1 Million Shirts

I’m sure many of you have seen the 1 Million Shirts campaign. I’m sure you’ve also seen the bashing that’s been happening all over twitter and the blogosphere. If not, here’s a quick summary: Two guys want to collect 1 million shirts to send to Africa for needy kids. Aid organizations and individuals have begun a campaign against this idea, slamming it as the worst thing you could do. Blog entries are questioning the real motivation of these guys, saying the idea is not well thought out, and that it will do more harm than good. The typical response is “Give money, not shirts”.

I have real problems with this. It really bothers me. Check out this blog post: http://aidwatchers.com/2010/04/nobody-wants-your-old-t-shirts/. I get it, I really do. But is that the best way to approach it? I really don’t think so. First off, let’s give the guys the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re genuinely trying to help. Let’s assume there’s no ulterior motive. So then let’s try to help them out. Maybe there is a good way to help with the shirts. Not everyone has money they can give.

Here’s a real life example. And maybe this is why this bothers me so much. I just happen to know a family going through a very rough time. The couple is in their 30’s and have two young children. The father has terminal cancer and hasn’t been able to work for quite a while. So, money is tight, to say the least. The wife wants to do a shoe drive and send the shoes she collects to Uganda. According to the post above, this is stupid and she should just send money, or ask people for donations and send that. You really think as many people would give her money as they would give her shoes? And for her, organizing the shoe drive is something she can do to make herself feel good. So yeah, maybe it’s selfish, but she deserves it. She said she wants to help other people because so many people she has never met have stepped up and helped her family. So tell me that’s a horrible idea.

Texas is Africa does a GREAT job of responding: http://texasinafrica.blogspot.com/2010/04/some-alternative-ideas-to-donating-t.html

What I like about the response is that, first off, it’s respectful. Second of all, there are plenty of alternative ideas. Ranging from the typical “give money” to more entrepreneurial concepts. This is the right way to talk to people. This is the right way to get people to listen.

In my example above, we directed the woman to work with a charity that already does shoe drives and handles getting the shoes distributed. So she’s going to organize the drive, collect the shoes, and get them to the charity. All because someone responded to her as Texas in Africa did. Not with a simple, “that’s the worst thing you can do”.

7 thoughts on “1 Million Shirts

  1. I’ll agree that the debate got more heated than it needed to be. I will say that Jason’s responses have been part of what has led to the escalation. We’ve had other aid debates where things have worked themselves out much calmer and faster. But I will also agree that some of us did not react to that as well as we should have either.

    Although you might not have been able to tell from this debate, most of the people coming out against 1millionshoes actually dedicate a lot of time and effort to people that contact us looking for guidance.

    I get requests for my advice at least once a week and I always take time to respond. I have also devoted hundreds of hours to writing posts to educate and empower donors. And I’ve created a free rating system that walks them through the process of evaluating an aid organization.

    So myself and others in the aid world are trying to help people contribute to the world. But it’s not easy. So much of what we have to say goes against what people want to hear and puts them on the defensive. For instance the shoe program you mention may be a good solution for your friend but it may well be a good solution for the people she’s trying to help.

    Here’s one of my posts explaining the reasons behind this. http://informationincontext.typepad.com/good_intentions_are_not_e/2010/01/6-questions-you-should-ask-before-donating-goods-overseas.html

    And here’s my post explaining how much I’ve done to try to helpfully explain about donated goods before finally getting snarky.


  2. >> So yeah, maybe it’s selfish, but she deserves it. She said she wants to help other people because so many people she has never met have stepped up and helped her family. So tell me that’s a horrible idea.

    Okay. Since you asked someone to tell you: It’s NOT a good idea. It’s *almost* a good idea. It becomes a good idea IF she can find a non-profit locally who can

    (a) turn those shoes into money — but at home in the US not after shipping them all the way to Africa, and then

    (b) put that money towards a project in Africa, where that project is meeting the need(s) of a community, which have been identified BY that community.

    If there’s no one she can find who can do that, then her used shoes should stay exactly where they are. Sorry.

  3. Saundra, cynan_sez, thank you both for your comments.

    Cynan_sez – so if she has an organization that will take the shoes and handle distribution of them, you still think that’s not worth doing? I get that her just blindly shipping shoes over there would not help anything.

    I know that while in Uganda, I saw plenty of children and adults without shoes. Granted, they need clean drinking water WAY more than they need shoes, but, it seems as there is a need there.

    So is the general opinion in the aid community then that organizations (non profit) that collect and distribute shoes overseas are misguided? I truly ask that as a genuine question. This is new territory to me.

    Thank you both for your comments and providing information.

  4. This comment has no affiliation with any blog, or aid organization. I am a graduate student in development studies who has studied and been horrified at the disasters that happen because people do not inform themselves before they take on projects or charity work.

    I agree that this whole debate has escalated more than it should have. But, and here is the big point, this debate needed to happen. There are a lot of people who believe that they are doing the right thing and that sending shoes, or t-shirts or tampons or whatever it is to Africa or elsewhere in the developing world is a ‘good thing’. The people who started the debate about 1MillionShirts are academics, aid practitioners and development experts. They started the debate because they have seen first hand, the devastation and destruction that ‘doing the right thing’ has done in places like Uganda or Madagascar. They are on point – they aren’t there to discourage people to get involved in development or charity work, but I think everyone needs to be more informed about policies and practices before they ‘do the right thing’.

    I am sorry that your family friends are going through a rough time. But honestly, sending shoes to Africa is NOT going to help. I do actually think that it is a terrible idea. There have been so many documented cases of charity work, like this, that has gone wrong. Where boxes of shoes or clothes sit in ports because of poor documentation or even because no one in the receiving country knows what to do with old t-shirts or tattered pairs of sneakers.

    I encourage anyone who wants to get involved in charity to just do one thing. To read. To be as informed as possible before doing something that will make them “feel good” about themselves, because more often than not, they are harming, not helping those who really need it.

  5. I think the basic picture is that the cost of importing shoes yourself are never going to match the benefits – so it is on the level of spending a dollar to ship something worth a dime.

    You’re very likely to spend more in the shipping and distribution than it would cost to buy the shoes – even locally made ones.

    That said, the bulk Second Hand Clothing market imports container loads of used shoes and in my opinion you’re talking a different kettle of fish there – because there is a cascade of entrepreneurs whose economic livelihood depends on being able to sell them. So I’d say that was probably fairly efficient on that scale.

  6. gentlemandad – please note that in the original posting, it states “In my example above, we directed the woman to work with a charity that already does shoe drives and handles getting the shoes distributed.”

    I agree, the cost of getting the shoes there would not be worth it. In fact, that’s the first thing that we told her.

    In the comments I posted a question about organizations like the one we put her in touch with – a non-profit that handles collection and distribution of shoes. Does that fall into the same category, or does that get more into an actual benefit because of scale and because of management of the distribution.

    Again, thanks for all the comments.

  7. Pingback: Good Intentions Are Not Enough » Blog Archive » What aid workers think of the 1 Million Shirts campaign

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