Middle East erupts, foreign aid cuts and World Vision survives Superbowl T-shirt attack

Based on a very unscientific sampling of the foreign aid and development blogosphere, three issues have dominated most of the discussions lately in this community devoted to fighting poverty and improving lives worldwide:

  1. The uprising in the Middle East.
  2. The push by some in Congress to cut deeper into the foreign aid budget.
  3. World’s Vision plan to give NFL Superbowl T-shirts (of the losing team) to poor people.

Superbowl 2011

I will focus only on the last issue of the T-shirts, leaving aside for now the first two topics which may be more important but are often, in fact, not very entertaining.

It’s much more interesting to pick on a large do-gooder organization for doing something apparently ill-conceived like donating to poor people more “stuff we don’t want” (dubbed SWEDOW or GIK, gifts-in-kind, by the development cognoscenti).

I should add, in the interest of full disclosure, that I was one of those who jumped on the outrage bandwagon about World Vision’s loser T-shirt donation scheme.

Unlike many, however, I wasn’t really outraged so much as amused. Do Zambians really want to wear misprinted shirts mistakenly celebrating the Pittsburgh Steelers as Superbowl champions? I know some Zambians; maybe I’ll ask. This just seemed like kind of a dumb, maybe slightly demeaning, thing for World Vision to do.

It doesn’t seem quite as dumb and demeaning as Hyundai’s One Million Balls to Africa scheme, but pretty close. (I mean, what? Buy a car and Hyundai donates a ball to an African kid? Ya kidding me?)

But as the anti-poverty and aid community grew increasingly outraged about this program, launching a petition against World Vision’s practices and demanding the organization account for itself, it all began to look to me like, well, a bit of an over-reaction. I mean, okay, this doesn’t seem like World Vision at its best but c’mon now.

How bad could it be to donate a shirt to some poor person?

Clearly, aid workers in poor countries are sick to death of having to deal with all our donated useless crap. Here’s a good overview of another T-shirt donation scheme, which explains why the World Vision program sparked outrage, and a related video:

World Vision, to its credit, has responded repeatedly to the criticisms, most recently with a description released today detailing the financial costs and benefits of sending a shirt overseas.

As silly as the program itself — and the angry opposition to it — may sound, it turns out this flap represents some complex issues that deserve serious attention.

As Alanna Shaikh writes in UN Dispatch, in her post Tainted Gifts in Kind, the problem is not so much with the donations themselves but with the financial incentives driving this kind of aid. Says Shaikh:

GIK can be done in better ways and worse ways. It’s pretty much always better to buy locally, but if you’re a managing a program on a limited budget and you can have HQ ship some cool looking American stuff for free instead of buying the same old things from the bazaar with your tiny program budget, you are generally going to jump on the GIK. Because in your context, in your little budget, it makes your program go farther.

Dean Karlen, at the New York Times’ Freakonomics blog, came closer to a defense of World Vision by challenging the critics to show that selling these “loser” Superbowl T-shirts and donating the money is better than donating them:

The more I read, the more I was struck: lots of rhetoric, but I could not find a simple evaluation that compared the above tradeoff: hand out t-shirts in Africa, or sell them in the U.S. and hand out the cash equivalent in Africa.

The critics’ argument, perhaps best described by Saundra Schimmelpfenig at Good Intentions are Not Enough, is that GIK is just bad aid. Poor people don’t need donated T-shirts, she says, so much as they need better health care services, better roads, economic and educational opportunities and so on.

Saundra writes that the primary beneficiaries of this “gifts-in-kind” practice are the donors, who get a tax write-off, and the non-profit organizations, who get publicity.

The anonymous aid worker who writes for Tales From the Hood hopes that the World Vision flap will prompt the entire development industry to reform this common but problematic practice.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.

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