could donating your stuff to the poor do more harm than good?

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not reflect the opinions or policies of any group or organisation, including my employers, unless otherwise stated.

In the last few days my Facebook Wall has been filled with links to a certain organisation which promises to match every pair of shoes bought with a pair delivered to a poor child overseas.

No doubt those beautiful people who post these links have the best of intentions, and really want to do what they can to help out those who are less fortunate.

Nonetheless we need to think clearly and critically about what kind of initiatives we support, lest we do more harm than good.

The organisation described above by no means marks a new phenomenon – lots of organisations and campaigns provide ways for people to donate goods, both new and used, to less fortunate people in situations of poverty. No doubt a child with shoes is better off than a child without them. Same goes for a shirt or school supplies. It can’t be denied that enterprises which facilitate these donations do good things.

But is the good outweighed by harmful side effects?

Sticking with the example of shoes, there are numerous issues. Perhaps the most crucial is the destructive force of these free imports within the local economy in which they end up. Imagine what happens to the local shoe seller in the local community where these free shoes are delivered. He, like everyone else, is trying to make a living. Maybe he has children. Maybe they, like other children in their community, have been given free shoes. This is great, except that such free shoes may drive their father out of business. What happens to them then? They may have great shoes in the short term, but without the money for an education or health care, what good are such donations?

This is obviously a hypothetical situation, intended only as an illustration. Nonetheless, you can imagine the impact of a flood of free imports on businesses in our own economy; why would it be any different in poor countries? These donated imports actually have a negative impact on local production and ultimately hurt the poor. Wouldn’t it be better to purchase shoes for children from the local shoe salesman, thus supporting the local economy, rather than destroying it with good intentions?

On a related note, sending “stuff” overseas, especially our old stuff, is to work for people and not with them. When something is done for me, rather than me being empowered to do it myself, there is not only a lack of sustainability but also a lack of dignity – I get the message that I cannot do it myself, that I need an external saviour to do it for me. This is of course hugely problematic, and serves to entrench Western saviour attitudes in the process.

When the poor are not empowered to make changes themselves, but are forced to rely on others to do it for them it leads to dependency. Corbett and Fikkert, in their book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself suggest a rule to avoid dependency:

Avoid paternalism. Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves. Memorize this, recite it under your breath all day long, and wear it like a garland around your neck.

We would do well to remember this rule when we seek to help the poor – work with people, not for people.

The main reason given for donating shoes, for example, to poor children is that it stops them from being exposed to soil-borne diseases – the contraction and spread of diseases can be prevented by wearing shoes. It also stops children injuring their feet and getting infections. Shoes help, no doubt, but ultimately the problem is poor sanitation. By donating shoes we provide only a band-aid and fail to deal with the cause of the problem. In this way we never actually make progress on alleviating poverty, and in fact by creating dependency we move backwards.

A fairly obvious question that seems to be always overlooked is: what then happens when the children inevitably wear out or grow out of their shoes? With our poor shoe salesman out of business ensuring that children have shoes becomes unsustainable in the long term. A job means not only that a family will always have shoes, but also that the local economy is not harmed. A flood of free goods may create short-term solutions, but it also creates long-term problems.

It is also worth asking where the products being distributed are made. At least one well-known brand of buy-one-give-one shoes is in fact made in China. Is it worthwhile to send shoes to help poor children in, say, Haiti, while supporting the child slave labour market in China? In other words, are we really making a dent on poverty when we are supporting injustice? It is a point that should not be lost on us.

In the end shoelessness, like shirtlessness or a lack of education, is a symptom of poverty, not the cause, and we must deal with the causes of poverty rather than the symptoms. More than that we must ensure our helping is not in fact harming. Sending products to the poor is, generally speaking, neither dealing with the causes of poverty nor helping in the long-term; in fact it is the opposite.

These are all only shallow explorations of some of the relevant issues, but given the depth of these issues this will suffice to illustrate the problems with donating goods, both new and used, to the global poor. There is such a thing as bad aid, and we should not ever think that good motivations trump good results; how much better than bad intentions are good intentions that harm?

Ultimately for me to point out problems is not enough – it is important to give constructive alternatives. What organisations can people donate to and be assured they are actually helping?

I should point out that I am biased, since I work for an organisation that works amongst the global poor. Nonetheless I would encourage people to give to organisations who are doing community development in poor countries by empowering local people in a given context to do the work themselves. This work should be holistic, dealing with the root issues of poverty, not simply applying band-aids. I think TEAR Australia is a prime example, but as I said, I’m biased.

One way to know more about the issues raised here (and others related to poverty) is to educate yourself, and you could start with the book I mentioned earlier – When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.

To those who have tried to help the poor in the past by donating goods: don’t let this post be a discouragement from helping the poor, don’t stop trying to do good! Rather, see this post as a way to become more educated and be more effective. Acknowledging that helping can often do harm is not a call to stop helping, but rather a call to think critically about how we help.

MCA

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Posted on April 4, 2012, in Advocacy, Development, Mission and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Hi Matt,

    It would be really really helpful for those who are at the stage where they understand that good intentions don’t cover up bad results but dont know where to go from there.

    I’ll definitely be buying/borrowing that book in an attempt to educate myself a bit, but seriously, your blogs are a great way to educate people on positive ways of helping the poor without making matters worse.

    So it could be an idea to make specific blog posts on certain ways that we can be apart of helping poverty.

    Great Stuff!

  2. Important post matt, thanks

  3. Thanks for the thought provoking post Matt. For the most part I agree with you and believe it is always better to empower than hand out (Australia’s indigenous communities are a prime example), however I think it’s very easy to oversimplify these issues from a Western economic perspective. Western governments have been using this argument for decades to justify limiting foreign aid.

    Many of the poorest are not even supporting the local shoe maker (if they even have a shoe maker) to begin with and before they can begin to “Help themselves up” something as basic as a pair of shoes or a uniform – so that they can go to school – may be the first step in a long journey to empowering them towards the future.

    These solutions are always complex and the needs of the poor are broad and varied, one solution does not always fit all. My friends Chris and Fi are working in Swaziland and are frequently involved in meeting the most basic and immediate needs in the lives of other because that’s what is needed before any empowerment and long-term solution can be implemented. You may find their blog interesting:

    http://web.me.com/fionagrech/jamboafrica/Blog/Blog.html

    Perhaps this is a questions for the organisations that provide the shoes, uniforms etc. Are they serving the right communities?

    Thanks again for your always challenging and insightful posts.

    • Hi Tarun,

      As always thanks for the constructive input. I wonder though whether it would be better, again using the example of shoes, to train local people to make and sell shoes, and to develop the local community in a given context, rather than simply donating shoes. My sense is this would be far more sustainable.

      In the case of some of the “buy-one-give-one” organisations my fear is that it encourages misplaced “socially-conscious” consumerism. It isn’t too hard to imagine this becoming a form of market distinction rather than well-meaning social enterprise (would T-m’s Shoes be so successful without the social enterprise aspect? This is worth pondering.)

      All good points you have raised, Tarun, and worthy of discussion.

      Peace

      Matt

    • What you say is true Tarun. Often there is a basic need (like food) that needs to be met before you can help a person think about other aspects of their life.

      A good “Aid” program should incorporate a sustainable exit strategy. There should be planning for what the situation should look like at the end from the very beginning.

      Often the band aid mentality sees a problem and fixes that without reference to the broader context of sustainable development. To make matters worse our short western attention span means that often we are only told that glamorous part of the story and so remain ignorant of the huge amount of work that goes on around the digging of a well, or the provision of goats to impoverished families.

      Like Matt said we who dare to meddle need to do so with eyes wide open and with a serious amount of humble learning

  4. Great post Matt. For those keen to explore the ideas more, we will be having workshops on this very issue (When Helping Hurts) at TEAR’s Enough conference in early July in Sydney. See http://www.enough.org.au

  5. This depends on the situation I guess. Empowering the helpless is definitely effective, but in the long term. There are situations when poor are in need of instant help.

  6. Hello Matt. What you say is exactly right, and thanks for pointing it out.

    I was the Acting Dean of an Orthodox seminary in Uganda for some years, and saw firsthand how a donation of school supplies from America would stop kids from buying supplies at the local stores that depended on sales of pencils and copy books for their livelihood.

    PLUS— those supplies were shipped to Uganda at *great* cost— which would have been better spent if the cost of the supplies *and* of the shipping were simply deposited locally!

    One thing people don’t realize about donated clothing in particular, though, is that most of it doesn’t seem to end up actually getting “donated”. It’s boxed up into huge containers, shipped to Mombasa, and then sold to big brokers, who sell to the retailers who sit on the mounds of used clothing that people pick through in local markets. Well, at least that helps the retail market a bit. And kids do get shoes, but they’re second-hand and they’re almost as expensive as locally made shoes anyway. So in such ways we prevent local production and local markets from arising, and support a good deal of the dishonesty and corruption that oversees the distribution of our largesse.

    But local economies are crucial. I direct a tiny nonprofit that helps Uganda high school students finish their education (visit http://jbburnett.com/blog/, and look in the right-hand column), but once they’re done— what then? Well, at least education gives people a fighting chance, but what I’m realizing is that in the final analysis, Uganda’s president Museveni got at least one thing right when he said Africa needs “trade, not aid”. Internally, that translates to— Africa needs *jobs*.

    So, above all, everything we do in our charitable works projects needs to support job creation among the poor.

    Come to think of it, we ought to be supporting it in the developed world as well!

    Great blog, by the way!

  7. Hi Matt,

    A very interesting post indeed. But this post is missing the issue of the aid given to the governments by organisations such as world bank and the IMF. It’s the same issue as you outlined, just on a greater scale. One book which I think would interest you would be “Dead Aid” by Dambisa Moyo. Or even look her up on youtube. She has given many lectures explaining the problem of aid.

    But great blog! It explains the real issue of poverty and aid.

    • Hi Karan,

      Thanks for your comment. I wouldn’t say this post is “missing” the issue of aid given by international organisations such as the IMF and WB, just that it wasn’t the point of the post. I can’t say everything at once, as I noted.

      I would argue that the coercive activities of institutions like the IMF and WB are quite different to the misguided goodwill of individuals and small organisations (like churches). A similarity, however, would be that both can destabilise the local economy, albeit through different means.

      I have read most of “Dead Aid” (disclaimer: not all). Moyo’s perspective is, to be frank, extreme. She ignores all the good that aid has done, particularly aid delivered through non-government channels. There is much merit in the suggestion that the IMF and WB cause many problems through their policies and approaches to aid giving, but to suggest this applies to all aid is simply wrong.

      To be sure, the issues are complex.

      Matt

      • Hey Matt,

        Thanks for that. I think i was judging from a bias point of view in my previous post. But I don’t think Moyo’s perspective was ignoring the good side of aid from NGO’s. She did mention in many lectures that she was a part of a couple NGO’s. She’s not against that type of aid, she did state her book was mostly focused on the aid to the government.

        But I guess the issues are complex. I should probably read more into it before I form another bias opinion, haha.

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