March 9, 2012
By Richard Stupart
“How much foreign aid should the US really be involved with? Shouldn’t the citizens of the US should be getting aid before anyone else?” –KTRN
1. One million t-shirts for Africa
Aid circles employ the cynical acronym SWEDOW (stuff we don’t want) to describe initiatives like Jason Sadler’s 1 Million T-Shirts project. Sadler had admittedly never been to Africa, and had never worked in an aid or development environment before. But he cared a great deal, and came up with the idea to send a million free shirts to Africa in order to help the people there.
Like some sort of lightning rod for the combined venom of the humanitarian aid world, Jason found himself pilloried across the web in a matter of weeks. Everyone from armchair bloggers to senior economists spat fire on his dream until it eventually ground to a halt. In July 2010, Jason threw in the towel and abandoned his scheme. And somewhere in Africa, an economy sighed in relief.
Why was the idea so bad?
Firstly, it’s debatable whether there is actually a need for T-shirts in Africa. There is practically nowhere that people who want shirts are unable to afford them. Wanting to donate them is a classic case of having something you want to donate and assuming it is needed. Just because you have a really large hammer does not mean that everything in the world is a nail.
Secondly, dumping a million free shirts is inefficient. What it would cost to pack them, ship them, and transport them overland to wherever it is that they are meant to go would cost close to the manufacturing cost of the shirts in the first place. That’s just incredibly wasteful. If you wanted to get people shirts, it would be far more cost effective to simply commission their manufacture locally, creating a stimulus to the local textile economy in the process.
Which brings us to the third critique of free stuff. When people in the target community already have an economy functioning in part on the sale and repair of the stuff you want to donate (shirts in this instance), then dumping a million of them free is the economic equivalent of an atom bomb. Why buy a shirt anymore when you can get a five-year supply for free? Why get yours repaired when you can simply toss it and get another? And in the process everyone who once sold shirts or practiced tailoring finds themselves unemployed and unable to provide money for themselves or their families to buy anything.
Except shirts. Because those are now free.
And before you think dumping free shirts is the sin of an uneducated maverick, Jason’s poor logic was subsequently repeated by World Vision, in accepting 100,000 NFL shirts to dump on some poor, shirtless village in Africa.
2. TOMS Buy-One-Give-One
Bearing in mind all of the criticisms above, TOMS shoe brand has built a brand on the premise that buying one pair of their shoes automatically includes the provision of another pair of shoes to an underprivileged child in a developing nation somewhere. Three months after Jason abandoned sending a million shirts to Africa, TOMS celebrated sending a million pairs of shoes to the underprivileged. It continues to do so.
While there are possibly more people in the world who need shoes than might need shirts (though this is debatable), TOMS can be (and has been) broadly criticised for the same kinds of unintended consequences of dumping shoes in places where people might otherwise be employed to make them.
Further, though, the TOMS campaign — like the million shirts — misses the fundamental point that not having a pair of shoes (or a shirt, christmas toy, etc.) is not a problem about not having shoes. It’s a problem of poverty. Shoelessness, such as it is, is a symptom of a much bigger and more complex problem. And while donating a pair of shoes helps shoelessness, it does not help poverty.
Things like jobs help poverty. Jobs making things like shoes, for example. But TOMS doesn’t make its shoes in Africa, it makes them in China where it’s presumably cheaper to make two pairs of shoes and give one away than it is to get people in a needier community to make one pair of shoes.
The result of this setup, as Zizek explains most succinctly, is that on a big-picture level, TOMS (and other buy-my-product-and-donate companies) are busy building the exploitative global structure that produces economic inequality, while on the other hand pretending that supporting them actually does something to fix it.
It doesn’t. It just gives people shoes.