Tuesday, March 6, 2012

talking about stuff.

Last week I finished up a month of trying to not buy anything that I didn't need (I don't know if it was cheating to buy dinner with friends, but... I may have done that - that's filling a certain need though I think) as a way to evaluate what I really need and to help me value what I already have. It was kind of freeing to know that certain things were off-limits. In the same vein of "things we don't need" (sort of) I want to take a look at this issue from a different perspective.

You may have heard the term "SWEDOW" - stuff we don't want. It's used to refer to donations that are unnecessary and even harmful to those to whom they are given, usually under the pretense of aid. A classic example of this is World Vision's donation of Superbowl t-shirts, branded with the losing team.

Every article I read on this topic had this photo, so I thought I'd throw it in too.
Donations of 100 000 free t-shirts can inefficient at best, and harmful at worst. The main reasons for discouraging SWEDOW are:
  • the financial cost to ship the products over. Donating something you already have may seem handy, because you have it, you don't need it and other people [seem to] need it, so it seems to follow that you should fill that gap. However, this isn't as simple as dropping off some clothes at your Goodwill downtown. Shipping, packaging, customs -it adds up. But it's not even as if all that is somehow worth it. Typically donations of this kind are items that are readily available in a given country anyway, so all the money spent on bringing over the donations is wasted.
  • Even more, this is money that could be invested into local suppliers. What if you had a coffee shop, but then someone decided to fly in and start giving out free coffee right in front of your shop because they wanted to help. Bringing in a bunch of free stuff can be pretty damaging to a local economy.
  • It's really just sloppy, and disrespectful to people's real needs. If everyone had enough shirts for a year, there would still be big issues. It feels good to treat a symptom for a while, but ultimately you're doing more harm by not addressing the illness. By not even taking the time to understand the issues at play in a developing country we are acting in ignorance and blatantly disrespecting the people we claim to care about.
Probably one of the most dangerous things about SWEDOW is that it makes you feel like you're helping, when really you are not at all. Your conscience may be temporarily salved so you don't feel a need to enact any real change. This concept is articulated by philosopher Slavoj Zizek in his compelling (and in this link, animated!) lecture, First as Tragedy, then as Farce.

Don't get me wrong - there are certainly times when it is important to intervene and provide free "stuff" that people need. I'm not saying let people go naked and hungry while we wade through red tape and sort out policy and systemic issues. But of course, the costs (I don't mean just financial) and benefits must be weighed, and the time and place for this type of intervention must be carefully discerned.

P.S. In the interest of keeping this a balanced discussion, I'll link to World Vision's defense of its donations.