To Donate or Not to Donate?

*This was originally published as Don’t Send Your Used Shoes to Africa on Djibouti Jones in 2014. I bring it up again because on a recent flight to Kenya, my husband sat beside a Kenyan small business owner. Her clothing shop sells locally made dresses using Kenyan materials and Kenyan employees. She said these used clothes imports make it incredibly difficult to sustain her business. She gave my husband her business card and the next day he and I visited her shop and I bought a gorgeous dress. And then I read The Crisis Caravan: what’s wrong with humanitarian aid. Mind-blowing.

There is a debate in the development world about whether or not people in developed, wealthy nations should send their used shoes and clothing to less prosperous nations.

You have a pile of used clothes and old running shoes or sandals and purses and hats from last season. What do you do with it? Donate seems like the best answer, right? Is it? Is it the best practice for wealthy, developed nations to send their used items to Africa? (I’m using Africa because that is where I live. The issue is globally relevant.)

What are some of the problems with sending used things?

About TOMS: “A 2008 study found that used clothing donations to Africa were responsible for a 50 percent reduction in employment in that sector between 1981 and 2000 on the continent.” Some Bad News about TOMS shoes

Some of the shoes and clothes that land here are not just used, they are trash. Torn, stained, faded. When people send their garbage, it makes those on the receiving end feel like garbage. Would you wear a bra with two different sized cups? Underwear with one leg stretched so big it sags and the other is tight, or stained? Stained used underwear?

There are wealthy, well-clothed people in Africa. To be specific, there are wealthy, well-clothed people on my block in Djibouti. There are also poor families. Local people, and I include myself while we live here, need to rise up and get involved in our own communities. Outsiders sending free things undermine that by giving local people, from the neighborhood level to top government levels, excuses to turn a blind eye.

When it comes to running shoes, they have already seen hundreds of miles. You stopped wearing them because they are too old and could cause an injury. It is not any different for an African athlete.

Sending shoes does not solve the underlying problem of shoelessness, which is poverty, which is complicated and has other underlying causes. Job creation and economic growth will address poverty. Sending shoes undermines the jobs of shoe makers and shoe sellers (see the study referenced in the TOMS section and see the NYT article link at the end of this post).

Sending shoes costs money. Why not donate that money to a job-creating charity or a local initiative who could purchase shoes locally?

Studies have found that doing one perceived good deed can contribute to a failure to do another. So, doing the easy and anonymous, faceless act of donating used clothing might mean a person is less inclined to get involved in an actual person-to-person interaction that could meet a real and pressing need.

Ways of giving that promote trendy consumerism, like TOMS, that offer a buy one, give one incentive are more about the consumer than the receiver. “So next time you’re faced with buying some slick $200 Armani shades (whose parent company gives a MASSIVE 1% of its total revenue to the Global Fund) why not grab a $20 pair and donate $180 to something worthwhile on the ground.” Craig Greensfield

Donating can feel good, can be helpful, but it can also promote a savior complex. Pippa Biddle

The idea that you can simply donate used clothing to Africa allows the endless consumption of goods in wealthy nations to run on, unabated. Why not buy a new wardrobe every season? Surely some naked kid in Africa can use these out-of-fashion clothes. This is harmful for the environment, damaging to our souls as consuming turns into religion, and it promotes a wasteful mentality. If all that used clothing wound up in American garbage dumps instead of African markets or African garbage dumps, Americans might start to reconsider the need to constantly purchase new items.

All that said, I do think there is a place for donations in the world of development and I think a generous, giving spirit is a commendable, spiritual, and beautiful character trait. We are often on the receiving end of incredibly generous donations – from money to books to shoes to school supplies to soccer balls…for which we are grateful and the things go to really good use. I will not tell people to stop donating but I will make some recommendations on how to be smart about it.

How can you be wise and generous?

Don’t send your trash.

Don’t inflate the impact of your donations. Saving the world won’t be accomplished with a t-shirt.

Don’t send it in ignorance, thinking Africa is filled with naked people. Do a little research, learn about where you are sending your things, use the desire to donate as a launching pad for educating yourself and your family and your community.

Don’t send it simply so you can feel better about an addiction to consumption.

Find a useful, appropriate, and relational way to donate. Engage with a community development project, like Girls Run 2 or a school, an organization with which you can form an ongoing relationship or an organization with a proven track-record of relationships and development.

Pay for the shipping yourself, don’t ask the receiving organization to pay that or for port fees or the inevitable import taxes, especially if you are donating things they have not specifically requested. It is incredibly frustrating to go through the paperwork and fees required to import boxes only to find melted candles, used notebooks, broken crayons, popped balloons, and stained clothing inside. I am not being facetious.

If you aren’t sure clothes or shoes will be useful, appropriate, or relational, donate money instead and trust the people on the ground to make wise decision in allocating that money.

Consider the amount of waste involved in constantly updating your wardrobe and shipping those goods and consider renewing your wardrobe less often.

Invest, but not in stuff. A personal example from just this month: A 14-year old girl faces two options: get married or go to school. She only speaks English but the English school her mother can afford ends after 8th grade. She goes to her community and they raise the funds for one-third of the cost of education at our school. What does she need? She does not need used shoes or a cheap t-shirt. She needs money for the tuition and for transportation. Her community has already committed to supporting her but they need a little more. Either, her mother needs a better job or she needs a donation via the on-the-ground people who can provide her with a quality education that is an investment into her family right now and for the future.

Think about this quote, from Amy Medina in Sometimes the Starfish Story Doesn’t Work:

One person asked me what kind of things people should send to Tanzania as alternatives to shoeboxes. My response was Nothing.
Please don’t send stuff to Tanzania. Tanzania has a huge amount of untapped natural resources. Tanzania doesn’t need stuff. If you want to invest financially in Tanzania, invest in training. Job training, pastoral training, agricultural training, or children’s education.

Ask yourself, really truly ask and demand an honest answer, Why do you want to donate your used clothes? Why does it make you angry to hear it might not be helpful or that cash would be more useful? Does it challenge your ideas about a specific people or country? Does it challenge your consumerism? Does it make you feel guilty, confused, uncertain? That’s okay. I repeat, that’s okay. Everyone I know here, in the US, myself, my family, we all face these issues (and disagree, even at my own kitchen table!). Answer the question with courageous integrity and then go about addressing the answer. We are all on a journey and instead of judging or boasting, let’s grow.

Research, ask questions, learn, and then act, with eyes open wide and a heart filled with humble generosity and humble gratitude

We want to help, right? I know that. I wrestle with how best to help. Sometimes the answers are painful and sometimes they aren’t answers, they are gropings in the dark, prayers for wisdom, confessions of ignorance. And sometimes we simply need to act, to not be paralyzed by fear, to do due diligence in seeking wisdom and then to take a risk and act in faith.

Useful articles:

For Dignity and Development, East Africa Curbs Used Clothes Imports New York Times, 2017

Amy Medina published an article about Christmas Shoeboxes. I wrote about them here.

Second Hand Clothes in Africa on CNN

Am I a Bad Mother or Has Africa Run Out of Shoes?

You Can’t Buy Your Way to Social Justice

NFL T-Shirts

The series: When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They are Being Rich Westerners

Is Foreign Aid Bad for Africa in Time

Why Sending Your Old Clothes to Africa Doesn’t Help in the Huffington Post

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Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel writes about life at the crossroads of faith and culture. Her work is influenced by living as a foreigner in the Horn of Africa, raising three Third Culture Kids, and adventurous exploration of the natural world. She has been published in the New York Times, Runners World, the Big Roundtable, and more. Check out her latest book, Stronger than Death: Get all her stories and updates in the Stories from the Horn newsletter

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