Is it time to unwrap Oxfam Unwrapped?
December 18, 2007 5:53 AM   Subscribe

So spiked wants us to actually lift africans out of poverty, not give them a goat. Fair enough. I am not sure about what we should be doing differently if we are talking about a few hundred thousand people giving a few tens of dollars. Here is Tyler Cowen's approach.

I would rather the NGOs assume the aid recipients are grownups, give them $10 cash and assume that they know how best to spend it, but either way there is not going to be enough money donated to "lift Africa out of poverty."
posted by shothotbot at 6:10 AM on December 18, 2007

Focusing on family planning, countering teenage pregnancy and dishing out condoms, charities obsess over containing the size of poor communities. The logic seems to be that population control is one surefire way to reduce the number of the global poor.

Family planning: Because fewer children is less expensive for the parents.
Teenage pregnancy: Even in the developed world, this is a major hardship.
Condoms: You've heard of AIDS, right?

I mean, she has a point somewhat that sending worms to Africa is dumb at best and propagating, rather than addressing, subsistence farming at worst. But I'd like to hear some suggestions that sound a little more practical (not to mention affordable for individual Western donation) than washing machines.
posted by DU at 6:16 AM on December 18, 2007

Ms. Rothschild says that Oxfam "hopes to raise £14.5million through this year’s Campaign for Decent Christmas Presents. Surely an organisation with such a big budget can come up with more inspiring and fun Christmas gifts than goats and dung?" But the other article points out that Oxfam hopes to address the poverty of 854 million people. I suppose Ms Rothschild would like to see each of those people receive 2 pence to do with as they liked? (It doesn't sound like a lot when expressed in UK currency, but here that would be almost a nickel!)
posted by ubiquity at 6:21 AM on December 18, 2007

Some background (not intended as any criticism of this being an FPP):

Spiked Online, the second link, is the current mouthpiece of the writers formerly associated with LM (Living Marxism) magazine, which folded after libelling a British news organisations by claiming they'd fabricated evidence of detention camps in Bosnia. Ceri Dingle, the main charity person quoted in the BBC link criticising the goat-gift programs, runs WORLDwrite, which is a platform for the LM group, and has spoken at events organized by the Institute of Ideas, which is now the LM group's main vehicle.

The LM group has its roots in the Revolutionary Communist Party, but their political positions now (as far as they can be discerned) are sort of extreme-libertarian rightwing contrarianism. Positions include: support for Slobodan Milosevic, downplaying or underplaying of the Rwandan genocide, opposition to laws against child pornography, and, above all in the UK at the moment, unflinching support for anything and everything biotech (helped along by funding from the biotech industry.) Front groups include Sense About Science. More from George Monbiot.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:22 AM on December 18, 2007 [17 favorites]

Don't want a goat or a grasscutter? Don't accept it. Problem solved.

Third-world poverty as a concept versus its effects on individuals are very different. Sure, Oxfam could devote its resources to Smashing the State and ending the cycle, but they won't succeed. Better to give a bunch of families goats than waste the money on a fight that destroy the organization.

This reminds me why I stopped being a capital S Socialist-- Thanks!
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:30 AM on December 18, 2007 [3 favorites]

game warden to the events rhino:

Thanks for the background on Spiked Online.
posted by shothotbot at 6:33 AM on December 18, 2007

the goat gift is just what i've gone and dung this xmas. i was going to "adopt" a 3rd world child, but when i read of her circumstances, living in a thatched roof house, having to wash in a local stream and not being able to afford schooling, i decided i'd rather change lives with her. i don't have the money to lift an african out of total poverty and into an american lifestyle, and wouldn't do it if i could. what is the african dream? i hope it's not to rise to western living standards. whatever it is, i think the goat will fit in somewhere.
posted by kitchenrat at 6:38 AM on December 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

but either way there is not going to be enough money donated to "lift Africa out of poverty."

Indeed. If anything, a century of colonialism and a half-century of white-guilt over colonialism has done nothing to change the status quo in Africa.

This scheme seems like more of the same.

Here's an idea: why not leave Africa to the Africans and let them sort out their own business?
posted by three blind mice at 6:47 AM on December 18, 2007

The fundamental problem is that even if you gave every African a nice American-style home with a two-car garage, a washer-dryer, and a Toyota Highlander, they would still be impoverished, because they don't have much wealth-generation capability. None of this stuff works alone; everything is interdependent.

One idea that's tickled in the back of my head is that closed markets might be better for them. They can't scale yet, so their individual farming efforts have a hell of a time competing with our giant multinationals. And it's REALLY hard to compete with 'free'; if we're pouring food into the country, it's going to be impossible for local farmers to make a living, and it's the farmers that are the first central structure of an economy.

It seems like they need the ability to feed, clothe, and house themselves first, and I'm not sure they can generate it with our continued interference.

Now, this isn't an attempt to stop aid to those countries, it's just that I'm not sure we're going about it the right way. It seems like the primary focus needs to be on getting a localized, sustainable economy going, and THEN opening up (slowly) to world trade. Sort of like the Amish do it; entirely self-sufficient, but then able to sell their crafted goods to the outside world in exchange for luxuries. Maybe shooting for a solid, basic living standard, like America of year 1900, might be the best approach. We were relatively poor in 1900, but we were all eating, and could get ahead in life. We didn't have washer/dryers then either.
posted by Malor at 7:00 AM on December 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

Well, I guess a goat is better than nothing.
posted by hjo3 at 7:02 AM on December 18, 2007

Edit: Upon reading Malor's comment, maybe not.
posted by hjo3 at 7:04 AM on December 18, 2007

Although I agree the marketing technique is a little slippery, the Oxfam Unwrapped program isn't just shipping dung or donkeys to the developing world...

From the website:
"What we can promise is that whatever you purchase, your donation will go towards funding programs that your item represents." (italics mine)

So that means if you 'buy a goat', you could be giving money to a vaccination program.

Anyway, if you don't like the idea, Kiva might be your thing. You can offer microcredit to specific small businesses around the world.
posted by stokast at 7:09 AM on December 18, 2007

A goat certainly seemed to help this girl.
posted by TedW at 7:10 AM on December 18, 2007

Malor - closed markets? I imagine the mobile phone manufacturing industry in Ghana isn't enormous right now, but does that mean that Ghanaians shouldn't have mobile phones? Technology is one way that developing nations can increase productivity in things like agriculture. Below cost food imports are pretty clearly a bad idea and are something that government aid donors are now much more aware of, but suggesting a totally closed economy strikes me as utterly immoral. Not that our present aid efforts are wondrous examples of altruism, but still.
posted by patricio at 7:12 AM on December 18, 2007

*sheepishly unwraps goats, leads them back to the farmer who sold them*
posted by koeselitz at 7:19 AM on December 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

You know, goats are good livestock. They're ruminants so they can eat pretty much any plant matter, they're pretty hardy, they take up barely any space, they're highly mobile, you can breed them, you can milk them, you can eat them, and you can sell them. It's livestock... it's alive and it's an investment. You could think of it as a stinky, breathing bank account. Giving someone a goat isn't the same as giving them a job, but owning a farm animal ain't such a horrible second choice. You gotta start somewhere.
posted by zennie at 7:32 AM on December 18, 2007 [4 favorites]

The idea that NGOs should be trying to help the poverty-stricken lead a comfortable 9-5 existence is ridiculous. People are dying of starvation, curable diseases and HIV-related ignorance, and the charities don't have enough money to help a fraction of them. Anything that encourages people to give while simultaneously helping people provide food or keep their families alive, no matter how humiliating, is the best we can ask for from the non-profit sector. Anything else is a matter for governments.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 7:36 AM on December 18, 2007 [3 favorites]

Here's an idea: why not leave Africa to the Africans and let them sort out their own business?

Or bomb them all and let God sort it out, amirite? They can either love it or leave it.
posted by DU at 7:39 AM on December 18, 2007

Today we found out that some Africans take an admirable do it yourself attitude, though it does not always meet the approval of the powers that be: Ethiopia Central Bank Buys Fake Gold: Seven Officials Arrested.
posted by shothotbot at 7:43 AM on December 18, 2007

The problem with articles like this is that they fuel compassion fatigue.

The "gift of goats" thing is gimmicky, but you can't deny that Oxfam and Heifer have used these gifts effectively for localized development.

Ditto those adopt-a-child program. I used to work for one of those places. The place I worked used that money to help the child's village/area through well drilling, preventive medicine, and other things.

People criticize microcredit programs for having high interest rates (20-25%), though they're still lower than local banks offer, with fewer restrictions. And they've been effective as well.

But people in the West like gimmicks. It gives them something tangible. It makes the complexity of international aid and development understandable. "I gave $50 to buy 500 doses of antivirals for kids in Malawi" sounds better than "I gave $50 to an NGO that, after taking $10 of that for expenses, was able to pool the remaining $40 with a bunch of other gifts to buy discounted antivirals from an multinational drug company to distribute to kids in Malawi thanks to a partnership with the UN and a number of other medical NGOs, though some of that got caught in customs and they had to fight to prevent corrupt officials from skimming some of that off."

We want it to be simple -- we give $50 to a starving kid, they eat, and as a result get a PhD in health services and bring about the great Malawian renaissance. But it's not. It's incredibly frustrating to continually sink money into international aid and see few returns. So, the gimmicks. Or we just stop giving.

Solutions are going to have to come locally. Most NPO/NGOs get that now. It's not cheap, since you lose scale, but technology has helped with that. You can either give money generally to the larger organizations like World Vision or Oxfam, or you seek out Kiva or Grameen for the tangible.
posted by dw at 7:47 AM on December 18, 2007 [7 favorites]

As for closing African markets, that probably won't help, either. They need exports for hard currency, but with no imports most countries will slam the door on African imports, or at least charge some nasty tariffs.

But, what do you do? If you get Europe and the US to drop farm subsidies, then Africa can export food to those countries, which could lead to an Irish potato famine (food grown for export, no one local can afford it). If you push Africa into a SE Asian manufacturing model, then you get the environmental degradation and the sweatshops. A service based economy just won't work until Africa's telecommunications infrastructure is built out. And that leaves exporting raw materials, and we know how well that's worked so far.

And there's the spectre of HIV as well. The young professional class in sub-Saharan Africa has been decimated by AIDS. The ones that remain would rather fine a job in the West.
posted by dw at 7:57 AM on December 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

This article makes me happy. I don't want someone to give me a certificate for someone in Africa ALLEGEDLY receiving a goat for Christmas... I want a damned gift, of the non-goat variety. And now I can sit up on my high horse and yell, "That person didn't even want your damned goat, you damn hippie!" Then I can grab a handful of cashews and storm out of the room, completely justified in my behavior.
posted by fusinski at 7:59 AM on December 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

This reminds me why I stopped being a capital S Socialist-- Thanks!

FWIW, I don't believe anyone could describe the little faction around Living Marxism as Socialists any longer. Unless you still think Hitchins is a socialist. I don't think any of the Trotskyite sects ever fitted in with my idea of socialism anyway.

Unless you meant that you stopped being a socialist because of the number of loons associated with Trotskyite sects? That would make sense, I suppose. Does anyone remember that bunch who believed that Enver Hoxha was the greatest thing since sliced bread? I believe they were called the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist/Leninist), but they were *all* called the Revolutionary Communist Party as I recall, so that's probably no help.

Personally, I'm a member of the Drink-soaked Trotskyite Popinjays for War.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:20 AM on December 18, 2007

Actually, I am pretty sure Africa would be a lot better off if we made our markets more open, and quit the damned subsidies to our farmers and heavy tariffs on imported agricultural goods. The movements of the '80s to encourage anti-protectionist economic policies in Africa was just flabbergastingly hypocritical given our own policies that directly undermined their market development. We flood them with our shit but don't allow the same.

I don't understand the reasoning behind this. Look, people have to eat, right? Giving them livestock, agricultural tools, these are things they no longer have to buy themselves. Which means more extra money. Which means maybe they can buy shoes for their kids, and their kids can go to school. And then the kids' higher education increases their earning power, so they can send their kids to school, maybe even past primary. And so on and so forth. Furthermore, their arguments that micro-finance simply keeps people at the subsistence level is just wrong. Micro-finance loans gives people the resources to build businesses that move them past the subsistence level. If you're in a village that doesn't have running water, what the hell are you going to do with a washer/dryer? Who is going to repair it? Hook up the indoor plumbing? Transport it? Order new parts? Practical gifts aren't as glamorous as a washer/dryer, but they are infinitely more usable.

This is not to say they don't make good points, but they aren't original ones. The problem of Western-raised NGOs going in and trying to run things and tell people who have been farming for generations how to do it right, or something like that, is serious. That is patronizing. And we do need to consider the effects of international aid on the economies of developing countries, and whether it is all positive--I mean, some countries receive more in aid than their total GDP! Of course, if we want them to stand on their own two feet, as I mentioned before we gotta lift the trade restrictions that are blocking them.
posted by schroedinger at 8:29 AM on December 18, 2007 [4 favorites]

BBC Newsflash; People in Africa disappointed with their Christmas gifts too.

Would one of the 834 million people that went to bed hungry last night felt slighted by getting a grasscutter? It would seem to be a distribution problem, rather than an ethical one.
posted by Keith Talent at 8:44 AM on December 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Metafilter: flabbergastingly
posted by nax at 8:54 AM on December 18, 2007

" If it weren’t for her goat, Beatrice wouldn’t have gone to school"

Does Lewis Black get royalties on that?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:57 AM on December 18, 2007 [4 favorites]

I don't see the problem. If the recipient doesn't want to raise the goat, they can always eat it. It's a free meal at least. I can afford to buy my own turkey, but that wouldn't prevent me from accepting a free turkey.
posted by xmattxfx at 9:00 AM on December 18, 2007

I'd be happy if I got a goat for Christmas. I have plenty of weeds in the back yard that need eatin' and stuff.
posted by drstein at 9:04 AM on December 18, 2007

I hate the way people view charity. I hate it. Even good people. Charity, is something you should be proud of. Charity should be conspicuous. And I find that tacky because I was raised to find it tacky. But it isn't tacky, its beautiful. Consumption is conspicuous. And people consome alot. I can be against it as crass all I want, but when I look at my friends leather sofa and compare it to my wobbly futon I feel a sense of lack. I feel like I'm doing something wrong with my life for not having a leather sofa. Or a nice car. But I don't feel that about charity, and not just because it is a much smaller part of life than buying luxeries, but because it is kept hush hush. So it doesn't feel like a normal part of life. And when it does feel like a normal part of life people give a lot. Like for big stories, like september 11th or tsunamis. Or yellow rubber bracelets. It should be visible. We should keep up with the jones' and oxfam should send a tacky plaque that you put outside your house that says you gave $1000 and your friends should feel a sense of lac for not having a tacky plaque.
posted by I Foody at 9:05 AM on December 18, 2007 [9 favorites]

Funny. I assumed the objection to goats was their tendency to add to desertification, due to their eating every ground piece of ground cover.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 9:09 AM on December 18, 2007

It's not necessarily correct that the people receiving the goat are just going to eat it, and in fact that's quite a myopic and patronizing viewpoint to take. In reference to Malor's comment above, the livestock given out by organizations like Heifer are typically revenue-generating items in and of themselves. Someone receiving a goat now has a great supply of milk and fertilizer. Someone receiving an ox now has something to help plow fields. People receiving rabbits, ducks, or other fowl have a self-propogating food production method, possibly even the start of a business selling the offspring of their initial gift to others.

My mom went to Africa a while ago and actually came across a woman who had received livestock from Heifer. With that gift, she was able to start a business that eventually expanded and she was able to buy more livestock and employ other local women. Isn't this sort of thing exactly what you're all looking for? Building a functioning economy and all that?
posted by LionIndex at 9:10 AM on December 18, 2007

It is going to take someone far smarter than I to come up with a solution to African poverty, or to correct the flaws inherent in any charitable organization, but let me be the first to point out that goats rule!

Particularly when they hang out in trees.

I may not have the room for them yet, but one day, I will have a tribe of the little buggers.
posted by quin at 9:13 AM on December 18, 2007

malor: None of this stuff works alone; everything is interdependent..

This is exactly right. Her argument is akin to saying the only thing holding back a homeless man on the street is that he doesn't have keys to the front door of a house. She profoundly ignores the causes of poverty, as well as the practical limitations of NGO involvement. Part of me is surprised that an alleged Marxist could equate and confuse the benefits of wealth with the mechanisms that create wealth.

She is right in saying that technology can be implemented inappropriately, but that's nothing new. I'm not sure she's considered that donating a tractor instead of a hoe might put 15 labourers out of work. The world is not as simple as she paints it.
posted by Adam_S at 9:27 AM on December 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

so Game Warden pretty effectively debunked this.

I'd like to say in general how tired I am of the "Not everyone thinks so" construction. No matter how right and obvious the idea may be, it's always going to be possible to dig up some contrary viewpoint.

Especially when it comes to charity, some people seem to take inordinate pleasure in constructing tortured proofs that those trying to help aren't really helping. Of course the question of aid to Africa is complex, but I don't think the answer is for us to sit back and do nothing.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:29 AM on December 18, 2007

quin -

I've always wanted a pet goat. I like how they smell, and how their eyes look like the devil.

But I never knew they climbed trees. That's awesome! I have an entirely new respect for that noble breed.

Who wouldn't want a goat for Christmas? It's just, unfortunately, I'm not zoned for goats here in L.A. So it will have to remain a dream for now.
posted by MythMaker at 9:32 AM on December 18, 2007

I've always wanted a pet goat

You know who else liked pet goats? That's right, Carl Sandburg!
posted by TedW at 9:38 AM on December 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

We gave out what appears to be a drove of goats this year to our large corporate clients. We got ours from Heifer. We did this for a many reasons. A) We think it is pretty damn cool. B) We can't tell when our clients are taking their holiday break, because of this, we are convinced that chocolate and fruit and stuff ends up going to waste. C) We do work for a lot of big scary companies, and personally I get a kick out of repurposing their funds in ways I think they wouldn't. D) We think that it does benefit the actual goat receiver because they are revenue generating. But mostly because E) they need all the help they can get
posted by HappyHippo at 9:48 AM on December 18, 2007

Give a man a goat, and he'll eat for a couple of days.
Teach a man to goat, and he'll start a website.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:08 AM on December 18, 2007

They say that they will continue to focus on basic needs such as sanitation rather than on helping Africans to ‘become rich’ or have access to ‘luxuries’ such as cars or PlayStations.

This must be an example of dry British humour that my unaccustomed American brain just can't parse.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:17 AM on December 18, 2007

Heifer doesn't just shove a goat (or some bunnies, or duckies, or whatever) at some guy in a hut and then zoom off. As LionIndex describes, they work with families and villages to help them set up something ongoing and self-sufficient.
posted by dogrose at 10:35 AM on December 18, 2007

I will still be giving a few "goats" (or llamas or pigs or bees... it's all just an equivalency) this Christmas, through Heifer International. Providing struggling subsistence farmers with the capitalization, in the form of livestock, to farm more successfully... what the hell, it's not washing machines and PhDs, no, but it's an attempt at ensuring that every day of the rest of their lives, and their children's lives, and the lives of their neighbors, is better than it would have been.
posted by mumkin at 10:36 AM on December 18, 2007

Mr Ocansey started to farm grasscutters as a hobby 10 years ago. Since then, he has seen his business grow to generate a healthy profit from the 260 grasscutters he keeps in a small shed in the Accra suburb of Awoshie.

Personally, I think people would eat them more if they went with the other name, Greater Cane Rat.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:15 AM on December 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

This article and the site — Spiked — it is in is total cynical whiny bullshit. I weel for people who embrace that kind of nonsense as "thinking."
posted by tkchrist at 11:56 AM on December 18, 2007 I also weep.
posted by tkchrist at 11:56 AM on December 18, 2007

So not all the charity giving we do reaches the people it was intended for and has the exact effect we hoped for? So it's sometimes complicated and difficult to figure out the best ways of helping people and running the process smoothly? So fucking what? What this really seems to come down to is the desire to feel better, holier, more in touch with the poor and generous to the unwashed masses, than the people down the street with their tacky Heifer International xmas cards.

I work with a charity in western Kenya that is currently in the process of becoming a Heifer recipient. The organization was started by Kenyans, as a small-scale cooperative to help their community. Up until about a year ago, they had zero involvement of foreigners. They came up with a project to help out the numerous AIDS orphans in the area, some of which had come together into households of their own, headed by 12-year-olds scrabbling to find food and other necessities. What the Kenyans decided to do was give them cows. They got a single cow and gave it to the first family to use for milk, both to feed themselves and sell for income. They bred that cow and got another for the next household. And so on. The only problem is that the breeding is slow and there are a lot of orphans to feed.

Enter some Kenyan Americans and some university students who found out about the group and wanted to help fund their project. Are we dictating to the poor what they need and want? Are we denying them the washing machines they don't have the electricity or piped water to run in their village, the washing machines that wouldn't feed them, that they "deserve"? Are we belittling them with our ideas of "appropriate technology"? That's ridiculous-- this was their idea, afterall. Damned if I'm going to feel shallow for helping them, even if there's a risk that the project will fall apart or won't help everybody get what they want.
posted by bookish at 11:58 AM on December 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

three blind mice: Here's an idea: why not leave Africa to the Africans and let them sort out their own business?

I suspect that those profiting from unbalanced power systems in Africa are unlikely to "leave Africa to the Africans"; therefore, it seems like a better idea is "why not find out what actual Africans want, and find ways to help them make that happen?"

As was mentioned earlier, there's big gaps in the infrastructure of African economies, so airlifting in flatscreen televisions and washing machines will do nothing; what's needed is to encourage the development from the ground up of a viable economy.

From what I've read, groups like Heifer or the one that bookish mentioned are doing so.
posted by dubold at 12:43 PM on December 18, 2007

From the article: Surely an organisation with such a big budget can come up with more inspiring and fun Christmas gifts than goats and dung?

Yes, because that's what people living in destitute conditions need. "Fun and inspiration." I'm pretty sure the point of groups like Heifer International isn't that every third-world resident has a "fun Christmas."

Anyone who thinks washing machines and televisions would make better presents (to areas without electricity) than means to alleviate starvation and disease is more than welcome to start up his or her own charity to distribute them, and will receive my best wishes (but, I feel it's prudent to mention, none of my cash donations).
posted by infinitywaltz at 7:38 PM on December 18, 2007

Because the American/Western lifestyle is so totally awesome and every country has to adopt it to succeed!

oh for goodness sake. It sounds like the writers have never left their house, let alone their continent.
posted by divabat at 7:57 PM on December 18, 2007

Everyone knows that when you chuck in $(however much) for a can of worms, you're not really buying a can of worms. You're contributing to a fund that helps farmers.

If someone, somewhere, set up a similar website, where I could "buy" a $5 Penguin Classics copy of Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" that would really just go to teaching spoiled, half-educated white boys how to think in a straight line instead of cranking out useless contrarian wankery, I'd buy a copy for everyone on my gift list. I would.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 8:12 PM on December 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've supported Heifer Hong Kong for a few years via my web site by running donation drives, the most recent of which collected enough to give away two heifers.

Previous drives gave away other animals, such as yaks for Tibetans, and yes, goats.

Animal husbandry, as zennie mentioned, is a great way for people to multiply their investment. Families in entire villages have seen improvement from one "seed cow".

I much prefer seeing my money used in this way than dumped into some charity's nebulous coffers and used for advertising.
posted by bwg at 10:26 PM on December 18, 2007

Sometimes a goat is just a goat. The design firm I work at has impeccable timing. It was either Oxfam or The Human Fund.
posted by danherwig at 8:57 AM on December 20, 2007

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