The Steelers won the Super Bowl? T-shirts sent to Africa say so.

A US-based NGO's move to send misprinted Super Bowl T-shirts to Africa is a misguided attempt at aid, writes guest blogger Laura Seay.

I've thought long and hard about doing a post on the World Vision/NFL 100,000 t-shirts controversy. Quite frankly, I'm not sure what more there is to add to the discussion; Saundra has collected all the relevant posts here and they cover the major issues, which, as I see it are:

  • We know this is bad aid. We know that GIK (gifts in kind) items (like clothing) that are readily available in a country undermine local clothing markets, create dependence, and deprive poor people of work and the dignity work provides.
  • We know this is unnecessary aid. There aren't any places in the world where t-shirts are not available at a market price determined by the local economy and affordable to local consumers.
  • Both the NFL and World Vision get to claim benefits (the NFL for taxes, World Vision for its bottom line), look good in the public relations arena, and don't owe anyone an explanation of whether the t-shirts actually do anyone any good.
  • There is an opportunity cost associated with shipping 100,000 t-shirts to communities that don't need them and that have other serious development needs.

What makes this so frustrating, of course, is that World Vision knows all these things. Every one of them. I've heard from friends who work there this week. Some are defensive about the issue, others are pounding their heads against their cubicle/Land Rover walls. World Vision isn't 1 Million Shirts' Jason, who was trying international development work for the first time and showed a willingness to learn from his mistakes. They know better.

World Vision responded to many of these criticisms in a post late Friday. Their argument, as I understand it, is as follows:

  • We don't conduct these activities in isolation.
  • We only take targeted donations.
  • Our field offices want shirts.
  • We need the engagement of the American public.
  • Goods in Kind are not ipso facto bad aid.

I agree that all of the above propositions are true. There are lots of GIK that are quite good and necessary for sustainable development activities. Anti-retroviral drugs, technical items for constructing wells - any item that is not readily available in a developing country is a great donation that World Vision can and should use.

The problem lies not with the general idea of using GIK, but rather with this GIK. As we've discussed ad infinitum, ad nauseum, t-shirts are not in short supply anywhere. This is not even about undermining local manufacturers; WV has been very careful to note that they're handing out shirts in places that have textile manufacturers, but that's not the point. Someone in each of these areas sells clothing, and that someone will lose business as a result of WV's donation of these t-shirts. As an organization that claims to be in the business of sustainable development, WV is directly and clearly undermining its own goals, not to mention those of the donors who give in the expectation that their goods will contribute to poverty alleviation. There's no way around it.

As for the notion that local staff in WV request the goods, I find this to be an unconvincing argument. People want things that are not good for their communities all the time. Since the evidence on the negative impacts of t-shirt donations is so solid, why would World Vision not use this as an opportunity to educate local field staff about the issue?

There's another issue at stake here, and it's one that many aid workers are uncomfortable talking about: World Vision is a Christian organization. They market to Christians and fund many activities through a child sponsorship program that is marketed primarily through Protestant churches in the US. Their stated purpose:

World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.

It says something sad about our society's materialism and greed that we can't wait a few days for the NFL to print up accurate t-shirts while not wasting money on printing ones it knows will not be sold. But it says something even sadder when an organization that purports to be engaged in poverty alleviation with a faith-based motive won't tell the NFL "no" when it is asked to do something that actually contributes to the causes of poverty and injustice. It matters if theology motivates your behavior, and that should be reflected in decisions the organization makes about GIK.
World Vision, I think you can do better.

Laura Seay is a Central Africa expert and political science professor at Morehouse College who blogs at Texas in Africa.

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