In Africa, the Broncos will be celebrated as 2014 Super Bowl champs

Celebrating the 2007 SuperBowl losers in Zambia
Celebrating the 2007 SuperBowl losers in Zambia
World Vision

In case you haven’t heard, a Seattle football team named after a diurnal, fish-eating bird of prey won the Super Bowl.

And once again, World Vision will be seeking to mislead the poor of the developing world as to the true outcome by distributing to the far corners of the planet tens of thousands of T-shirts that proclaim the Denver Broncos as the 2014 Super Bowl champions.

This is a funny story, to me anyway. Not so for everybody, however. To begin with, I’m kidding about the intent of this annual clothing donation scheme. The Seattle-based (well, Federal Way) Christian aid and relief organization, one of the largest such organizations in the world which does great humanitarian work in some of the most difficult regions, is just trying to make use of clothing the NFL has banned from America.

The prohibited items are items of clothing that falsely proclaim the Broncos as winners of a game in which they were severely trounced by the Seahawks.

Denver-Broncos-Super-Bowl-XLVIII-Champs-T-ShirtEvery year, before the Super Bowl, NFL merchandisers print up something like 200,000 t-shirts, hoodies and caps declaring both sides in the contest champions. This is done so fans at the close of the game can immediately buy the winners’ gear. The clothing with the losers emblazoned on it gets donated to organizations like World Vision that, in turn, ship it to poor communities overseas.

In the aid world, this is called a “gift-in-kind” (GIK) donation or, for those critical of this kind of assistance, SWEDOW – Stuff We Don’t Want (coinage @Talesfromthehood).

While a Seahawks fan on safari may suffer confusion, perhaps irritation, at coming across a local wearing this blasphemy, many in the aid world have more serious concerns.

Critics of the charitable practice say it is misguided for several reasons:

  • It’s a hand-me-down that sends a dependency message.
  • Cash is always better than donated goods. Most poor people already have clothes. They need money.
  • Poor communities can be harmed by donated goods because they undermine local merchants.
  • The cost and effort of shipping provides little true benefit compared to other needs.
  • And because, well, it just seems kind of crappy to send the poor a fake Super Bowl Champions shirt.

Humanosphere has reported on this dispute before, but it seemed worth revisiting since a Seattle humanitarian organization is set to possibly diminish what much of Seattle would like to believe is worldwide recognition of our big win. I asked Carol Wylie, VP for GIK at World Vision, if she would be a good sport and answer the critics. Below is an abbreviated version of our Q&A:

Q: How many t-shirts or other NFL Super Loser items of clothing are you planning to ship overseas?

CW: Last year, we shipped about 60 pallets of NFL related donations, which equate to roughly 50,000 pieces.  However, that could vary depending on the size and scale of the products; hats, sweatshirts and T-shirts all take up different amount of room on a pallet.

Q: What is your response to thoise who say donating clothing can cause harm, such as by undermining local merchants or shops?

CW: We respectfully disagree…. The quantity of product we distribute is too small to have any measurable impact on local economies.  Over a recent three-year period, we received about 375,000 articles of clothing from sporting events like the Super Bowl.  Those 375,000 articles of clothing were shipped to multiple communities each, within 31 different countries.  That means that, over three years, on average, only about 12,000 articles of clothing were sent to each country and divided among multiple communities, which often number more than 30,000 people each.  The scale simply isn’t significant enough to flood a market.

Q: How do you know that?

CW: (O)ur field staff look at their local economies and the local availability of items and then provide us with lists of items they want us to procure, as well as supplies they no longer need.  Each year, we adjust what materials we send to any given country based on that field-based research.  We have many examples of communities that needed particular supplies for several years, but, over time, as the communities became more self-sustaining, no longer needed those products.

Q: Many experts say the GIK practice is not of much benefit and sometimes harmful. What evidence does World Vision have that these donated clothes benefit the poor?

CW: Super Bowl clothing, like other forms of GIK, is a donated resource, not a program… It is integrated into an overall strategy of community development. We evaluate the results of those development programs, some of which are successful, and others less so.  But their success is based on the quality of the program’s assessment, design and implementation, not solely on the use of one donation or another.

Q: Is this something World Vision does just for the Super Bowl or is it a regular practice?

CW: The NFL clothing is one small part of a much-larger GIK program, which includes not just clothing, but school supplies, pharmaceuticals, and other critical items. In Zambia, World Vision’s RAPIDS program helping families affected by HIV and AIDS had an extremely high retention rate (more than 95 percent over three years) among its volunteers.  A large reason was that our GIK program enabled them to feel equipped for their work…. In 2013, World Vision provided approximately 1700 pallets of clothing for men, women, and children to 28 different countries.  This includes clothing items of all types from all donors, including coats, shirts, slacks, dresses, etc.

Q: Before you ship this loser clothing overseas, would you be willing to slap a Seahawks sticker over the Broncos logo? 

CW: ….

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About Author

Editor 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.

  • madcaver

    Mr. Paulson. I am going to assume there are many differences between you and I, but one that immediately stands out to me is my perception that you have never been to a third world country in which World Vision supplies donated clothing. I work in Papua New Guinea and have seen first hand the fruits of WV’s labor. The men, women and children I see in Avenge Sevenfold t-shirts, JCPenney slacks and shorts, donated bras and undies would completely disagree that WV’s charity is costing the local used clothing vendors a toea (local currency). These clothes allow them to take what meager earnings they have to put food into their stomachs or shared roofs over their heads. To Papuans, the Super Bowl is meaningless and if they had any idea of what took place, they would only shake their heads and wonder why a bunch of pooftahs ran around with crash helmets and shoulder pads to chase the same looking ball that they fight over with no protection at all in rugby (actual comment made to me when I showed a football highlight). So before you stand high above and belittle World Visions efforts to put quality clothes on someone who beforehand probably never had a new piece of clothing in their lives, maybe you should write a preamble about all that YOU have done for the less fortunate. It’s obvious you have no fucking clue what goes on in poverty stricken countries or you would celebrate every ounce of help that goes to these unfortunate people. I’ll be watching for your major donation of Seahawk Super bowl shirts to educate the wrongly informed.
    whew! now that I got that out. GO SEAHAWKS!!! REPEAT!!! REPEAT!!!
    F*#k you Tom Paulson and all the other whiny little ‘critics of charitable action’!!!

    • http://humanosphere.kplu.org Tom Paulson

      Hi madcaver,
      I’ve been to the developing world many times and seen folks wearing these, and other, donated clothes. Many people in the aid community (including some folks I know at World Vision) think that donating clothing is not the best way to help the poor and can be harmful. It is perhaps not obvious why this would be the case, but you can read up on the GIK debate yourself if you really want to understand why this is controversial. And as Hannah commented above, my post here actually gave World Vision a chance to respond to the critics in depth and, for her anyway, made her more accepting of the practice.

  • Hannah_FN

    I appreciate the critique of “clean out your closet” as charitable giving. I also appreciate that you asked the in-depth questions of how the GIK program at World Vision works. After reading this, I have more respect for it than I thought I might.