programme is a huge example of this... minimal help to the target nation, massive expense to administer, assist, train, advise, and cater to the American kids that are getting this wonderful career builder. A fucking crock of shit.

If you want to help, don't send your kids, send cash.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:06 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


mippy, in the US we have Heifer International, which lets you give milch cows or goats. I've never seen anyone just spontaneously give one (or part of one) in someone else's name, but I have seen people ask that people do so for their birthday or wedding gift. I gave towards a cow for a friend's mother's fiftieth birthday (I think). It's fairly nifty, worked that way. And the cows and goats let people feed themselves pretty efficiently, and as long as someone in the area has a bull or a billy, it's the start of a herd that could keep going a long time.
posted by MadGastronomer at 4:06 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Even without going that far there is room to worry about what the Chinese investment will bring with it.

Roads. Ports. Railways. Electricity. Modern communications (see the links I've already provided). Hospitals.
posted by three blind mice at 4:07 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


If you want to help, don't send your kids, send cash.

But not to Meatbomb, he'll just it for whiskey.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:19 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Roads. Ports. Railways. Electricity. Modern communications (see the links I've already provided). Hospitals.

So basically everything that the age of colonialism brought? Because those things didn't offset the many many problems that came with them.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:19 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


MadGastronomer - I think it's a good deal, and I admire people who do it for themselves - I'm tempted this year as I don't actually need any more stuff in my life. It's doing it for others which has the same weird faux-altruism the links above talk about. But I suppose communities do get something useful out of it which seems more than can be said for sending surplus goods.
posted by mippy at 4:21 AM on March 7, 2012


mippy - I suppose I was trying to draw a distinction between people up and giving out of the blue in someone else's name, which is what I thought you were talking about, and my friend's mom saying, "What I'd really like for my 50th is to be able to send three cows to a family someplace, so if you want to get me something, please donate to this." Which I find I'm pretty ok with.

I'm also pretty ok with people who request that when they die, people not send flowers, but if they want to do something, contribute to some charitable fund.
posted by MadGastronomer at 4:25 AM on March 7, 2012


I think the problem with the "just give cash" thing in some of these cases is that people don't donate X amount of money worth of used clothing because they've decided to donate X amount, and could give it either in cash or in used clothing. They donate X amount of used clothing because they have a bunch of used clothing, and they're choosing between (1) throwing it away and (2) donating it. Obviously, there are cases where this isn't true -- buying food to give to a food shelf, which is encouraged in many grocery stores, is quite different, and those people would be better off just giving the money. The Toms program and things of that nature would seem to be somewhere in between -- the donation is really a bonus on top of the purchase that you want to make anyway.

I think there are two separate problems. One is finding the most efficient and helpful way to contribute to causes, and the other is what you should do with things you no longer need. The connection, I suppose, is that it's important not to think that you're efficiently contributing to causes by giving them the things you no longer need. That doesn't mean people who donate their used clothes instead of throwing them away are insincere jerks who don't want to give cash because they're consumerists who want to feel good. There's been so much scolding about waste that I think a lot of those people aren't fooling themselves that it's as good as cash; they just think it's better than the dumpster. If that's not the case, that can probably be communicated a little less angrily than it is sometimes communicated.

And I think all of these things are separate from things like why we don't give cash for weddings. If everyone gave cash for weddings, it would really make you wonder why people who get married should receive a wealth transfer from everyone they know, including those less well-off than they are, so they can upgrade their possessions.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 4:25 AM on March 7, 2012 [38 favorites]


mary8anne: that matador link is in the op and was actually the inspiration for this one.

re buy a goat type deals: I got a goat for my dad for his birthday (inside joke) from oxfam and humoured my dad by asking the oxfam guy where the goat comes from. he told me it's not really a literal goat they're buying; it's a symbolic donation to their agricultural programs, which includes but is not limited to setting up families with goats for milk, meat, and other farming.
posted by divabat at 4:31 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


The Peace Corps English teaching programme is a huge example of this... minimal help to the target nation, massive expense to administer, assist, train, advise, and cater to the American kids that are getting this wonderful career builder. A fucking crock of shit.

I mean, maybe it's distasteful to get relativistic in a thread about international charity, but American kids can use all the wonderful career builders they can get right now.
posted by mellow seas at 4:35 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


he told me it's not really a literal goat they're buying; it's a symbolic donation to their agricultural programs

NOT FAIR I WANT A BILLY GOAT GRUFF
posted by mippy at 4:36 AM on March 7, 2012


Linda Holmes - There are now registries for honeymoons and big projects that guests can put money towards instead of buying a gift, which amounts to the same thing. And in a lot of cultures, even in the US, most guests DO give money. The Money Dance, where all the guests get to dance with the bride, and they all slip her money as they do, is, I understand, an Italian tradition. I'm told that in certain Southeast Asian cultures, whether in the sourceland or in their new homes, the bride has a fancy bag, and the guests drop envelopes containing cash or checks into it. (Hm. Can't remember the source for that one, so I may have it wrong.) I would imagine it's because a lot of couples just starting out could really do with cash to help pay the rent as much as they could a new set of towels.

I'm engaged now. I imagine we'll register at one department store, one place online, maaaaaaaybe a honeymoon fund, and Archie McPhee, which last will allow our local friends of straightened means to buy us cheap fun stuff they know we'll love. Actually, we're planning on getting some of the favors there, too.
posted by MadGastronomer at 4:36 AM on March 7, 2012


"Power is not an infinite quantity, if you are going to tell me someone has been empowered, first tell me who has been disempowered"Stan Thekaekara

The entire "rich" Western world is contantly looking for "win-win" solutions to help impoverished nations in Africa. Sadly, this is another example at how the Western world is trying to achieve change without sacrificing itself.

It's been known for some time that donations of "old stuff we don't want" to poor nations may provide a moment of short-term relief, however in the long-term it is patronising at best and corrosive at worst -- indenturing a dependancy on other people's waste.

As was said in India, "If you don't want your garbage, why do you think we do?". The long-term solution to povery is local economic development; markets where people can produce, sell, and buy in a process that benefits their own communities. Tom's Shoes is a huge movement forward from providing waste, however it still posits a dependency on Western consumers.

Back to the quote and to walk around it a bit, Apple has stated it has created 500,000+ jobs with the App Store ecosystem. Whilst this certainly indicates economic growth, there is also the other effect of canabalising existing economies. In other words, empowering those 500,000 people disempowered others.

Granted, innovation can and does provide real growth (growing the size of the pie), however that is not an exclusive property. In that process, the pie is rearranged and there are winners and losers. Another Apple example is the big fat new data centre being built in North Carolina. It's a huge multi-billion dollar investment, that will be staffed by less than 100 people. Twenty years ago, if GM built a multi-billion dollar car plant, it would have employed thousands.

So there are winners and losers in this process. And it order to truly cement change in Africa and make them "winners", we have to take some "loss". If we stop sending our detritus there and instead focus on truly sustainable economic change, we can put winners on the ground in Africa. However, we will create losers for our own society. Reduction in charity aid. Increases in product cost, as we will have to actually manage the waste ourselves rather than putting it on the boat in the illusion that other people really want it.

Granted, these are not all-encompasing statements and the real situation is infinitely nuanced. Aid does good work, aid does back work. Charity helps, charity hurts.

The point of the matter is that it will be very difficult to truly raise people out of poverty without taking sacrifices ourselves. I think Tom's Shoes is a lovely campaign for example, and infinitely improves upon the CSR model of other producers. However it is not a permanent solution. Tom's Shoes goes out of business, people stop getting shoes. We have not put a shoe factory on the ground. We have not provided a long-term sustainable solution. Granted, the people on the ground may greatly appreciate the shoes, but we do need to pair the short-term interventions with long-term development.
posted by nickrussell at 4:37 AM on March 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


The Peace Corps English teaching programme is a huge example of this... minimal help to the target nation, massive expense to administer, assist, train, advise, and cater to the American kids that are getting this wonderful career builder. A fucking crock of shit.

Also, a lot of women in the Peace Corps are sexually assaulted, both by fellow PC members, and by locals wherever they are, and the Peace Corps does nothing to protect them, to prosecute their attackers, or to get the victims any help, medical or psychological, afterwards. Indeed, they usually tell the victim it was her own fault, and send her home, which then does not look so good on her resume after all.
posted by MadGastronomer at 4:39 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


So basically everything that the age of colonialism brought? Because those things didn't offset the many many problems that came with them.

Exactly.

If you don't think the Chinese are colonizing Africa right now, you aren't in Africa right now. I am sitting in the capital city of Chad, and staying at Hotel Shanghai. As far as I can tell the majority of hotels here are Chinese owned and operated. I have more Chinese-speaking stations (including CCTV) than English on the TV in my room. I have great Chinese food restaurants for dinner. A lot of them. I also have really great road access to the communities my NGO works in, when a particular community happens to be on the way to a valuable mining site.

Or, take Kenya, where I live. I remember when I first visited Nairobi in 2007, there was no road from the airport into the center of town. Well, sure, there was a place where all the cars generally agreed to congregate on their way from the airport into town, but there wasn't any cement with tarmac on top of it. There was just rocks and dust and huge holes the size of a Volkswagon Beetle in places.

Now, its a 3-lane highway in both directions. Why? Because the Chinese built it. For free. It was taking them too long to get their products to market in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and other parts beyond in East Africa. Not to mention taking too long to transit raw materials back on the same reverse routes. That's because the road from the port in Mombasa that happens to pass through down town Nairobi, a city that has some of the worst traffic in the world (roads built in the 50's combined with 10,000+ cars imported A MONTH = problem). So, they fixed the main road, not just in Nairobi, but all the way from Mombasa, straight through Nairobi. That wasn't enough, so now they're funding the construction of a northern bypass, and possibly a southern one, if they can bribe their way into building a highway through Nairobi National Park. My money is betting they will.

The Chinese, in most cases implicitly, are coming to own much of Africa. In some parts its actually legal land ownership - literally buying up hundreds of thousands of acres in bids to secure future food production rights and ability.

What the colonialists did wasn't right, but that doesn't mean they should just sit back and shrug our shoulders because its China's "turn."
posted by allkindsoftime at 4:42 AM on March 7, 2012 [56 favorites]


If you're interested in helping Africans, take a look at the ONE Campaign. They focus on structural issues (debt relief, disease prevention, trade rules, etc).

Right now they're petitioning for regulation that curtails the ability of US oil companies to make sweetheart deals with corrupt governments.
posted by clarknova at 4:50 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


The economic danger link (which is an NPR transcript) posits that plain-old, profit-motivated capitalism produces better results:

King Leopold's Congo?

Plain-old, profit-motivated capitalism has also done plenty of harm in Africa, it's just that it isn't as ironic as the harm inflicted by good intentions. According to most estimates, the wealth leaving Africa for tax havens dwarves the amount of incoming aid.

It isn't an either/or choice. Some non-profits do wonderful and highly necessary work, in particular in the medical field. Some for-profits have also made a positive contribution. But we should understand is that giving away used clothing, for instance, isn't charity: it's waste disposal. And highly polluting extractive industries aren't development: they're devastation.
posted by Skeptic at 4:54 AM on March 7, 2012 [11 favorites]


Viewing Africans as potential customers instead of victims of colonialism in need of charity and aid might be anathema to liberal, progressive ideology, but it seems to work.

Let's take that observation a step further, its a lucrative growth opportunity for those who are able to assess and evaluate the market needs of these emerging segments - demanding customers in challenging environments, if I say so myself.
posted by infini at 5:03 AM on March 7, 2012


btw, allkindsoftime, I went by road all through North Meru - piped water deep interior and electrification of the tiniest market while Kilgoris sells Sony Bravia 32" with ginormous solar panels to the pastoralists. There's really no place for charity if it means someone else's discards.


Oh and a beer if you're back in NBO by 4/10?
posted by infini at 5:13 AM on March 7, 2012


It's worth noting that the interviewee in the NPR link, Dambisa Moyo, is the author of a widely and generally badly reviewed book opposing aid to Africa.

For a certain kind of (hypothetical) totally naive person, charity seems so obviously, unquestionably good that learning of its downsides seems to prompt a complete swing to the other extreme. Free-market fundamentalism often sneaks in under the radar this way, since it gets to appear radical/underdog-ish and also more truly compassionate.
posted by oliverburkeman at 5:15 AM on March 7, 2012 [11 favorites]


I mean, maybe it's distasteful to get relativistic in a thread about international charity, but American kids can use all the wonderful career builders they can get right now.

I don't think the relativism is really a problem, but the kids who do these things are not usually the kids who had trouble finding jobs in general. If your parents can drop thousands of dollars for you to spend two weeks in Africa instead of on their sofa over your summer break, you're not hurting. You're essentially getting a boost that is solely reflective of your means, rather than your abilities/skills/needs. Yeah, not all rich kids do it, but poor kids don't even have access to these things. This situation isn't healthy for our communities, either, so the harm is really coming on both ends.
posted by gracedissolved at 5:18 AM on March 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


If you don't think the Chinese are colonizing Africa right now, you aren't in Africa right now.

Yeah. Look at all those Chinese faces in Le gouvernement.
posted by three blind mice at 5:25 AM on March 7, 2012


Free-market fundamentalism often sneaks in under the radar this way, since it gets to appear radical/underdog-ish and also more truly compassionate.

There's a difference between cheap Chinese phones that barely make it into their second year of working properly and a good old fashioned Nokia. Both take the poor as customers very seriously.
posted by infini at 5:31 AM on March 7, 2012


Roads. Ports. Railways. Electricity. Modern communications (see the links I've already provided). Hospitals.

That goes without saying, but what else have the Romans ever done for us?
posted by DigDoug at 5:35 AM on March 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


And in a lot of cultures, even in the US, most guests DO give money.

As I have gotten older, and the people inviting me to weddings are generally younger and less well-off that I am, I have taken to asking them if they would rather have cash. Partly because it's hard to find something on the registry that I really want to buy them, and partly because a number of them have had serious cash crunches with cost overruns on the wedding because of changing plans, parental antics, etc. I usually ask "would you be disappointed to get cash?" The answer, so far, has been generally: "Disappointed? More like ecstatic!"

I kind of assume charities work the same way.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:49 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Unbridled and unregulated capitalism can still have a lot of the same bad effects as indiscriminate aid. For example, one of those links led me to an article about shoe markets in Ghana, showing all the brand-new shoes for sale in the market. An argument against sending shoes is that the market becomes flooded with second hand goods, thus putting local manufacturers out of business. But those shoes in the market aren't made in Ghana - most of them will be from China. Local businesses (eg seamstresses of traditional clothes) are being pushed out by cheap new goods from China, not by aid donations. And with no quality control, often the market is being flooded with unsafe and shoddy goods - many Ghanaians no longer feel confident buying new goods - from toothpaste to electronics - because they aren't sure if the products are possibly dangerous. However, they don't have much choice because increasingly that's all there is available.
This isn't in praise of giving aid or sending loads of secondhand goods over, just saying that capitalism with disinterested or bad intent can still be harmful. China may be investing in roads and infrastructure in some countries, but how many of their businesses employ locals (in good positions, not just as workhorses)? How much money stays in Africa and how much goes back to China?
posted by KateViolet at 5:52 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


This comes up in response to immediate crises and disasters, as well as in long-term aid. When an earthquake or tidal wave happens, many people's first response is to offer to donate old stuff -- blankets, clothes, food, etc. And every time, it needs to be explained that this is not an effective way to help, given the costs of transportation, handling, storing, and distributing that stuff.

You don't want to beat up on them, because it is coming from the best of intentions -- people genuinely want to help, and mean well. But it doesn't work, and as noted causes problems as well. Part of the driver is that in the west we are drowning in cheap stuff -- it's always cheaper to discard and buy new than it is to repair, so that's what we do. Find a way to raise prices, and you'll find people a lot less interested in donating old stuff.

Yeah. Look at all those Chinese faces in Le gouvernement.

The lack of interest by the Chinese in "regime change," transparency, democratization, and human rights is one of their main selling points when negotiating with governments in the developing world. I'm not sure that calling it "colonization" is precisely correct, but there is definitely a massive process going on involving Chinese companies, farming operations, land control, and other extractive enterprises that blends aspects of European colonization with modern capitalism.
posted by Forktine at 5:54 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]



I remember during Live Aid that everyone was feeling so good about "doing something" about starving people in Africa. I was pretty vocal about how the food aid rotted in the ports because local warlords were fighting over it, how the infrastructure for delivering it was non-existant and that basically we were giving something of value to evil people to use to control the miserable poor. But hey! I got this neat album, saw this neat concert and I was HELPING! My sister was pretty disgusted with me "at least they're doing something."

For some reason a half-thought out dithering attempt at aid earns someone a Peace Prize and meanwhile very little changes in Africa.

I lived in Florida and after Hurricane Andrew I went to a distribution center to sort clothing donations. As mentioned above very few of them were usable. But all of this human effort was spent sorting through garbage to look for a few,wearable items.

The Red Cross gives people cash cards so they can go buy new clothes. And what they don't know about aid distribution, isn't really worth knowing.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:58 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


The lack of interest by the Chinese in "regime change," transparency, democratization, and human rights is one of their main selling points when negotiating with governments in the developing world. I'm not sure that calling it "colonization" is precisely correct, but there is definitely a massive process going on involving Chinese companies, farming operations, land control, and other extractive enterprises that blends aspects of European colonization with modern capitalism.

The same thing was (and continues to be) said of Western interests in Chinese manufacturing. Yet the effects have made a tremendous uplift to Chinese people, and put Chinese interests on a path of making investments in places that would never have been possible otherwise. Colonization may be a way of describing this. But it's a very poor way.
posted by 2N2222 at 6:14 AM on March 7, 2012


Are these Free Trade Zones (ie Sweatshops) set up in South-East-Asia really benefiting the local communities as much as they are benefiting US in our ability to have cheap goods.

If they're benefiting the US and benefiting the South-East Asian countries then both sides are better off then they were status quo ante. This benefit may not be equalizable without introducing inefficiencies that leave both sides less well off than they would be if the inequality was allowed to exist. But my main point is that inequality of benefit is not per se a sign of someone being taken advantage of.

If a patient with cardiac arrest is defibrillated by a paramedic and lives, that's probably "worth" more to him than than the salary that the paramedic gets paid. But even though the benefit of the transaction goes more to the patient than to the paramedic, that doesn't mean we should necessarily try to re-balance it.

The Peace Corps English teaching programme is a huge example of this... minimal help to the target nation, massive expense to administer, assist, train, advise, and cater to the American kids that are getting this wonderful career builder. A fucking crock of shit.

This critique makes sense if the Peace Corps goal is merely, "Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women."

But they actually have three goals:
The Peace Corps' mission has three simple goals:

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Sending money is much less helpful in 2 and 3 than in 1.
posted by Jahaza at 6:16 AM on March 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


I've been in arguments with people about this, until I found a way to demonstrate the problem.

(This is tangentially related -- more US disaster assistance than overseas poverty assistance, but the lessons are exactly the same.)

After one of the bad hurricanes, cow orkers wanted to send bottled water. On the face of it, this is one of the incredibly useful things to have in a disaster -- a source of portable potable water. It is one of the very few times that bottled water is the right answer.

I said, no -- send money.

They said, but they need water.

I said, yes, yes they do. Send money....(idea hits)... wait, I'll be back.

I run across the street to the grocery store, and buy about $20 of bottled water, which turned out to be 4 flats. I brought it back, and said.

"Okay. One of you is responsible for getting this $20 bill to the disaster agency in Louisiana where they need it. The other one of you is responsible for getting these 4 flats of water to the same place. Now, which one of you wants to deal with the water?"

4 flats of half liter bottles, 24 per. 96 bottles * .5 = 48 liters = 48kg = 105 pounds. The cost of moving that water would far outweigh the benefit of having it -- there would be so much that *couldn't* be acquired because they would have spent that money shipping the water. Just carrying it was hard, because of the density.

The only things to donate if you are out of the area are money, and if they explicitly ask for it* and you are able, blood.


* After 11-Sep-2011, a massive amount of blood donations were made because of perceived need for blood after the massive casualties in NYC. Six weeks later, well over 90% of that blood was discarded. For the next couple of weeks, there was nationwide shortage of blood, and worse, a large slice of the population who donates blood *couldn't*, because the current donation interval is 8 weeks, and they'd all given the week after the disaster.
posted by eriko at 6:19 AM on March 7, 2012 [24 favorites]


As was said in India, "If you don't want your garbage, why do you think we do?". The long-term solution to povery is local economic development; markets where people can produce, sell, and buy in a process that benefits their own communities.

I just had a very weird idea - what if someone were to seed a whole bunch of recycling/reusing/DIY-sort-of-thing cottage industries to make use OF the random crap the West keeps throwing at these countries? You know - maybe a woman in Nepal or Tchad can't use the t-shirt as a t-shirt; but it could be great for a patch for some fancy-ass quilted something that she could sell back to the U.S. at a profit. Hell, even if the bulk of her initial market is the same kind of means-well Westerner who gave her this stuff in the first place ("Isn't this a darling bag, and just think, it was designed by a needy woman -- hey wait, is this from my old SMU t-shirt?"....), at least it'd be an improvement.

Or, hell, if there's a way to break the components in all this crap down for bio-fuel or something. Some way of using the well-intentioned charitable crap as a raw material resource.

Granted, this still necessitates the need for money (that woman in Nepal ain't gonna be designing no bags without the seed money to buy needles, thread, sewing machine, electricity FOR the sewing machine, etc.), but something tells me that impulse to "give our clothes to the poor" ain't gonna go away any time soon.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:37 AM on March 7, 2012


Some thoughts.

1. On cash versus in-kind. eriko, I agree with you and others that in-kind donations are less efficient. Money is even easier to wire than sending a twenty dollar bill. The main problem is that it is harder to motivate people to give cash. Why? In part it's psychological: they extract value from giving goods or services that they don't feel from giving cash, and they don't hesitate as much as they do in considering money's alternative uses for them. Another reason is policy-related: there are legitimate concerns about misappropriation and waste of financial assistance, too. But in any event, the calculus has to be whether the shift to cash leads to precipitous falloff in contributions and participation rates. To a degree, I trust the charities to figure this out.

2. On the Chinese. This is interesting but largely off-topic. I think the original post is about how people should donate -- how individuals can help. Now, it's true that China has a different model, but it's one of industrial policy more than charity; unless the suggestion is that the average American should form a paving company and go to Africa -- and violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by bribing hither and yon -- it's kind of a different notion.

3. On sending volunteers. As some have said upthread, this is partly educational and eye-opening. Still, it drives me nuts because of the rampant inefficiency and self-deception. It seems to me that we've taken two practices that seem socially distasteful -- the foreign tour (rejected as elitest and self-indulgent) and vocational education (rejected as lower-class) -- and combined them into a system in which we spend gobs sending upper middle class and rich kids to underprivileged areas here and abroad, where they learn for the first time how to use a paint brush and climb a ladder.

4. On alternatives. For those who want to break out of these options, and admire the benefits of the Chinese approach, consider Kiva -- promotes investment in local enterprises.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 6:38 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


I just had a very weird idea - what if someone were to seed a whole bunch of recycling/reusing/DIY-sort-of-thing cottage industries to make use OF the random crap the West keeps throwing at these countries?

I've thought that, too. My brother lives in Rome, and his child has been adorned in fabulous designer clothes on every day of his life. Some head-to-toe outfits were assembled to be worn just once, on a holiday. Some of his baby clothes came in several versions trimmed in various colors of mink fur, to coordinate with variously-colored stroller blankets.

My brother says that Italy has a cultural aversion to hand-me-downs, and even high-ticket items, like strollers, will be re-purchased in the unlikely event of a second child.

So what about an African business that runs a depot, receiving containers of Italian designer baby items, and sorts, cleans, and packages them for resale in boutiques located in wealthy US towns?
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:29 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


What's interesting is that a lot of charities that accept donations of goods can't actually do much with the sheer volume of stuff on their own, and end up reselling in bulk to businesses that have the resources to process it, thus getting the much-needed cash. I've mentioned before on the blue that my uncle has a business buying books in bulk from charities, which his employees sort through with barcode scanners for books to resell on Amazon. I sell vintage clothes, and I recently went to a warehouse in Baltimore that picks through bales of donated clothes for the vintage stuff and sells them at wholesale prices to dealers. There's a whole ecosystem of economic activity that's been built up around the old crap Americans don't want any more.
posted by nonasuch at 7:32 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


If bored, educated and environmentally wealthy hipsters want to do something for people, they should go to Africa and repatriate all that unwanted stuff we send over there against their economy's will.
posted by jsavimbi at 7:37 AM on March 7, 2012


What I've read in the news about China's investment in Africa indicates that Africans largely aren't getting any jobs out of this; Chinese workers are imported, and there's an incredible amount of racism towards the Africans.

I have an acquaintance that's a native of Zambia (actually she's royalty there) who lives in the US. She's raising money to send a shipping container of used schoolbooks to her home country. I realize that education is important, but given the number of people dying of hunger and AIDS, this seems... odd. Of course, she knows her country better than I do, but I have a hard time giving my money towards shipping extremely heavy freight.

Re: clothing donations... I have a sizable amount of very good quality clothes that will never fit me again. I understand the silliness of shipping them off to a poor country, but is it really unwise to give them to Goodwill? Some of the items came from there in the first place (and do not show any wear).
posted by desjardins at 7:38 AM on March 7, 2012


OK, sorry for the derail on the China thing.

Here's the thing on Gifts In Kind (GIK, in industry acronym-speak): generally, these things are Very Needed Things in the countries that they are going to. I've been to these countries, and I know. I've been places where people beg you for shoes or clothes because they literally can't get those things in their own country, or at least not afford them. These places are on the extreme end - Zimbabwe, parts of Somalia, etc.. The need for GIK in most countries isn't *that* drastic, but the need is still there. People need clothing, shelter, etc.. If they can get it for free, essentially that translates into more of their own funds they can put towards other types of security (namely food).

My NGO does a shit-ton (well - many, many metric tonnes, to be more technically accurate) of GIK to the developed world. We have 2 massive warehouses in the US that processes all of it - everything from the team-that-didn't-win-the-superbowl t-shirts to AIDS or malaria caregiver kits (assembled by volunteer teams in the warehouses), to educational materials, to you name it. We ship them out all over the world, and frankly I've seen a lot of these products doing a lot of good in the locations they end up in. I've also found field warehouses full of things like a Mountain Hardware super-technical mountaineering backpack with a carbon-fiber frame.

Now, there's a few problems here. One is around the inappropriate or just completely non-useful crap that leaks through the system and gets dumped on countries that don't need it. A bigger problem than that is of course these GIK goods making it to secondary markets in their destination countries and being sold or re-sold to the exact people they were intended to be gifted to.

But the biggest issue, the thing at the core of it, is that while these countries may actually "need" these things for their people, what they actually need is a non-corrupt government and political system, backed up by legitimate justice and peacekeeping infrastructure, that support a good business environment in which basic capitalism practices are duly rewarded and etc. etc. etc. - all of this leading to the Development that the NGOs are seeking at the end of the day.

It won't happen overnight, or even over-decade. It doesn't mean that the kid with no shoes doesn't need them today, however.

This is where the cash conversation comes in. You could send me a container of Toms Shoes (those go through our supply chain too, coincidentally), and I could put shoes on the feet of a few thousand children who have never worn shoes before here in Chad, tomorrow. I'm not going to fix the bigger issues / system that keeps kids in Chad from having shoes, but I'm still going to have done a good thing. But let's say instead you send me the dollar-equivalent of those Toms Shoes. What happens then?

First, you don't pay for the Toms Shoes to be manufactured in the first place. Or, if they're not Toms, maybe they're second hand, but at least you won't be paying for them all to be mailed to some sorting center / warehouse in the US. You won't pay for the overhead to run that warehouse, or the shipping of containers from the warehouse to a ship, you won't pay all the demurage and other port related charges, you won't pay for the oversea shipping of the container or all the fees when it hits its destination port and then the overland shipping in the destination country(ies). You won't pay for a warehouse and distribution system / staff in country.

Instead, I'll see that dollar-equivalent hit my books in our financial system here in Chad, and I'll be able to go out into local markets, and support (read: help develop) the local producers of shoes. Or maybe there aren't any local producers of shoes - instead I can plow those funds into local economic development programs that give sewing machines and training on leather tanning and whatnot to the guys who *could* become local producers of shoes.

This is the end-state ideal, of course, but again - while I'm doing all of that, I could still get the shoes on the kids who don't have them today. That's the whole point of GIK in the first place - its not intended to be a long term solution any more than the emergency food programs we're running in the horn of Africa (and soon in 5 countries in west Africa that are reaching crisis stage) are intended to bring long term food security. Its intended to do a short-term good whilst we still work on the long term change.

It can be and often is done very, very wrong. But that doesn't mean its a net bad thing across the board.

And don't get me started on the visiting-to-volunteer thing.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:40 AM on March 7, 2012 [35 favorites]


I would be very interested in hearing more about the visiting-to-volunteer thing from you, btw.
posted by infini at 7:44 AM on March 7, 2012 [9 favorites]


And don't get me started on the visiting-to-volunteer thing.

Seconded, please do get started on that!
posted by Meatbomb at 7:45 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


If they still exist, I wonder if it would make sense to eliminate tarriffs, taxes, duty on imports from developing countries, so that manufacturers would have the opportunity to sell their products to us Westerners.

So instead of giving our old clothes to people in developing countries, manufacturers in developing countries would have an opportunity to make new clothes to sell to us?

Maybe tarriffs and such do not exist and therefore this point is moot, but just putting it out there.
posted by bitteroldman at 7:52 AM on March 7, 2012


If you don't think the Chinese are colonizing Africa right now, you aren't in Africa right now.

Yeah. Look at all those Chinese faces in Le gouvernement.


Understand that many of those faces are there because Chinese money is putting them there. China is also a major supplier of weapons to African thugs - in, and out, of office. Syria, anyone? Sudan, anyone? Chinese colonialism is colonialism with shiny new roads and distribution centers. Chinese colonialism is better than out colonialism, because it at least creates infrastructure, but don't kid yourself about who will profit most in the end - i.e. the Chinese.

Back to the topic at hand. Development, at bottom, needs well-invested dollars that are properly motivated to go to places that return optimal social returns on investment. The problem in most underdeveloped countries is that simple access to the *distribution* of dollars, or opportunity, comes at a price - i.e. often helping to keeping some of the worst people in control. It's a tough, complicated slog; all we can do is keep at it. Shoes, cash, educational opportunity, personal awareness of how our local actions impact others who are half-a-world away, etc. We neglect and abuse others - directly, or indirectly - at our long term peril. In sum, anything that we, or the Chinese can do in a place like Africa - even though there may be different competing motives, is better, far better, than nothing.
posted by Vibrissae at 8:04 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's a whole ecosystem of economic activity that's been built up around the old crap Americans don't want any more.

Isn't this what recycling is all about? We're not all up in arms about what happens to our old paper, but somehow our old clothes are more precious and can't be recycled through a similar system?

The question to me is, is it better for old clothes to end up in a landfill or recycled for profit?
posted by Dragonness at 8:47 AM on March 7, 2012


Donate physical things locally. It makes no sense to ship landfill-destined crap across the state, never mind the country or the world. There are people near you who need that stuff, and you can take it right to the distribution point yourself.
posted by pracowity at 9:06 AM on March 7, 2012


I read this blog post "Do You Cause More Harm than Good by Giving TOMS Shoes to the Poor?" a year or two ago and it deals with much of the same stuff. The author, a Peace Corps member who was in Mali, argues that giving away shoes really only treats symptoms of the real problem: lack of sanitation and education. He proposes TOMS instead "sell durable shoes to the poor at prices that they can afford."
posted by huxham at 9:12 AM on March 7, 2012


Understand that many of those faces are there because Chinese money is putting them there. China is also a major supplier of weapons to African thugs - in, and out, of office.

This is, BTW, exactly the same model that good, old-fashioned colonialism. Colonial administrations usually worked with just a handful of Europeans, because they built upon existing local hierarchies and muscle, from the fabled Indian princes to the infamous Congolese Force Publique.
posted by Skeptic at 9:22 AM on March 7, 2012


he told me it's not really a literal goat they're buying; it's a symbolic donation to their agricultural programs, which includes but is not limited to setting up families with goats for milk, meat, and other farming.

That may be true of donations to Oxfam, but Heifer International actually supplies animals directly to people, along with training in their care and a pledge from them that some of the offspring from the animals will be used not as food but to start other families in the local area who have received off with their own animals, who are then obligated to help with offspring from THEIR animals, etc.

They also have the typical charity problem of receiving something like 90% of their donations in a single month, December, and are really hoping that their program will be in people's thoughts and minds more of the year around.

They're highly rated by many who give ratings to such organizations (72 of their received dollars go toward the animals and training and other programs, 28% to overhead), and they're widely known for having great transparency.

They're really one of the few charities aimed at improving lives in the developing world that impresses me enough to share my meager funds with. I really encourage anyone who has the inclination and the tiny amount of money it costs to give an animal to check them out and think about donating.
posted by hippybear at 9:23 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


In sum, anything that we, or the Chinese can do in a place like Africa - even though there may be different competing motives, is better, far better, than nothing.

The more I read about misguided aid attempts, the more I feel that this statement is false. The problem with doing 'anything' is that these attempts usually result in the creation and implementation of pathological power structures that, based on errant altruistic motives, will persist as means of future inequality and problems.

This is a pretty good example of problematic aid deployments. It is my increasing belief that no aid is better than misguided and mis-implemented aid that results in unequal power structures erected.
posted by kurosawa's pal at 9:42 AM on March 7, 2012


In a nutshell - You Can't Win.
posted by kenaldo at 9:46 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Part of me sees these and feels that there is something smug about donating to charity in someone else's name - giving the message that 'I am so antimaterialistic that I gave your present to Africa', rather than giving for its own sake.
posted by mippy at 5:54 AM on March 7


I have a relative who sometimes gives money in my name to charities who do (political) work I disagree with. It's really annoying. On the other hand, I am in the habit of donating to Planned Parenthood in Sarah Palin's name, so it probably evens out.

Topic? Oh. What about medical missions? It seems to me that if you want to give money to make Africa better and you don't really know where to start, that an organization like Doctors Without Borders would be perfect. Several of the doctors I work with do regular medical missions to Kenya, and it seems like an unalloyed good: they do a bunch of operations that otherwise wouldn't have been done, and they help train the local doctors in how to do these (highly specialized) surgeries.
posted by joannemerriam at 9:52 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


'... And he does get sidetracked. I don't know what's really happened to the real Hogfather or why Grandfather's doing his job, but I know a bit about how he thinks and he's got no ... no mental shields like we have. He doesn't know how to forget things or ignore things. He takes everything literally and logically and doesn't understand why that doesn't always work ...'

She saw his bemused expression.

'Look ... how would you make sure everyone in the world was well fed?' she demanded.

'Me? Oh, well, I...' The [god of hangovers] spluttered for a moment. 'I suppose you'd have to think about the prevalent political systems, and the proper division and cultivation of arable land, and ...'

'Yes, yes. But he'd just give everyone a good meal' said Susan.

'Oh, I see. Very impractical. Hah, it's as silly as saying you could clothe the naked by, well, giving them some clothes.'

'Yes! I mean, no. Of course not! I mean, obviously you'd give... oh, you know what I mean!'

'Yes, I suppose so.'

'But he wouldn't.'


Hogfather - Terry Pratchett
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:52 AM on March 7, 2012




And yet that would so much better for the local economy, by providing some jobs.

posted by jb at 10:11 AM on March 7, 2012


Sorry - that was in response to this: "Admittedly, it's worse overseas because the poverty problem is usually far worse and the travel costs are just stupid. A church I attended once sent a group of college kids over to Kenya, which cost several thousand dollars each, to do manual labor... and one of the organizers mentioned to me afterwards that they hated it because the kids needed so much supervision, but that just soliciting enough money to pay the relatively minuscule amount for manual labor *there* would have been more difficult. Because nobody gets to pad their resumes with "I gave $20 to pay a guy to build a retaining wall"."

and my comment was that sending money over to hire local labour is much better, since unemployment is one of the major causes of poverty in the developing world, just as in the developed world.
posted by jb at 10:12 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


The US solution is to simply eliminate the tax deduction for all charitable contributions other than cash.
posted by Ardiril at 10:14 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


This seems like a decent enough time to share my favorite story about Salvation Army thrift stores. I ran into a friend from high school on her way back from a church volunteer trip to San Francisco. I asked her how it went, and she said many of the students she accompanied on the trip were disappointed with the volunteer work they did on the trip. They thought they'd be serving soup at a homeless shelter or building houses or some other sort of feel-good volunteer work. Instead, their task for a few days was to sit in a warehouse ripping up donated greeting cards. A lot of cards had messages or imagery that Salvation Army had deemed inappropriate (you know those cards with bikini-clad women or sexual innuendos), and they didn't want to sell them in the thrift stores and they couldn't very well give them back to the companies that had donated them. So, a group of kids from the middle of the country spent a week in San Francisco ripping up greeting cards as part of their church-sponsored volunteer work.
posted by msbrauer at 10:17 AM on March 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


I donate a lot of clothing, furniture and other things in kind - but only to local thrift stores who will sell it back to my neighbours, and then I go to that same thrift store and buy other things. I do this so that they don't end up in landfill, to donate to charity and especially so that cheap used things are available for people with no money (like me). I also donate old electronics to an organisation that sells off the good stuff cheap and recycles the broken stuff.

I just wish that there were still rag collectors, so I could donate all of the stuff that I have that isn't wearable to be made into rugs or paper or something.

But this is all local, so I'm not messing up another country's manufacturing sector by dumping.
posted by jb at 10:23 AM on March 7, 2012


In a nutshell - You Can't Win.
posted by kenaldo at 12:46 PM on March 7 [+] [!]


you can - donate cash to local or international food charities, and your unwanted but good condition clothing, furniture, books etc to a local thrift store where I will come and buy them. My work wardrobe this winter has been 90% thrift store - nice skirts, blouses, a gorgeous red wool coat.
posted by jb at 10:26 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


People donate greeting cards?
posted by desjardins at 10:30 AM on March 7, 2012


I'm ordinarily very much in favor of these critiques of aid and charity, particularly when it comes to dumping used goods on African markets. Cash transfers are often a much better way to go about things. I also sympathize with critiques about American/European voluntourism and its frequently perverse effects. This post provides a great summary of why people should think twice or thrice about going to Africa to build houses or, the absolute worst, work in an orphanage.

But there can be a silver lining to these experiences, as Stupart says in the above link, if they're regarded as a learning experience. Kathryn Mathers—who's written a book on young Americans travels abroad in Africa that I plan to read one of these days—points out in her generally scathing essay "Mr Kristof, I presume?" that for many Americans on these trips, students "came face to face with a realization of their Americanness
and the burdens that such a globally privileged identity carried"; they ended their "trips socially active young Americans planning to work toward political and social change in the United States, change that had the possibility of also changing U.S. relations with Africa."

This kind of consciousness-building can be valuable, so long as it's not just about soothing consciences or boosting egos (or résumes!).
posted by col_pogo at 10:38 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


"People donate greeting cards?"

From the comment: "they couldn't very well give them back to the companies that had donated them."

Companies get charitable tax deductions for their overruns donated to charities. I wouldn't be surprised if some enterprising crap artists go around buying up yard sale leavings for pennies on the dollar that they then "donate" for nickels.
posted by Ardiril at 10:49 AM on March 7, 2012


Fascinating stuff.
posted by bongo_x at 11:10 AM on March 7, 2012


The US solution is to simply eliminate the tax deduction for all charitable contributions other than cash.

That ignores the fact that while charities might prefer cash, there are charities that do fine with donations of goods, actively solicit them, and have built up business models based on processing them in various ways. And there's no guarantee that if you made it less attractive to donate goods that people would donate cash instead.

As others have said, if you have a pile of old clothes that you're deciding whether to donate or throw away, making it harder to donate them is unlikely to make you give a bunch of cash instead. You, as the donator, probably don't have the ability to convert those clothes into cash very easily. So they'd end up not getting donated goods, but probably not end up getting a lot of increased cash.

In my area, there are a number of non-profit orgs that solicit donations of used construction materials (lumber, appliances, fixtures, etc.) and then sell them out of big shops. They fund green jobs training with the proceeds, and most of the training is the recovery and reutilization of used building materials, so there's a positive feedback loop, the net result of which is employment and less waste. It seems like a good thing to me, but I doubt that they would be able to bootstrap themselves if it wasn't for the deductibility of goods donations.

There are also charities that solicit for old clothes, but then only pick out the best and most resalable clothes, sending the rest as rags for use in paper production. It may not be what people think is happening when they donate a bag of old clothes, but that doesn't mean it's without merit -- the charity gets cash, the donor gets rid of clothes, and a paper company gets recycled fibers without the environmental impact of using virgin cotton.

Charities that want/need cash should ask for cash, so there's not any question of ending up with a lot of crap they can't use. But that doesn't mean that all charities are in that situation.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:45 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dee Xtrovert's take on volunteer tourists (from an AskMe just after the Haiti earthquake.)
posted by Daily Alice at 12:30 PM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


one charity which runs a chain of bookstores will throw away (literally, in the bin) books that look vaguely read...

For what it's worth, in the UK chain charity bookshop I volunteer in, all books deemed unsaleable at our prices are sold on to someone else with a lower pricepoint - anything that comes in the door with obvious damage, any Readers Digest condensed books, all goes straight out. For pennies, but not to landfill. Anything that stays too long on the shelves is also sold on, at a higher price, to someone else to make way for newer stock.

I just wish that there were still rag collectors, so I could donate all of the stuff that I have that isn't wearable to be made into rugs or paper or something.

Ask your local charity shop what they do with unsaleable stuff, it may well be possible to send it in that direction via their system - I don't know if there's any kind of standard system, but similarly some shops will sell stuff on to the rag man by weight.
posted by Lebannen at 12:42 PM on March 7, 2012


Yeah, this kind of "aid" really gets my goat. It is aid for American youths, and looks better than an internship.

The Peace Corps English teaching programme is a huge example of this... minimal help to the target nation, massive expense to administer, assist, train, advise, and cater to the American kids that are getting this wonderful career builder. A fucking crock of shit.


In addition to what Jahaza said about service delivery not actually being the primary goal of Peace Corps, I really don't think it's fair to lump in the Peace Corps with "spend two weeks building houses/holding orphans/whatever" type of volunteer work. First of all, it's a much longer term - a little over two years - during which volunteers are able to learn some of the language and culture and build a stronger connection with the community than someone would if they're in and out over the course of spring break or whatever. Furthermore, the Peace Corps has agreements with host governments; it's not like they're showing up unwanted. I'm not sure if you're hating just on the English teaching aspect of the Peace Corps or more generally, but my understanding (RPCVs out there correct me if I'm wrong) is that the host country also has a big say in what services PCVs provide, so if the host country wants people doing agriculture or public health or whatever instead of English teachers, that's what they get.

IANAPCV. I have lots of friends who are RPCVs. Most of them have overall positive things to say about the program, as well as some very nuanced criticisms. Additionally, Kate Puzey and I were acquaintances in college, and the issue MadGastronomer raised of how PC deals with volunteer safety is very important to me.
posted by naoko at 1:25 PM on March 7, 2012


On a tangent, this is why I have almost completely stopped knitting for charity.

Non-knitters probably aren't aware of how big a "thing" charity knitting is. There are dozens of organizations dedicated to it, and even more solo people just trying to distribute knits on their own.

Charity knitting is like burnishing your gold star, if you're a knitter. It's the ultimate sacrifice of both time, skill, and money (because yarn isn't cheap, despite what non-knitters believe). It's also a way to get rid of those ugly, wonky things you knit as a beginning knitter.

I must confess, I did plenty of prideful star-burnishing myself, until the last year or so. Mea culpa.

But in addition to the issues mentioned above, there is another problem with charity knitting: all over the world, there are local knitters trying to make a buck by knitting things and selling them locally.

In America, knitting is largely a matter of choice, and perhaps a way to earn some cash on the side. It's a hobby. But elsewhere in the world, knitwear sellers are working to support their families. Their ability to sell their knitted goods is literally a matter of life or death in many impoverished nations.

If I knit a good strong pair of mittens and donate them to rural Afghanistan, that's my time and money spent, plus the time and money of the organization that brokers the collection/shipping/distribution. It's also one less pair of mittens sold by a local Afghan knitter or weaver, which not only impacts the Afghan knitter, it also damages the local economy as a whole. As well as impacting the long-term ability of that economy to survive, if not flourish.

Better, then, to just send $5 to an organization that will buy mittens from that local woman and give it to the local orphanage (or whatever).
posted by ErikaB at 2:05 PM on March 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


I just wish that there were still rag collectors, so I could donate all of the stuff that I have that isn't wearable to be made into rugs or paper or something.

There have been several articles and books written about this, but basically you donating your clothes to your local thrift store starts them into that system. The clothes go through repeated cullings, first for what can be sold in stores in the US at various pricepoints, and then into what gets bundled into shipping containers and sent overseas, and then into what is chopped up and sold as rags. I've seen those rags used in machine shops; I don't know if there is another step in the process where some are used as raw materials for types of paper, house insulation, or other stuff.
posted by Forktine at 5:14 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Re: volunteer vacations, this is something I've thought about a lot-- I spent a couple months doing the volunteer in a developing country thing, albeit with probably somewhat more self awareness and cynicism than your average volunteer (and a lot of thought going into whether the organization had local leadership/representation, whether I'd be taking jobs away from locals, whether I would be consuming resources the community couldn't spare).

Anyway, while I understand the exasperation behind volunteer tourism, and I understand that a check would be better in most any situation for a multitude of reasons, I don't think that most volunteers are naive enough to think that their shining presence is a great and heroic gift they are giving, asking nothing in return (perhaps I'm the one who is being naive here). In my case and in that of most of the people I met, volunteer tourism is simply a thing that they do while traveling, with traveling being the focus. In my case, it was a way to live for a few months in a new culture in a situation with lots of opportunity to meet both other travelers and residents of the city, and work on my spanish. On the other hand, the people I was "helping" were pleased to get another set of hands, the chance to show off their city and meet someone from far away, and the chance to get some tourist money coming into a city whose tourist infrastructure had been pretty much demolished a few years before.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that while it's important to be aware of the problems of volunteering abroad and the many situations in which it's definitely NOT appropriate, I think there are a lot of situations in which it facilitates a much deeper interaction between travelers and the people of the host country than regular tourism. And I think if you're going to equate it with anything, it should be regular tourism, not charity. While there's definitely a cringe-inducing element of 'I'm so noble I gave up my summer to help these poor people,' I think at it's best travel tourism can be much less horrible.

Also, To Hell with Good Intentions is an interesting read, a very persuasive argument against what I'm saying here.
posted by geegollygosh at 5:39 PM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


I used to volunteer for an organization that collected new knitted items and sent them overseas. I stopped because of the concerns raised here, but it was pretty amazing to see what people sent in. About half of it was nice stuff that fit the guidelines, 30% was nice but wouldn't work for the recipients, 15% was weird mutant gauge failures, and 5% was just random crap that people stuffed in a box and shipped to us.

Consistently, the worst stuff came from church groups. There were a few individuals who sent weird stuff, but whenever we got a big box from any church group we just groaned - the bigger the box, the worse the stuff. One huge box contained a few knitted items and the rest was dining room drapes. Faded, naturally. WTF, church ladies? Like it's totally worth shipping your faded curtains half-way around the world because they will tie this whole mud hut together? The arrogance of this type of "charity" was sort of astonishing. At least the time we got some penguin sweaters was kind of funny, but "take my garbage and be thankful for it" was just offensive.
posted by Quietgal at 9:50 PM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


In America, knitting is largely a matter of choice, and perhaps a way to earn some cash on the side. It's a hobby. But elsewhere in the world, knitwear sellers are working to support their families. Their ability to sell their knitted goods is literally a matter of life or death in many impoverished nations.

I met the youngest daughter (of 5 children) that a single mother armed with a knitting machine had sent to college. The story she shared with me of her mother's life and courage was inspiring and the above words are spot on. You're not doing any one any favors - otoh, send boxes of wool and knitting machines or come and train people. I wish there were a way to donate creative skills - I'd start something immediately to accept that for this part of the world. There aren't any design schools and so many ingenious, creative innovators all making do with scraps for raw material.
posted by infini at 7:29 AM on March 8, 2012


I hope what I'm about to say doesn't sound preachy, but it's what I've to learn from my time abroad thus far.

When I graduated from university I took an internship with the UN overseas. I came all starry-eyed and ready to change the world. What I found when I got there was a very different than what I expected. Mostly in terms of the bureaucratic quagmire you have to wade through in order to get anything done. Not to mention most of the locals here are very suspicious of any international aid agency, believing that by accepting charity means accepting a foreign influence and, in the case of the United States in the Middle East, increased hegemony over the region.

So I left my internship, disillusioned and not knowing what to do with my international ambitions. Then I met my current boss, an ex-NGO official who decided he could do more "good" setting up a successful software company and hiring the unemployed (yet highly intelligent youth) than he ever would coordinating volunteers or writing policy proposals.

My company is a 30-person software development team that caters to clients mostly in the United States and Europe. We focus on two types of CMS, Drupal (of course) and Sitecore. All our developers are either from Palestine or Jordan, mostly from low-income households with internet access that allowed these guys to become really really good at coding. In fact, they're so good we're telling guys in English making 30x their salary how to do their job.

We pay well above market rate, treat them with respect, hold regular team-building workshops and help them move their careers forward. My job is to facilitate communication between our foreign clients, write proposals and help us get a foot into the English-speaking global economy This model has been so successful that we just opened up another office in Nairobi Kenya with a similar ethos.

Its a different kind of social entrepreneurship, though we're not tackling water quality or electricity. We're tackling unemployment, arguably one of the greatest social ills of them all. I can't generalize for all countries, but at least in the Levant region of the Middle East (including Egypt) folks here are tired of this "begging bowl" mentality.

Want to save the world? Go start a successful business. Not because you feel sorry for the people living there. But because you recognize the inherent opportunities and sheer talent available in areas stigmatized by images of poverty and destitution.
posted by northxnorthwest at 1:53 AM on March 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Penguin sweaters make a lot of sense as a charitable knitting project. It's not like there is are penguins knitting sweaters and hoping to sell them to other penguins. Also, penguins won't feel embarassed at wearing a sweater with a few dropped stiches or made in funny colours.
posted by jb at 11:04 AM on March 11, 2012


mellow seas: "The Peace Corps English teaching programme is a huge example of this... minimal help to the target nation, massive expense to administer, assist, train, advise, and cater to the American kids that are getting this wonderful career builder. A fucking crock of shit.

I mean, maybe it's distasteful to get relativistic in a thread about international charity, but American kids can use all the wonderful career builders they can get right now.
"

The issue of privelege has already been brought up, but the truth is an even better experience, both for their future work and for our country, would be for them to go and do paid work here, in the U.S. Conidering the cost of one of these trips is probably upwards of $1,000, you could just as easily have them work 20-30 hours a week for a few weeks doing jobs that actually resemble the work they'd do later on in their lives and give them the resultant salary for exactly the same cost. Best of all, you could use the cost savings to include those who can't afford a plane ticket to Africa.

People who are unpaid can work as hard as they feel like. People who are paid must work as hard as they are told, or they don't get paid. Although this is often taken to extremes by employers (crappy hours, crappy healthcare, crappy working conditions, etc.) the truth is that people just aren't as motivated to work, on the whole, in contexts where there is no disincentive for crappy work. If they can be fired, then they can hopefully be motivated to actually work instead of goofing off.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:07 AM on March 12, 2012


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