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Myth of the Naked African Child: When Your Donations Hurt

Children in Africa. They aren't naked.

Have you ever sent aid overseas? Did you send money? Toothpaste? Socks? Books? What happened to your donation? Where did it go? Why were you sending it?

One thing I learned when I was volunteering at nonprofits overseas is that people don’t necessarily need what you think they need.

I lived in Jakarta, and volunteered in a small mobile health clinic that went to different Jakarta slums. I thought that Indonesian women would really want condoms. I asked my friend. He said, “Do you want to die? The village heads rule. And if it doesn’t go through them, we won’t be allowed back.”

We then proceded to treat people with a host of diseases, all stemming from lack of access to clean water. So what did they really need? Water filters.

Totally not what I was thinking about, at all.

But you know, I’m not alone in my cluelessness. Recently there’s been some uproar about the damage that sending clothing to Africa can do.

Foreign aid can hurt more than it can help. The world is a lot more complex than we think it is. If we flood the market with free clothes, who will buy clothes from the village next door? They can’t compete with free.

There are different phrases for what foreign aid can do to decimate a local economy. Lethal generosity. Toxic Giving. The Myth of the Naked African Child. Dead White People’s Clothes.

I think Lethal Generosity should be the Oxford phrase of the year.

We see this in governmental aid as well as in well-meaning individual donors who just want to send a pair of boots to Haiti.

We need to ask, “Who is getting the government contract to give “aid” to these people while making tons of money off of this crisis?”

And we need to ask our donors who want to send aid to somewhere in crisis,

“Is there someone in a local or neighboring community that you could pay, thereby stimulating the local economy, creating jobs, and increasing the prosperity of the region, instead of expensively sending a lot of things you have lying around, flooding the region with cheap, free or useless pieces of “foreign aid”?”

We could have stimulated the economies of the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico if we had helped agencies or vendors in these countries give aid to Haiti. But instead we foolishly spent a lot of money and time getting our supplies to Haiti. Just like we’ve done in countless other disasters.

Let’s stop thinking like savior supermen for a minute here and realize that regions can do a lot of their own aid, if we do a little research and work to increase their pipeline efforts.

2 responses on “Myth of the Naked African Child: When Your Donations Hurt

  1. Mike M says:

    Mazarine,

    Let me give you some information and then I’ll let you tell me if TOMS is guilty of “toxic giving.”

    In Ethiopia the shoe that is given is not a typical TOMS shoe. It would not be suitable @ all for the area. Two things are given…a rubber boot to children in extremely damp areas and a cross trainer type tennis shoe in other areas. TOMS designed the rubber boot, commissioned a factory in Ethiopia and oversees the production, therefore stimulating the economy. The tennis shoes are already produced there and are merely purchased by TOMS as needed, thus increasing their sales numbers and revenues. These are all locally owned factories inspected frequently by TOMS staff to be certain working conditions are appropriate.

    Most of the efforts in Ethiopia are designed to prevent a disease called podoconiosus. An organization called the Mossy Foot Project was the leader but had limited resources, and could definitely use your fund raising abilities. They did practice “toxic giving” distributing shoes collected on “shoe drives” in the US and elsewhere. TOMS is changing that in my opinion. Also, the WHO didn’t even recognize this disease as a problem, giving no funding, until TOMS became involved. So, TOMS works much harder on causes than just giving shoes.

    One more thing and I’ll let you decide. In Argentina TOMS actually has their own factories where locals are hired to manage the factories and to make the shoes that are distributed in Argentina and surrounding countries.

    I won’t try to mislead you into thinking this happens in every country where TOMS gives, but TOMS does recognize it as a good business practice, and good for those areas, and plans to expand those programs elsewhere.

    Keep in mind the first pair of TOMS was sold in 2006, and things just take time.

    Thanks for your time.

  2. Mazarine says:

    Thanks for the retweet Sarah!