Ever wonder what happens to the hats and t-shirts celebrating the victory of the losing team in each year’s Super Bowl? They come to Africa.
From my time working inventory in retail stores back in Wisconsin, I saw firsthand just how quickly boxes and boxes of championship t-shirts can go from the box to the rack and right back to the box the minute that the Green Bay Packers lose the championship game. This past week we saw yet another example of this as we pulled up to an International NGO’s warehouse in Mbabane and were greeted by an entire staff all fully clothed in championship t-shirts and matching hats.
However interesting a site this was, we were not there for the baseball memorabilia. Our school had received a letter inviting us to come help empty out their warehouse. A warehouse completely filled with thousands and thousands of brand new books.
Only two representatives from each school were allowed inside at a time, and the first 15 minutes were spent arguing with the staffers in an attempt to change their planned method of distribution. Their plan was to open a box, give me 10 of each book and move on. The problem with that method is that every school will end up with a ton of books inappropriate to their purpose and too few of those books that could really help the students at a given school. After much arguing, I convinced them to give me 30 copies of the books I wanted and 0 of those that were not needed.
After that victory, we were affronted with yet another challenge to achieving our mission that day—the woman in charge began yelling ‘3 minutes! You have 3 minutes!’ This set off a frantic, black-Friday style scurry around the warehouse with Rebecca and I yelling back and forth consulting on which books we thought would help our school. We ended up with a little over 500 books, which we think will complement our current library perfectly.
It was exciting and a lot of fun, but this day prompted quite a lot of thought. In our experience, both in Swaziland and in Haiti it is awesome to see how willing people are to find some way to help those less fortunate. However, working in these places, one cannot help but become frustrated by the lack of thought and planning that often goes in to such donations. While I firmly believe that Rebecca and I were able to get a number of great resources which will help hundreds of children, the initial plan of distributing 10 of each book to every school as well as my observation of what some of the other schools were taking leads me to believe that the vast majority of these resources will be underutilized if used at all.
When donating items to developing countries it does little good to stick a stamp on it and assume it will get to the right person in the right way. Thought needs to be put into each donation – is this item available locally and will my donation dampen local economic activity, is there a plan for how the donation will be used and by whom, and does it make sense to spend enormous sums of money to ship this item around the world?
It is not just at the individual donor level that we see this problem. Entire organizations exist to flood the market of developing countries with donated shoes, books, etc. While the intentions of these organizations are great and they do great things. My biggest complaint is that their energy and resources might be better put to use helping develop the local suppliers of those products. Collecting funds and purchasing shoes, books, etc. from local manufacturers or at least local retailers has the benefit of helping the local economy as well as often times is more cost efficient.
In the case of some products not available or prohibitively expensive in these countries, then YES—it makes perfect sense to stick a stamp on it. However, these cases are becoming few and far between as globalization marches on.
Responsible development is one of the core messages of Peace Corps. Even if Peace Corps doesn’t always practice what it preaches, it is an important first step for organizations to begin to assess the impact they are making and how to use their limited resources most effectively to accomplish the most good.
So, please, next time you get the urge to donate all your old junk to Africa – maybe consider having a rummage sale and donating the proceeds to a great organization instead.
P.S. If you are looking for a great organization, I can’t help but suggest the Caneille Regional Development Fund which is working to open up access to education, healthcare and opportunity for poor families in rural Haiti. Unlike many other organizations, 100% of your donation to CRDF goes directly to work in Haiti.
Watching America Decide
Watching the US election results come in is one of my favorite activities. The excitement builds as the pundits prepare their fancy graphics and touch screens just before the polls close and then the results trickle in. Putting up with repetitive comments by reporters is worth it just for the chance of being there when the next state or race is called. With Presidential races, watching the map get colored in as the night goes on is always a highlight. And the great thing is – no matter who wins, I always emerge feeling great about being a part of such a wonderful country.
Living overseas has reminded me just how great America is. I was also disappointed to realize that I would likely miss the excitement of the night because of our location in rural Swaziland. That is, until we got a text from our Peace Corps Country Director inviting us to his house in the capital city to watch, live on CNN International the election results come in. To top it off, he threw in pizza and breakfast. Who could say no to that?!
I quickly made a plan to miss my night-time MS Word class and we left our school just after the bell rang on Tuesday. After a much appreciated ride to the paved road from one of the teachers and a few hours on public transport, we were walking up to the gate at the CD’s house in Mbabane at 6pm.
As could be expected, almost all of the volunteers in the country took advantage of this incredibly generous opportunity. We talked a lot, slept for a couple hours on the floor, and then watched as results began coming in at 2am our time. We had a blast and talked a lot of partisan ‘smack.’ At about 9am, we watched Obama’s speech and then began our journey home.
While it might have been possible to feel as if I could have been in America for those 15 hours, that hopeful bubble was quickly burst as we began our trip home. We quickly transitioned back into our Swaziland ‘routine’ as we trekked home. Upon arrival we were pleased to find the team of cattle we had hired to plow a crop field for the orphan hostel hard at work. We were a little less pleased to find that a different heard of cows had broken into our personal garden and made off with all of our sweet corn.
While we seek to make all the difference we can over the next nine months, we are anxious to once again realize how awesome it is to live in the ‘land of the free, and home of the brave.’