could donating your stuff to the poor do more harm than good?
Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not reflect the opinions or policies of any group or organisation, including my employers, unless otherwise stated.
No doubt those beautiful people who post these links have the best of intentions, and really want to do what they can to help out those who are less fortunate.
Nonetheless we need to think clearly and critically about what kind of initiatives we support, lest we do more harm than good.
The organisation described above by no means marks a new phenomenon – lots of organisations and campaigns provide ways for people to donate goods, both new and used, to less fortunate people in situations of poverty. No doubt a child with shoes is better off than a child without them. Same goes for a shirt or school supplies. It can’t be denied that enterprises which facilitate these donations do good things.
But is the good outweighed by harmful side effects?
Sticking with the example of shoes, there are numerous issues. Perhaps the most crucial is the destructive force of these free imports within the local economy in which they end up. Imagine what happens to the local shoe seller in the local community where these free shoes are delivered. He, like everyone else, is trying to make a living. Maybe he has children. Maybe they, like other children in their community, have been given free shoes. This is great, except that such free shoes may drive their father out of business. What happens to them then? They may have great shoes in the short term, but without the money for an education or health care, what good are such donations?
This is obviously a hypothetical situation, intended only as an illustration. Nonetheless, you can imagine the impact of a flood of free imports on businesses in our own economy; why would it be any different in poor countries? These donated imports actually have a negative impact on local production and ultimately hurt the poor. Wouldn’t it be better to purchase shoes for children from the local shoe salesman, thus supporting the local economy, rather than destroying it with good intentions?
On a related note, sending “stuff” overseas, especially our old stuff, is to work for people and not with them. When something is done for me, rather than me being empowered to do it myself, there is not only a lack of sustainability but also a lack of dignity – I get the message that I cannot do it myself, that I need an external saviour to do it for me. This is of course hugely problematic, and serves to entrench Western saviour attitudes in the process.
When the poor are not empowered to make changes themselves, but are forced to rely on others to do it for them it leads to dependency. Corbett and Fikkert, in their book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself suggest a rule to avoid dependency:
Avoid paternalism. Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves. Memorize this, recite it under your breath all day long, and wear it like a garland around your neck.
We would do well to remember this rule when we seek to help the poor – work with people, not for people.
To think about this another way: The main reason given for donating shoes to poor children is that it stops them from being exposed to soil-borne diseases — the contraction and spread of diseases can be prevented by wearing shoes. It also stops children injuring their feet and getting infections. Shoes help, no doubt, but ultimately the problem is poor sanitation. By donating shoes we provide only a band-aid and fail to deal with the cause of the problem. In this way we never actually make progress on alleviating poverty and, in fact, by creating dependency we move backwards.
A fairly obvious question that seems to be always overlooked is: What happens when the children inevitably wear out or grow out of their shoes? With our poor shoe salesman out of business, ensuring that children have shoes becomes more difficult in the long term. A job means not only that a family will always have shoes, but also that the local economy is not harmed. A flood of free goods may create short-term solutions, but it also creates long-term problems.
It is also worth asking where the products being distributed are made. At least one well-known brand of buy-one-give-one shoes is made in China. Is it worthwhile to send shoes to help poor children in, say, Haiti, while supporting the child labour market in China? In other words, are we really making a dent in poverty when we are supporting injustice? It is a point that should not be lost on us.
In the end shoelessness, like shirtlessness or a lack of education, is a symptom of poverty, not the cause, and we must deal with the causes of poverty rather than the symptoms. More than that we must ensure our helping is not, in fact, harming. Sending products to the poor is, generally speaking, neither dealing with the causes of poverty nor helping in the long-term; in fact it can be the opposite.
These are only shallow explorations of some of the relevant issues, but given the depth of these issues this will suffice to illustrate the problems with donating goods, both new and used, to the global poor. There is such a thing as bad aid, and we should not ever think that good motivations excuse bad results. Are good intentions that harm vastly better than bad intentions?
Ultimately for me to point out problems is not enough — it is important to give constructive alternatives. What organisations can people donate to and be assured they are actually helping?
I should point out that I am biased, since I work for an organisation that works amongst the global poor. Nonetheless I would encourage people to give to organisations who are doing community development in poor countries by empowering local people in a given context to do the work themselves. This work should be holistic, dealing with the root issues of poverty, not simply applying band-aids. I think TEAR Australia is a prime example, but as I said, I’m biased.
One way to know more about the issues raised here (and others related to poverty) is to educate yourself, and you could start with the book I mentioned earlier — When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.
To those who have tried to help the poor in the past by donating goods: Don’t let this post be a discouragement from being generous, don’t stop trying to do good! Rather, see this post as a way to become more educated and be more effective. Acknowledging that helping can often do harm is not a call to stop helping, but rather a call to think critically about how we help.