Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Are World Vision really the bad guys?

A lot of fuss has been made by the twitterati in the last 48 hours over World Vision's decision to send 100,000 rejected tshirts from the US SuperBowl, as Gifts In Kind (GIK) to developing countries such as Zambia... 

For the low down on the issues at play here, there is an excellent open letter to World Vision found here 

The idea of giving 'handouts' is not new in development discourse, and is certainly not endorsed by those of us working to improve aid practises and sustainable development in developing countries. There is a plethora of empirical evidence demonstrating the negative impact of handouts - particularly in African countries. We all know the tagline Oxfam made famous -

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime"

- but really, it speaks a very loud truth into development and aid practises.

How do you actually alleviate poverty by giving stuff out for free and not use each and every opportunity as a chance for skillsharing and education? This is where it becomes important to differentiate between short and long term aid giving. 

The short term provision of aid is usually seen in cases of natural disaster, famine, extreme violence and conflict. This is when free handouts are VITAL, necessary and save lives. Haiti and Pakistan are recent examples (although of course, how the response is coordinated and how resources are distributed fairly on the ground is another problem altogether). However, the long term provision of aid is generally tasked with improving the growth and prosperity of a country and its citizens on a long term, sustainable basis. I.e. if you re-visited a project 10 years later, it should have been designed to be self sufficient and not rely wholly on western charitable input (physically, financially etc). 

Therefore, you have to question what use it is to ship out a pile of rejected tshirts (the losing team from the superbowl) at a cost to World Vision (because they have to pay to ship them globally) to countries they are providing long term aid to. It goes much deeper and far beyond the simple act of giving someone a tshirt for free- it encourages an unhealthy attitude towards charities, an expectation of free 'stuff' and a disincentive to fight for your own development if you think someone else is just going to do it for you for free. These kinds of attitudes, sadly, are endemic throughout many parts of Africa. When you look at the (questionable) development success story of India for example, it's a different story. Culture and education have forced Indian's to expect nothing from anyone and to fight for their own success story. This has nurtured a country full of entrepeneurs (many of whom now run businesses in Africa) who take initiative without expecting a western charity to step in and provide. This might all sound extreme, when it boils down to 100,000 tshirts but this is important because this move has been made by one of the biggest development charities in existence and because a seemingly well intentioned gesture can lead to bad aid practises and undo the work of those fighting for ownership and participation in development discourse today....

World Vision should take the 100,000 tshirts and store them in DEC/FEMA reserves ready for the (sadly inevitable) next emergency disaster, at which point they will be given to people who actually NEED emergency clothing, shelter, food etc.

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