Monday, May 10, 2010

Saving "Africa"? Who said they want it?

People, generally, have good intentions.  This is one of my ingoing assumptions in most interactions.  Generally, people do not deliberately hurt others.  Generally, people would like to take actions that help themselves, but would prefer, all else equal, if these actions help others rather than hurt them.  But guess what?  It doesn't matter.  Because these well intentioned people hurt others all the time.  Especially when the people they are trying to "help" are low status groups (I mean based on societal hierarchies, not as a value judgment) who are given limited to voice to express what kind of help they actually need or want.

With that said, let me introduce the cautionary tale of #1MillionShirts.

Jason runs a t-shirt business.  He wanted to branch out in a way that helped others.  So, naturally, he thought of t-shirts (in consulting, we call this the "cars, cars" model of branching out--looking at surface rather than capability-based linkages).  His big idea to help?  Get people to donate 1 Million t-shirts to send to Africa, along with $1 to defray shipping costs.  His website spoke of helping the "people of Africa" and this language in media reports soon morphed into "1 million shirts to clothe Africa."

This idea was met with a great deal of support.  People love the notion of social entrepreneurs using "ground up" thinking to make the world a better place.  So, a lot of big-whigs in the social media world advertised his idea, and it quickly got a lot of press.  It was also, quickly, met with a lot of "hating" (to use Jason's words) from those in the aid community who have a lot of experience with donated goods, and know they can cause harm rather than help.  They also pointed out that the notion of shirts were not a first-order concern among most people in the developing world; that shipping them and handing them out could squash local clothing markets; that if you have 1 million dollars from people's donation to help with shipping costs, there are a lot better things you could do with it, including buying shirts locally to give to people; and that, hey, if you want to help people in "Africa," you might want to talk to some of them first to see what they need.  Shirts are big and bulky.  They have a very low value to volume ratio, especially when used.  You don't want them--why would they?*

Moreover, the notion of "Africa" as this teeming mass of dirty and unclothed poverty-in-human form is blatantly misinformed and destructive.  If Jason had ever visited "Africa," or at least a specific place in it, he would have noticed that there are various levels of development and devastation.  There are cities, just like anyplace else.  There are rural areas, just like anyplace else.  There are beggars eager for charity scattered throughout the city.  They might want your shirts.  But most other people would not want your old shirts.  Perhaps they want food security for the next 6 months.  Perhaps they want a pathway out of their current situation.  Perhaps they need medication or school fee support.  I don't know.  You should ask them.

This criticism led Jason to post an angry and defensive video reponse, calling his detractors internet trolls and telling them to "be a man" and call him on the phone.  This led Alanna Shaikh, who had first been inclined to ignore the dust-up and give Jason the benefit of the doubt, to finally get involved, first noting she's not a man, so can't "be a man," and it might be hard to help "Africa" if you think that women and girls don't exist or can't participate in Aid dialogues.  She also responded to Jason's claim that surely not everyone in Africa has clothes:
Not everyone in Africa has clothing you would approve of, or want to wear. But yes, I am willing to state that just about everyone in Africa has clothing. Certainly in the countries that you are planning to target: Kenya, Uganda, DRC, Ghana, Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Swaziland and South Africa. For one thing, Kenya and South Africa are among the strongest economies on the continent.
I am all for people wanting to help.  But this was a bad idea, coming from a privileged person who thought his privilege made him an authority on what less privileged people needed.  In advocating for others, he made the cardinal mistake of not listening first.  And then, worse, became a "screaming ally" when faced with criticism.

Jason has since engaged in a somewhat less defensive dialogue with Siena Antis, who wrote him a passionate and critical open letter, and finally changed the messaging of his campaign to indicate he would probably not be sending the shirts to Africa, but would rather use the donations to solve a real problem.  One of the lessons to come out of this is that democratization of idea generation means that bad ideas can come from anywhere.  But, a more poignant lesson is that those who want to help need to get over their idea that they can be on a mission to feed, clothe, and cure "Africa."  In other words, the savior complex has got to end.  The blog Texas in Africa has a moving piece on this, asking "Where did it come from, this idea that we in the privileged West are supposed to 'save Africa?' "  Luckily, the author, an experienced aid worker, also had some suggestions for how others involved in aid should begin to shift their focus:
We cannot behave as though the African continent is full of helpless, uneducated people who don't know what their communities need. I cringe every time I hear a white Westerner claim to be a "voice for the voiceless" in Africa or anywhere else. Nobody is voiceless. It is arrogant and naive to assume that someone who lacks a platform for announcing his or her views, dreams, and needs ipso facto lacks those views, dreams, and needs in the first place.

There will always be a need to help the most vulnerable members of society, like children, the elderly, and those who live with illness. That's true in wealthy industrialized states and it's true in Africa. The disconnect with the savior paradigm is not related to the need; it's related to who is delivering the services and to what ends.
If you're interested in more, Good Intentions are not Enough has cataloged all the links related to the case of the 1 million t-shirts.

*Note: I am not totally anti donated goods.  I am all for cleaning out your closet into the Salvation Army.  Why is this different?  Salvation Army 1) is local--no shipping costs 2) has a very efficient system for passing goods along to the most in need, generally the homeless and 3) will sell your goods and convert them into money for their other charitable works.  Moreover, these contributions are small relative to our economy, and thus don't hurt burgeoning entrepreneurs.  This is very different than dumping 1 million shirts indiscriminately in "Africa."  So, donate away--locally and responsibly.

And, in news on development ideas that actually work, Esther Duflo spoke at TED about randomized controlled trials in development:


  1. "Randomized controlled experiments" -- boy, I can see celebrities signing up in droves to promote!

    On a logical level of aid effectiveness, I absolutely agree with you, Colo. Even more so in terms of how sadly and crudely positioned this is in racial terms.

    But to fundraise, we do need these simple bumper-sticker campaigns. A dollar (two stamps) is not enough to get an old t-shirt across the US, let alone to any African port, or village. But, just-for-a-minute this campaign gives it supermagical powers.

    Perhaps it's the Faustian bargain of aid, but it's the same reason why people give to malaria bednets but not DDT, and why Jeff Sachs promises the End of Poverty, while Bill Easterly's logical tracts are read mainly by academics.

  2. I hear you, Bea, I know the stuff that works is rarely the stuff that's sexy. So, I think you have a point. We need guys like Jason to sex up the good ideas and get people interested in donating to them. In turn, what people like him need to do is to team up with experienced aid workers (better yet, work collaboratively with beneficiaries!) to deliver aid that people need, not just that makes donors feel good!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Great post! And thank you for the link :)

    I've enjoyed this blog for some time. Positively stoked to be shouted out linked on it.

  5. Hey J., excited to hear you're a reader! I love your blog and am so grateful for what you do!


Commenting is now open, but we'd love it if you chose one username so other commenters can get to know you. To do this, select "Name/URL" in the "Comment as" drop down. Put the name you'd like others to see; the URL is optional.

Any profanity, bigotry, or synonyms for "[ ] sucks!" will be deleted. We welcome criticism as long as you're making a point!