SWEDOW: Why are we so obsessed with giving away our old stuff?

I’ve always wondered about our obsession with sending old clothes overseas. No matter how many times the idea is debunked by experts and people who rant a lot, the idea doesn’t die. Why? What about giving away our clothes –and other stuff – is so emotionally important to us that we can’t let go of it?

I have come up with two theories.

Theory #1: In small communities, nothing goes to waste. You know who is wealthy and who’s in need. You can give old but still useful things directly to the people who can use them, because you know those people. They are your friends, neighbors, or family. You give a worn baby quilt to a family with new infant and no money for supplies. You give your broken bicycle to your neighbor with a workshop and he makes it into a handcart. It’s easy to identify the people who can use your things, because you know them. When you know names, faces, and histories, you can match your old stuff to the people who need it.

We miss that community, and we want to pretend it still exists. We convince ourselves we know our global neighbors well enough that we can give the personal (and painless) donation of an old pair of shoes instead of the formal (and more expensive) transfer of cash. We don’t want to give up our dream of a small world, so we act like we still live in one.

Theory #2: At some fundamental level, we understand that the American life of work/spend is bad for us. Being a consumer, and only a consumer, feels bad in some way we hardly notice and can’t articulate. Discarding our old stuff – especially when it still seems usable – makes that discomfort almost unbearable. Maybe we shouldn’t have bought that pair of uncomfortable shoes or the phone that went obsolete in two years. Maybe our lives shouldn’t revolve around buying things.

But we can’t, or won’t process that. And there’s no easy way to step off the work-buy-discard hamster wheel. So we send our old phone to Haiti and convince ourselves we’re philanthropists.

photo credit: me

A meditation on used bras

a bunch of bras

In 1994 I was at a conference in Philadelphia. Since it was the 90s, I was planning to wear a pastel-floral jacket and a matching ivory skirt for the conference. When I got dressed, though, I discovered to my horror that you could SEE MY BRA THROUGH MY JACKET. (I was 19 and I’d never been to Russia; I was very modest.) Staring in the mirror at the damning outline of my bra, I was near tears. You’re not allowed to wear a t-shirt to a Model UN Conference and I hadn’t packed any other business clothes.

One of my roommates, a red-haired girl named Amy, noticed my situation, and offered to loan me her own beige bra. I had no other options beside sitting out a conference I was looking forward to (and had already paid for). I borrowed her bra. It didn’t fit quite right, and wearing it was icky. But it got me through the day.

I am telling you about my underwear because it’s an example of an appropriate donation (or in this case, micro-loan) of an in-kind good. Amy knew me personally, knew my situation in detail, and I had an expressed need for the item in question. We were from similar cultures, so she knew how to make the offer in a way that was comfortable for me. Her one-time loan sustained me until I could return to using my own resources (underwear drawer in my dorm room).

Those previous three paragraphs were a long way of getting to this point: used underwear is icky and donating it is hard to do in a non-icky way. In-kind donations in general are very hard to do well, and undergarments are a whole new level of challenge.

Maybe this group from Huffington Post has a fantastic plan for distributing used bras in an effective and culturally sensitive manner and the plan just didn’t get mentioned in the blog post. But before you donate anything to them – ask.

That’s my bigger point: if you’re not clear on what a charity wants to do with your donation, ask for details. It’s not rude. It’s being a good donor. If their plan is well-thought-out, it will be easy for them to answer your questions. And if they aren’t ready for questions from donors, they are certainly not ready to run an effective aid project. (If you don’t know what questions to ask, The Charity Rater is one good way to find some.)


Photo credit: Melissa Maples

Say No to Old Clothes

used clothing stall

Some of you may have heard of a new campaign called One Million Shirts. They want to collect 1,000,000 used and new t-shirts and send them to Africa to help people with no clothes. They are also collecting money for the shipping costs. They’ve got some NGO partners, and they are starting to think about how best to distribute the t-shirts.

When I first heard of it, I thought it was an another well intentioned mess. The project is taking criticism for obvious reasons (if they’re not obvious, I’ll come back to them at the end of this post). The consistently brilliant Texas in Africa blog vouched for the good intentions of the founder, Jason Sadler, despite the terrible weakness of the idea. I decided I was going to stay out of the argument. Other, smarter people were saying everything I would have.

Then I saw the video. Now I don’t think it’s a well intentioned, poorly planned charity effort. Now I think it’s a marketing ploy from someone who is totally uninterested in helping others. When you actually want your project to have an impact, you listen to criticism. You put your ego aside and learn from what people have to say. You don’t cling to your original idea with wounded fury and attack the people questioning you.

I watched the video seven times, and transcribed it for you. My notes are in red:


Hey internet trolls, angry people on twitter, whatever you want to call yourselves.

Angry people on Twitter seems accurate. I don’t know about trolls. Trolls make trouble for the fun of it. Not everyone who disagrees with something is a troll.

You all have a problem with me? That’s fine. I’m very easy to get ahold of. 904 312 2712. Call me.

I am not calling. I am writing this blog post, because I think public discussion is important. And you put your idea out into the world. It seems unreasonable to then demand that all conversation about the idea take place in private. Also, I live in Tajikistan, where I do international development work. Calling you by phone would cost me a fortune, and my internet is too slow for a decent Skype call.

Be a man.

This is sexist. I for one cannot be a man, without major surgery and life changes, because I am female. Are you assuming that everyone who disagrees with you is male? Or that everyone in the world is male? Or, wait – I get where you’re going with this. You think the people who disagree with you are cowardly, and you want them to be straightforward and courageous. Fair enough. But associating bravery and candor exclusively with men is sexist. And yes, your sexism is relevant here. I don’t trust you to do a good job working with women and children if you think they 1) don’t exist or 2) are incapable of courage.

Don’t sit behind Twitter. 140 characters. You don’t even have the time to email me, and you’re going to talk to me on Twitter.

Twitter is a pretty common forum for public discourse. This comment seems roughly equivalent to comparing that someone is hiding behind email or a telephone. I do agree that 140 characters doesn’t lead to useful, detailed discussion. That’s why people are writing blog posts.

I don’t care. I don’t drink hatorade. I really don’t. I don’t care at all. My dog doesn’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care at all.

That is not exactly the response of someone who is interested in learning from criticism. This isn’t personal. Nobody has any problem with you. This is about fear that this project you have founded will hurt the people in Africa that it intends to help. You getting mad does not change that.

If you have a problem with 1 million shirts, you probably really don’t like the fact that I get paid to wear t-shirts for a living. So, go to iwearyourshirt.com if you really want me to ruin your day.

Either this is a massive logical fallacy or a blatant plug for your business. I will assume the best and address it as a logical fallacy. Nobody is opposed to this project because they hate t-shirts or people who wear them. We are worried that sending a big pile of used clothes to African countries will hurt the local textile industry and people who sell retail clothes.

Otherwise I’m going to keep trying to give kids and families who don’t have shirts in Africa clothing to wear. Because you guys all seem to think that everyone in Africa has clothing.

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.

So apparently you know better than I do. I’ve only been talking to charities who go there often.

Most of the people arguing with you are experienced aid workers and international development professionals with long histories of working with Africa. I am not. I have backstopped Africa programs from DC, and I have a degree in global health, but that’s all I’ve got. J from Tales from the Hood is a different story. So is Texas in Africa. I can pretty much guarantee they have as much or more experience with Africa than the charities you’ve been talking to.

So just want to let you guys know 904 312 2712. I’m happy to talk to anyone who wants to talk like a man maybe step up and actually speak to somebody, not just sit behind a computer. I don’t do that. I step up and get things done. So have a great day, I wish you all the best.

I’m still a woman. Still interested in public discourse, not closed doors wrangling. And I still live in Tajikistan. You have a good day too.


For more information on why donations of used clothing can hurt Africans, see the following resources:

1)      The T-shirt Travels – a documentary on used t-shirts in Africa

2)      Dead White People’s Clothes

3)      Oxfam Report on secondhand clothing in Africa

Photo credit: Kim_TD

Three bad ideas for helping Haiti

plane over Haiti

In the rush to engage on Haiti, a lot of well-meaning groups are jumping in to help. Some are brand new, and some have never worked on a disaster like this before. Most of these groups are going to be useless. Some will actually do harm to themselves or others. A tiny minority will have a positive impact. I wish those odds were better, but they’re not.

I’ve seen three bad ideas for helping in Haiti floating around recently. I don’t want to single anyone out for criticism – after all, everyone is trying to do good here. But in this case, the culture of nice may be letting bad programs hurt people. I need to say something.

Bad idea #1 – 50,000 Shoes The idea is to donate 50,000 shoes in 50 days for Haiti. They are asking for a $5 donation for each pair of shoes. The problem with this idea is that it’s based on an assumption – that lots and lots of shoes are what Haitians need right now. What if they need clothes? Or food? Or water purifiers? Should they sell their new shoes and use the money to buy those things? Has anyone done an assessment to find out if shoes are needed? To decide what kind of shoes are needed?

The shoes could end up wasted and useless, absorbing people’s donations without providing any benefit. They could clog supply lines that also bring in desperately needed medicines. They could keep the local shoe suppliers from rebounding after the earthquake, and if badly chosen for the Haitian climate they can give people disgusting fungus.

This is almost a good idea. The time-delimited fundraising with easy to remember numbers will drive people to donate, and they’ve got celebrity endorsements that are raising their profile.

How it could be a good idea – call it $500,000 in 50 days instead of 50,000 shoes. That would double their fundraising goal (since they are trying to provide $250,000 of shoes) but I think they could pull it off, considering their level of media attention. Then they could make a high profile donation, including a ceremony with one of those oversize checks on poster board to Partners in Health.

Bad idea #2 – Flight to Crisis Volunteer doctors and nurses are banding together to charter a flight to Haiti and help with medical care. It’s brave, it’s scrappy, and it shows amazing initiative. It’s also a horrible idea. The people don’t seem to have any plan from bringing in their own supplies and haven’t set up a place to stay in Haiti. They don’t have a hospital to work out of or any background in responding to this kind of disaster. This is exactly the kind of misguided effort I was afraid we’d see, because Haiti is close enough to the US to make it possible. For more information on why this is such a bad idea, read this account of another group of health care providers that chartered a plane.

[Edited to add: please see comments below for a response from Flight to Crisis. They are better organized than their Idealist.org page makes them look.]

How it could be a good idea – in about three months, when rebuilding gets serious and Haitians have time to think, this group could choose a Haitian hospital to partner with. They could fundraise to help it rebuild, and donate supplies and equipment. They could visit the hospital quarterly to train the providers there as needed, and make sure that the equipment is in good shape and well maintained.

Bad Idea #3 – The Global Volunteer Network Haiti Project This project, which volunteers pay to support, is seeking people to volunteer for the following projects: working with children, teaching, health/medical efforts, building and construction, counseling, and business development. They say that volunteer trips can run from one week long to six months. This list seems designed to please volunteers, not meet the needs of people in Haiti. You already know that I am not a supporter of trips where you pay to volunteer.

This, however, is even worse than usual. This isn’t just useless feel-goodery for rich people. This will hurt people in Haiti. Traumatized children should not be making emotional attachments to volunteers who will be gone in six months. Volunteer labor for building and construction will keep Haitians from getting paid jobs to do the work themselves. And no outsider volunteer has any business providing counseling; counseling needs a background in local culture and context that a visitor won’t have.

How it could be a good idea – It’s almost impossible to rescue this one, but short-term volunteers could offer brief, targeted English or French classes to Haitians who needed them. They could cover technical topics that local teachers might not be able to offer. Not in a week. There really isn’t anything useful you can do in a week. But two months might work. It really wouldn’t qualify as disaster response – or rebuilding – but it would at least be useful.

For more information on how to help in Haiti, take a look at my Aid Watch post.

Photo credit: simminch

Me, in other locations

I’m writing less often for Blood & Milk because I am writing in other places now. Some recent stuff that might interest you:

The Lancet is Off-Base About Aid Agencies – at UN Dispatch

Nobody Wants Your Old Shoes – How Not to Help Haiti – at Aid Watch

Teaching Americans What Haiti Needs
– The New York Times (I didn’t write that one, I’m just quoted)

Should We Be Vacationing in Haiti Right Now? – at UN Dispatch

Things I don’t believe in #10 – Donating stuff instead of money

Give money. Don’t send food, bottled water, clothing or useful-seeming stuff. Give money.

Your old stuff costs money to ship. It is almost always cheaper to just buy it in country, and doing it that way benefits the local economy. It’s also more respectful to survivors of humanitarian emergencies, and allows relief agencies to procure exactly what is needed instead of struggling to find a use for randomly selected used junk. Disaster News Network talks about the used clothes problem in “The Trouble with Trousers.” which features a really depressing anecdote about Hurricane Hugo.

Your food costs money to ship, too. It is probably not food anyone in the recipient area would recognize. How exactly will the people of Burma know what to do with canned refried beans or artichoke hearts? Sending donated American food doesn’t drive income to local farmers or help local retailers start selling again. Buying in-country gets food people will actually understand how to cook and supports the local economy.

Here’s another example – some people wanted to send their old tents to China to house earthquake survivors. A sweet idea – provide quick, free housing. But every different kind of tent would have different set-up instructions, and how many people save their tent instructions once they’ve learned how to do it? It would take a huge time investment in figuring out each type of tent, and then training for the people in China who had to set up the tents. All of this time translates to a delay in providing housing, and it’s time used by paid staff, which means it is also squandered money.

Interaction, the coalition of disaster-relief NGOs, has a nice piece about why cash donations are most effective. They mention needs-based procurement, efficient delivery, lower costs, economic support, and cultural and environmental appropriateness as advantages of cash. World Volunteer Web has a good explanation too, breaking down the myths about post-disaster aid.

Usually people end these kinds of articles with links to the three or so places who will take your old clothes and possessions for international donation. I am not going to do it. Don’t waste everyone’s effort that way. Give your old stuff to Goodwill, the Salvation Army, or St. Vincent de Paul; they’ll make the best use of it. They’ll sell your things locally and use the money for their charitable purposes.

Giving stuff instead of money is easy for you, it’s cheaper for you, and it’s quick. It is not quick, easy, or affordable for the NGOs who are actually trying to help people.

If you want to help, give money.

[Picture of old clothes in Haiti from Flickr by Vanessa Bertozzi]