Doing More Harm Than Good

A quick warning to readers: This post is slightly off-topic. But since the Bloggers Without Borders/Jennifer Perillo dustup over the past week, I've been doing a lot of thinking about how to make sure we are doing the right thing with our personal acts of charity. Today's post is an effort to organize some of my thoughts. As always, I'm grateful for your comments and feedback.
Have you ever participated in a clothing drive to send donated clothing to Africa? As far back as the late 70s and early 80s, churches in my community had clothing drives like this practically every year. And even today, armies of perfectly nice people in organizations all across the USA collect, organize and send over to poor countries in Africa what they believe are badly needed articles of clothing.

But there's a big problem here. While it's possible that some of these items find their way into the hands needy people, the vast majority of these clothes are toxic.

No, not literally toxic--economically toxic.

Why? Because there's substantial evidence that these free clothes simply killed off the textile industries of several countries in Africa. That's right, killed off.

Yes, some of these clothes may have helped people in the short term, but in the medium- and long-term those free clothes annihilated healthy, domestic African-owned businesses that could have provided jobs for local people. Think about it. No one can compete with free. No country that consistently receives large volumes of free clothing could possibly have its own domestic textile and clothing industry.

When you sincerely think through some of the unintended or counterintuitive consequences of a seemingly clear cut charitable act, the experience can be personally mortifying. In fact, many people experience powerful cognitive dissonance to ideas like the one I just described. They may react angrily, and even violently, to the idea that their "good" acts might be harmful. And then they go right back and keep on doing them.

One takeaway is this: We can feel intoxicatingly good about ourselves when we do things that feel generous or ethical. But if we really want to do good for others, we also have the obligation to think through the ramifications--and the economics--of what we do. We have to make sure what we think is good doesn't actually do harm. And I can't imagine a better time to think about this issue than right now, as the food blogosphere is reeling from the "A Fund For Jennie" controversy.

Look, harm is still harm, whether an army of perfectly nice church ladies or an army of perfectly nice food bloggers is behind it.

I'll share one more example of potentially misguided charity, an example that strikes closer to home here at Casual Kitchen. Many CK readers know that every so often I go on medical trips to Central America with my wife Laura and several of her eye doctor colleagues. Our team heads down to poor communities in countries like Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, where we give entire villages free eye screenings and eye exams. In a typical one-week trip, we will examine literally thousands of people and give away thousands of pairs of free, donated glasses.

Sounds wonderful, right? Well, in truly poor communities with truly limited resources, it is. If you get the right pair of glasses into the hands of a seriously nearsighted or astigmatic poor person, you can change that person's life completely. They can work, they can function better, and thus they can become more productive for their family and for their society. That's the kind of help that pays enormous long-term dividends to a developing country.

Here's the thing though. Our last trip was to Nicaragua, and our clinics took place in western Nicaragua, in the area surrounding San Juan del Sur. And that area--believe it or not--is now at a development stage where free eye care does harm. No, it's not a wealthy place, but the communities there are now well-developed enough to have their own eye doctors providing services to their own people. They are ready to be self-sufficient. (A side note: this is in contrast to other regions of Nicaragua--such as the eastern region of the country--which aren't as developed.)

Now, going there to give away free exams and eyeglasses might still seem generous, and it might make us feel good about ourselves. But in reality, doing so would be cruel, because we'd be disrupting the proper development of that community's own domestic health care.

One more example: Chile, one of the most advanced countries in South America, started limiting these types of medical missions as far back as the early 90s. And I'll be honest: before I really thought through it, I assumed it was just another example of the evil legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship. Now that I have a better understanding of these issues, I realize that the people running Chile's economy made exactly the right choice--at least on this issue.

Once again, no one can compete with free. When a country encourages regular doses of free medical care from outsiders, it actually destroys the practice of health care by trained local doctors. Chile just happened to recognize this at the right time in their country's development curve.

And that's why Laura and I won't go to either of these places to offer free health care.

A charitable act has to be about more than just about making ourselves feel generous. We also have an important obligation to think through any unintended consequences, economic or otherwise. Don't let your charity do more harm than good.

In next Tuesday's post, I'll tie some of these concepts into the food industry.

Readers! What do you think? Can you think of similar examples from your personal acts of charity?

Resources/Further Reading:
Dead White People's Clothes (The Root)
Trade Theory vs. Used Clothes in Africa (The New York Times)
The Truth About Where Your Donated Clothes End Up (ABC News)

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Anonymous said...

I've been to Africa, those clothes are NOT being given to anyone for free. They are being taken and SOLD in markets.

(Maybe not taken by a warlord/drug dealer/dictator - but most definitely SOLD!)

But even on the ABC/CBS/NBC/CNN/FOX news you hear about food meant for famine victims being stolen... (It is not a huge leap from food aid to clothing.)

Jenna said...

I'll admit, more and more - despite an uncomfortable and unsettled feeling of amorphous guilt caused by one too many commercials with Sarah Mclachlan wailing in the background and visions of big eyed hungry kids staring me down - I try to keep my donations local.

It's more romantic to be the heroic savior to some distant land, the image of some now suddenly fed and education child who through your 'mere cost of a cup of coffee a day', laying down each night, your picture clutched in their hand as they list you gratefully in their prayers for rescuing them... than to just hand a bag of groceries over in your own hum-drum town. I also think folks like the 'far away' aspect because it allows us to think nasty things like hunger, lack of education, illness... are all something "Else". They are other. Distant and remote - no one wants to think their neighbor is going to bed hungry - it's too close to thinking it could happen to you.

It's not as romantic (complete with hazy distance and intermittent postcards) but these days... I try to do my best to turn OFF those horrid commercials - and look around to see what my town needs. I feel selfish for doing it sometimes, but hey. Into everyone's life a little unsettling guilt must fall.

Laura said...

I am SO glad to hear someone else saying this sort of thing!! I have taken a lot of flack for suggesting similar things about the real economics of things. Well written. Thanks.

chacha1 said...

I think giving any kind of hard goods, from weapons to clothing to food, is probably *more often* a net negative when we are talking about overseas giving.

If you cannot ensure fair distribution of the goods - and we can't - you shouldn't be sending them over. There will ALWAYS be profiteers, and the nations most in need of assistance are generally also the nations with the most-corrupt "governments."

I am almost as skeptical about giving money, because the missions of so many donation-based organizations are so often tied to religious or other ideological biases.

For a long, long time, my only donations to organization serving outside the U.S. have been to Habitat for Humanity, and Heifer International. Because both organizations tie together education of the recipient, the labor of the recipient, and a community involvement component.

They are not giving handouts, they are helping to build stable and self-sufficient environments.

I agree with Jenna that for in-kind donations, the immediate community is the best destination. There is ALWAYS someone in need, often right next door.

Daniel said...

Some great comments and insights so far. Some reactions:

Anon: all the more reason to take great care when making donations of this sort.

Jenna: I think the commercials you speak of are a fixture on TV because they work. I'm dating myself, but my TV growing up had those same types of ads with Sally Struthers. But just because an ad evokes an emotional response doesn't mean you have to obey that ad--like you say, you can instead give locally to a charity you yourself know is effective. To me that's the key.

Laura: you nailed it. People often don't want to face the idea that their "good" actions aren't as good as they thought.

Chacha1: The analysis you're making is exactly what I'd like to see in all my readers when they assess their acts of charity and giving. Thanks for articulating it so well.


AmandaLP said...

The issue is that most people do charity to feel good about themselves, and not to actually help other people. Most people have no idea what a person or community actually needs, and so we waste a lot of our resources doing things that do not help.

I agree with the above commentor, donating locally may be the best solution. Find an organization that is doing good work, and ASK THEM what you can best do to support them. Sometimes a few hours of your time is worth more than lots of money, and sometimes giving money for specific causes is counterproductive.

Shauna said...

An excellent point by Amanda, above, about asking what is needed rather than assuming. In overseas cases, of course we really have NO idea what is being done with our monetary or other donations. Dan, you and your wife have at least the benefit of going personally to the places you help and assessing the ultimate effects of your actions...such a great article, and perhaps if more of us truly give some (more) thought to our charitable acts they will ultimately have far more positive impact = everyone wins.

Janet C. said...

Dan: I have mixed feelings about this entire issue. I too have gone on several optometric missions, and for the most part I do think what I have done has been helpful. Here is why: I went to Nicaragua (about four years ago) and although I wasn't a huge distance from Managua the village we helped might as well have been on the moon. The problem was one of infrastructure. We visited a small agricultural village with no physician, pharmacy, dentist OR optometrist...and none likely to set up shop any time soon. Why? Because for four to five months of the year the roads are washed out (during rainy season). They were barely passable during good weather (in fact we left a day early when rain was forcast - we were seriously worried about being stuck there and needing to be airlifted out if we didn't...). The group I was with gave many individuals a years' worth of medicines ...they were their only medical contact for that time period. I felt that although it wasn't an ideal situation, we truly were giving care that would not have been given otherwise.

Another mission I participated in went to a small town in Northern Mexico. Again, the town was very isolated geographically. This town did have a resident doctor, but he was a recent medical graduate serving his government service and had little experience. We were able to educate him, and pass on permanent knowledge that would be useful to the community. Interestingly enough, the Mexican government would only allow us to be there giving care if we would agree to provide education for their resident physician.

I have turned down several opportunities recently to travel with Lion's Clubs' trips to Mexico. Concerns regarding safety have caused recent trips to be held in larger, more accessible urban areas (even in Mexico City!) I agree with you in those cases that the people are better served finding care within their communities.

btw, another "medical mission" that you might look at is that of SEVA international ( Yes, one of the founders was Wavy Gravy. Yes, that Wavy Gravy. SEVA is dedicated to sustainable eye and health care around the world. They don't go in and do cataract surgery; they teach local surgeons modern tecniques and help provide the necessary equipment (phaco units, etc). They are worthy of our donations.

Daniel said...

Great comment Janet. And I hear you--I have mixed feelings too. The problem with a medical mission, as I'm sure you well know, is you don't always know the conditions on the ground until you're actually there with a team. I guess it's up to us (as best we can) to make a determination about the true needs of a community and use that as a basis for choosing locations in the future. Thanks for your thoughts, as always.


Daniel said...

And a quick thought to weigh in on AmandaLP's and Shauna's comments:

On one level I agree with Amanda's premise, although I'd rather think most of us do charity to help others, not simply for the concommitant good feelings it gives us.

But another issue is that it's hard to climb out of our own brains. Sometimes what people think really "helps" just... doesn't.

Which makes me completely agree with both Amanda's and Shauna's conclusions: don't assume you know where your money is going--and try to keep your donations local so you can try to assess the effects (both intended and unintended) of what you do.

Great, great insights from both of you.


Marc-Olivier Meunier said...

I feel that the best you can give is time and education.
About donation, i am right now in the lougne at New Delhi International airport and yesterday I went to see the Taj Mahal... and it's hundreds of beggers.
I must say I wasn't bothered that much because I went early in the morning but of course feeling rather uncomfortable. Most guide books tell you to be careful because if you start giving to someone you will end giving to everyone. The word spreads fast and soon you get surrounded by beggers.
So what should you do??

BTW, it's true what they say: incredible India!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post "Doing More Harm Than Good." There's a number of misperceptions about what happens to donated clothing from the U.S. The majority (60%) of all donated clothing collected by national (Goodwill, Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul, etc.) and local charities is sold for shipment overseas. Only 20-25% of donations are actually sold in U.S. thrift stores. Charities use the funds from donated clothing to pay for their missions here and abroad. Used textiles are in the top ten of all U.S. exports. The global textile trade is a $1 trillion a year enterprise employing millions every day. Donated clothes are seldom just given away as you assert. Most clothing is sold and resold multiple times - from wholesaler, to distributor to shipper to retailer. Most who handle clothing at the retail end are small shopkeepers and family businesses. When surviving on less than a couple of dollars a day extra income from clothes sales is a vital means of daily revenue for food, shelter, medicine and yes clothing. Regarding the impact of donated clothing on overseas garment industries. One of of every four garments purchased in the U.S. is manufactured in China alone.Do we need other developing countries to produce more sweat shops to sell cheap clothing to western nations? Already, the U.S. cannot handle the mounting pile of excess clothing. Only 15% of used clothing and textiles gets recycled in U.S. mainly through shipping to other countries. The rest - 85% is buried in local landfills or burned in incinerators. The facts above are well-documented and can be found in several locations. BIR (Burea of International Recycling, S.M.A.R.T.- recycling assoc. in U.S.; and Earth911 for starters.