Sunday, May 2, 2010

Gift in Kind : A case of 1 MillionShirts

For the past few days, many international aid workers were tweeting on Twitter about 1 MillionShirts. With an interest in ‘Aid Effectiveness’, I also re-tweeted whatever information I received from the people I follow on twitter. Like my fellow tweepls, my aim was to generate public awareness on effectiveness of ill-thought out gift-in-kind aid projects such as the 1 MillionShirts.

So what is this 1 MillionShirts? Well, a lot has already been written about this specific project by international aid workers which can be found here. But to update readers of this blog, let me provide you a succinct brief on 1 MillionShirts: A guy @iwearyourshirt aka Jason, with no prior experience or knowledge of international development work, one day , came up with the idea of helping poor people living in Africa. He assumed providing clothes to poor people is one of their urgent needs so he should collect used shirts along with US$ 1 (the shipment cost for single shirt) which later on will be sent to Africa for subsequent distribution to people in dire need of clothes. Considering it a novel idea, the guy also applied for registration of his organization as non-profit under 501C3 (simply to avoid taxes as his website suggests) in Colorado and initiated his campaign (on twitter) of collecting used shirts. He also entered into partnership with two relief organizations ‘H.E.L.P. International’ and ‘Water is life’. It is pertinent to note here that these afore mentioned organizations despite their experience of working in international development and relief work, agreed to 1 MillionShirts idea.

What went wrong here?? Well, the guy @iwearyourshirt aka Jason did not bother researching on internet about what sort of aid ideas are worth doing and what sort of aid ( in-kind or cash) would foster what kind of positive or negative impact.

What went well here? A quick response from international aid workers was surfaced, thanks to the advent of technology and internet due to which, these days, information travels as faster and quicker as the speed of light. Some of the development workers (@texasinafrica; @TalesFromthHood; @saundra_s; @Katrinskaya;@Michael_Keizer; @morealitude; @tmsruge; @alanna_shaikh; @meowtree;@IdealistNYC) learnt about this shirt idea and hence a debate began about the issue. International aid workers not only criticize 1 MillionShirts idea but they also furnished some recommendations. And what did they discuss: 1 MillionShirts idea is bad.

And why did international aid worker think it was a bad idea to send 1 millionshirts to Africa. Aid workers furnished a number of reasons: Firstly, according to them providing clothing to needy people in Africa or elsewhere is a noble act but it is not one of the urgent or immediate needs (such as medicine, food etc) that are to be met in the short run. Secondly, Africa has cloth manufacturers and if somebody is that interested in providing clothing to Africans then those clothes which are produced in local markets should be procured rather than the second hand imported clothes. From experience of international development workers, one thing is evident that such a supply of second hand cloths is definitely going to affect the African cloth manufacturers, this has already happened in case of Zambia in 1991(discussed here in detail). Thirdly, there are huge logistics / shipping costs involved which can be avoided if aid commodities are procured locally.

Is 1 MillionShirts idea really that bad? The criticism of development workers is to the point and timely. I will add some thing from my experience of volunteering for October 8 Earthquake in Pakistan, because it somehow relates to this 1 Million Shirts idea. I tell you, many voluntary groups had appealed to people of Pakistan to donate clothes for earthquake victims. People responded generously to the request of voluntary groups and even they had donated their ‘wedding clothes’ which were completely unfit in severe cold weather, hence, majority of such clothes were dumped in heaps despite the fact some shipping cost also incurred on them.

Then question arises, if gift in kind ( such as clothes, shoes etc) are not the right kind of donation then what people can give to help the needy people living in their own country or in some other country. The answer to that question is ‘cash’ because development workers normally conducts need assessments after every disaster (it had happened in case of October 8 Earthquake in Pakistan) and prioritize the needs requiring immediate attention. If donations are given in ‘cash’ rather than in kind than it not only makes the work of development/relief workers much easier but it also contributes in addressing the immediate needs.

Getting back to 1 MillionShirts Idea, when I first heard about this, the first thing which came to my mind was the Paris Declaration on ‘Aid’s Effectiveness’ and I thought since USA is one of the party of the Paris Declaration and the Accra Agenda for Action, then perhaps there would be a proper channel in the USA to streamline or keep a check on private aid flows of non-profits such as 1 MillionShirts. I raised the same question here and got a response from @saundra_s, who is trying to create awareness on ‘donor education and impact of aid’. According to @saundra_s, registering as a non-profit is quite an easy task in the USA; it’s not obligatory on non-profits to follow good aid practices and standards, principles or practices imposed on non-profits are voluntary”.

Now this is another dimension of how bad aid ideas are usually generated [kindly note that 1 MillionShirts is not the first project of this nature, there have been other such as projects as sole for souls]. Should it be mandatory on non-profits to follow certain procedures, practices or standards while planning their projects, then perhaps ideas such as 1 MillionShirts would have been tackled from the very beginning. This reflects the need for more rigorous regulations on non-profits in the USA in order to contribute toward effectiveness of aid and fulfilling the commitment made under Accra Agenda for Action. It also requires educating donors (people who give donations) about in-kind or cash aid and its impact, something which @saundra_s and many other international aid workers are advocating for. 


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