We Always Give What We Have, Not What People Need

This post was originally published as a guest blog on the Good Intentions web site. 

The aid community has been having a healthy debate about whether gifts-in-kind (GIK) othertimes called SWEDOW (stuff we don’t want) donations are a good or bad thing. The most recent spark to the flame occurred in February 2011 when t-shirts declaring the Pittsburgh Steelers the 2010 Super Bowl Champs were donated by the NFL to World Vision International for distribution in Zambia, Romania, Nicaragua, and Romania. (follow @GoodIntents or @texasinafrica on Twitter, for the low-down)

Critics argue that these kinds of giveaways harm poor communities more than they help because they flood the markets with free goods which underprice clothing and thereby put local tailors, dressmakers or small clothing companies out of business.

But are all clothing donation programs created equal?

As an advisor to Ashoka, I was invited to meet Anshu Gupta at a coffee shop here in Singapore to learn more about this fellow’s work. He’s polite and a bit reserved until he starts talking about Goonj, the organization he founded in 1999. Goonj, which serves 21 states in India, receives donated clothing, largely from upper and middle class Indians, and then using hundreds of trained local volunteers, cleans and distributes that clothing to Indians too poor to afford even basic clothing.

But the process is far from simple. Middle class women in Mumbai donate jeans. Rural women in Tamilnadu don’t wear jeans. They wear saris. And they might not wear saris made of the same cloth that women from Delhi might donate. So Goonj volunteers have a highly developed cataloging system that allows them to identify, separate and group clothing according to where the recipients can actually use it. In addition, recipients engage in neighborhood-building work in exchange for clothing. Goonj’s community organizers have developed a variety of means of helping communities help themselves using this recycled resource as an incentive, commodity, and exchange.

Goonj sees its mission as giving people clothing to help them move toward self-esteem, skills building and self-sufficiency. So the right clothing exchanged for work or expertise in a respectful way, is critical to the model.

So I’m so impressed with Goonj and I’m asking myself how is this charitable clothing donation different than the process employed by some large aid organizations? Seems to me there are a few key points of what makes Goonj effective:

1)    Locally driven.

2)    Culturally respectful.

3)    Organized around the needs of the recipients, not the needs of the donors.

4)    Fueled by creative re-use. Their newest initiative is using clean, recycled cloth scraps to make locally produced sanitary pads for poor women. A real public health and sustainability breakthrough.

5)    And it recognizes that poor communities are looking to build markets of exchange and value, not destroy them. Those who extend the life of resource are performing an important function in the community’s ecosystem, they are not passive recipients.

When I met him, Anshu was asking for assistance in further developing his business model, training other NGOs to replicate the Goonj program, and seeking experienced volunteers to document and write case studies about their work. He was actively seeking support and critique. I was stopped in my tracks by World Vision’s statement that it has never evaluated their gifts-in-kind programs because “they are gifts, not programs.” Wow. There are so many things wrong with that statement that it’s still blowing my mind.

My point here is not to denigrate or bestow sainthood on any organization. World Vision is full of smart and dedicated people, so I have no doubt the organization will change and grow, as will Goonj.

But this discussion encourages us all to respond energetically to our charitable impulses, while also being open to learning when those impulses might need refining in order to be responsive to community needs. There is no shame in having an idea or program that needs improvement. The shame is in being too close-minded to make the improvements.

As we were parting Anshu summed it up perfectly when he said, the problem with most programs is that “we always give what we have, not what people need.”

Please share your ideas for how we might be able to change that.

3 comments

  1. zenpeacekeeper

    I think about this a lot – and my focus right now is on the inner difference between giving that is genuinely focused on an directed towards the needs of the recipient, and giving that is largely motivated by and driven by the needs of the giver. The inner shift interests me, which is why I agree entirely that although good intentions are not enough, intentions matter very much. In the practice of yoga we call this ‘Karma Yoga’ – the yoga of self-less service. In the development community we call it best practice.

    We all know what it looks like but I’m interested in how we cultivate it within ourselves. Perhaps paradoxically, I’m beginning to suspect it requires a certain relinquishment of our attachment to the outcome of our actions – though without absolving us of the responsibility to take all care to ensure those outcomes are positive. Sorry, I realise my thoughts are a bit vague, but I’m investigating it! Thanks for generating more conversation.

  2. Phuong Anh

    Can’t agree more, Hayling. It’s all about listening ability & the ego. Btw, I am someone who shares your professional interest. I am currently in Singapore…until May 7 morning. It would be great if you can meet up. Please let me know.

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