Friday, April 30, 2010

The 1 Million Shirts Campaign and the Development Community

While I intended for this blog to be a forum for keeping in touch with family and friends, I simply cannot pass up the opportunity to reflect on some very worthy news from the past week. On a personal and professional level, I’m invested in this subject and consider it of great import.

The 1 Million Shirts Campaign intends to collect 1,000,000 used t-shirts and ship them to target countries in Africa, namely, Kenya, Uganda, DR Congo, Ghana, Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Swaziland and South Africa to help people who lack clothes. Sounds like a decent idea, you say? However well-intentioned it may seem, there are countless flaws with such an initiative. I’ll raise just two of the campaign’s shortcomings in this post.

The aid blogosphere became enraged this week as a torrent of posts were published rebuking the nascent t-shirt campaign as well as raising awareness to the potential dangers that would come as a result of the project. You can find them herehere, hereherehere, hereherehere and here. (Please read at least couple as they make a far more eloquent argument against futile gifts in kind).

Perhaps the most rudimentary component of the project that was overlooked by its designers is that most people in Africa already have shirts. All too often aid is sent without a clear understanding of what is actually needed on the ground. As Matt Collin of the highly-regarded blog Aid Thoughts explains, “If someone doesn’t have a shirt, there are probably a lot of other things that they don’t have, and we have no good reason to give the shirt priority.”

Moreover, it’s utterly inefficient to ship millions of shirts overseas. It’s simply illogical to send goods that can be produced locally and create jobs. Not to mention, sending such goods can be detrimental to local textile industries.

I bring this up because it’s rather pertinent these days. In the past 4 months alone, we’ve seen natural disasters beleaguer Haiti and Chile. According to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, “Over the past 30 years, the number of reported natural disasters has increased steadily, from slightly fewer than 100 in 1975 to a little more than 300 in 2003, an almost four-fold increase." In post-disaster relief efforts, we tend to become an overtly generous society. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. But when the next calamity inevitably occurs, please do not go rummaging through your attic and bring old shoes to the afflicted country’s embassy as it may be entirely inappropriate under the circumstances. It makes much more sense to donate you’re $50 to a reputable charity that has had a proven track record in the region. A gift in kind (GIK) is a great idea so long as it’s deemed necessary and appropriate. Aid workers condemned the 1 Million Shirts Campaign because it is neither. Its simply bad aid.

A comprehensive reference on the DOs and DON’Ts of disaster donations can be found here.


  1. wonderful, dave. thank you.

  2. Pietra Rivoli's "The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy" is an excellent exploration of these issues and I would highly recommend it:

  3. I've always thought that asking before giving is the best way to go. Who are we to say what others "need." Thanks Deedee.

  4. Thanks Andrea!
    For those uber eager to learn more, here's a short review of Rivoli's treatsie.