Giving and Receiving

4 Mar

Over the past weeks I have been following some of the debates about foreign aid and when — or whether — it is effective. Among the lighter reading, there are also a few blogs I follow, somewhat irreverent, sometimes comical, yet generally knowledgeable, written by — I’m assuming young — people involved in the ex-pat aid world. The other day, they had had me clicking  links to yet more blogs, including a couple that listed, Top 10-style, examples of some bad aid ideas.

Many of these have to do with so-called gifts-in-kind donations, or what their writers call SEDOW — Stuff We Don’t Want — to the poor of the Global South. There’s the guy in the U.S. who wears tee-shirts with different companies’ logos on them for a living (no, I did not make that up) and got the idea of posting a YouTube video getting people to send him all their unwanted T-shirts so he could send “1 Million T-shirts for Africa” in a shipping container to, yes, Africa.

Another subject of some contempt is TOM shoes, a company in California that will donate a pair of shoes (manufactured in China)  to a poor person for every pair a customer buys. Arguments about how there are already plenty of cheap shoes and tee shirts for sale in shops and market stalls through the developing world followed, along with the explanation that sending all that SEDOW can undermine attempts to grow modest domestic economies in those same countries. ((Indeed, according to Charles Kenny, “Garth Frazer of the University of Toronto estimates that increased used-clothing imports accounted for about half of the decline in apparel industry employment in Africa between 1981 and 2000. And those free shoes are another case in point: the founder of TOMS was first inspired to give away free shoes in Argentina, of all places, a nation that certainly has a lot of poverty but is also practically swimming in cows and leather.)

But it are the comments to these blog posts I find interesting, the number of people who take issue with the sort of snarky, ‘don’t-they-know-anything-about-real-life-in the-Third-World’ tone of the arguments. At least, they say, those people donating all this stuff to the needy are trying to do something, while the vast majority of us lazy-assed First World folks don’t even think about it. Why pick on them? Or, as one commenter suggested, why not go back to one of those African villages and take away the tee-shirts or yoga mats or Pop-Tarts and see how happy that would make people?

I admit that this made me wonder how those comment-writers can be so ignorant. Don’t they know that by law, most of the bi-lateral aid money our governments hand out with such self-serving publicity has to be spent in the donor nations themselves? Haven’t they heard about monetization, about the food aid that prices local small-holding farmers out of business, or the IMF conditions in countries like Kenya that reduced a textile industry that once employed 320,000 workers to just 20,000? Don’t they realize that when the National Football League ‘donated’ 100,000 tee shirts proclaiming the Pittsburgh Steelers as Superbowl XLV Champions to World Vision, they got a tax write-off for something that was worthless? Like, do some research, already, before you start excoriating the writers — the bearers of bad,  in a sense of discomforting, news.

But then I thought about how even I, when in Haiti just now, found it difficult not to give some money to little kids on the street. (I drew the line at requests for my sunglasses and baseball cap.) Then an American guy told me about the missionary’s wife who came once a year, changed $100 at a bank for Haitian gourdes and gave it all away as they walked down the street. And how anytime he was back in that town afterwards, he was surrounded by people wanting to know why he didn’t do the same.

I realized then that who probably got the most out of giving away, something that doesn’t really cost us anything is us, the missionary’s wife, or the person who bought shoes knowing someone poor child somewhere was going to get a pair as well. These ‘gifts’ don’t change anything, and certainly not the paradigm in which we are the ones who have stuff and they are the ones who don’t. We come from a culture that invented not just the sandwich but the Dagwood sandwich. We are the ones who have excess, choices, the ability to give, the luxury of not even thinking about poverty. The pale yellow tee shirt with the words “We Love You Grandma” I saw one guy wearing in Port au Prince, or the “McCain for President” one I saw on someone else, may give rise to a nano-second’s reflection on the personal human stories that might have led to their depositing in a donation bin somewhere, but more importantly, they were emblematic of our comfortable lives, of our need to want to do something for the poor and our power to do so — and of the wearer’s bottom-of-the-barrel status in our world.

On a ride back to Port au Prince after visiting a project in Gressier that had already built 100 stone houses for families who had lost theirs in the earthquake, a construction engineer named Lopez told me he thought that the families should put aside something, even 50 gourdes (about a dollar) a month to ‘pay’ for these great solid new homes. He felt it was important that the poor family who got the house, for which they would never been able to afford the materials even though they did help build them, contribute something in return, that it not be free. I had just an hour earlier, though, been speaking with a man who told me that he earned only 100 gourdes a day when he managed to find work on another man’s farm. With ten children, the amount of food he grew himself was only enough for them to eat. There was nothing left over to sell. So, 50 gourdes? It was unlikely he’d be able to manage even that.

More recently I was reading something about the Medicins Sans Frontieres Hospital in Cite Soleil, Port au Prince’s largest slum. Just last December, it was handed over to the Haitian government to run, and it is now charging what we could consider a miniscule amount of money for a consult —  25 gourdes, just a little more than fifty cents. But that was making it suddenly impossible for many people to seek help there, the financial margins of their daily lives already razor thin.

So what’s the answer? I know it’s not the dumping subsidized foodstuffs and SWEDOW and giving sovereign nations loans if they let our manufactured goods flood their markets. I know it has to do with things like better land distribution and jobs that pay more than $3 a day. I know it has to do with structural change.

But that’s the easy answer. Understanding our human urge to give and feel good about it is one thing. Understanding all the implications for the receivers is complicated.

(In this photo: a skit at the inauguration ceremony in Gressier, representing various national actors bringing a much-put-upon nation, portrayed by the woman in the centre, back to life.)

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