Really bad ideas for international aid – more unintended consequences

7 worst international aid ideas are Richard Supart’s nominations for the lousiest ways to help people.

Sending a ton of t-shirts or other clothing items to help the poor, naked, helpless people over there seems like a good idea.  Feels good, simple, great pictures, and easy-telling story.

Unfortunately, it is actually quite destructive.  T-shirts are at the top of Mr. Supart’s bad idea list:

1. One million t-shirts for Africa

Why is that hurtful?

Firstly, it’s debatable whether there is actually a need for T-shirts in Africa.

Secondly, dumping a million free shirts is inefficient.  … If you wanted to get people shirts, it would be far more cost effective to simply commission their manufacture locally, creating a stimulus to the local textile economy in the process.

Here’s the reason that really bugs me – you undercut the local economy:

Which brings us to the third critique of free stuff. When people in the target community already have an economy functioning in part on the sale and repair of the stuff you want to donate (shirts in this instance), then dumping a million of them free is the economic equivalent of an atom bomb. Why buy a shirt anymore when you can get a five-year supply for free? Why get yours repaired when you can simply toss it and get another? And in the process everyone who once sold shirts or practiced tailoring finds themselves unemployed and unable to provide money for themselves or their families to buy anything.

Look at that last sentence again.  Sending a million t-shirts, or any other clothing seriously undercuts the retailers, local tailors, area cloth manufacturers, and regional cotton farmers.

#2 is Toms shoes – promoting their brand by making you think you are helping. This is a cousin of the t-shirt issue, by the way.

Some questions to ponder as you wonder what happens in the weeks after Toms drops off 1,000 shoes in a village:

  • What happens to the retailer who doesn’t need to stock shoes for a while?
  • What happens to the cobbler who would have made the shoes people would be willing to buy?
  • What happens to the tanner who would have prepared the hides?
  • What happens to the farmer who counted on hide sales to supplement his income?

I’d never realized this one:

6. Making food aid the same colour as cluster munitions.

Each yellow BLU-97 bomblet is the size of a soda can and is capable of killing anyone within a 50 meter radius and severely injuring anyone within 100 meters from the detonation. A Humanitarian Daily Rations (HDR) package contains a 2,000 calorie meal.

Both are bright, canary yellow. Roughly the same size. (The lethality radius doesn’t seem right, but if it is half or quarter the range, the underlying point stands strong.)

If you can’t read English, or aren’t an amateur armchair military historian (like me), or don’t already knows about the problem of leftover WWI munitions (I get the concept), you might not know the difference until after the unexploded cluster bomb kills your children.

Read the full article. Quite enlightening for an education on how to do things badly.

(hat tip Saundra S.)

2 Responses to Really bad ideas for international aid – more unintended consequences

  1. […] Two examples from today’s reading. First, making forest fires worse. Second, getting sick from reusable grocery bags. My previous examples were from the international aid world. […]

  2. […] is something I’ve mentioned here, here, and here.  He provides several examples in the interview how development aid actually harms the local […]

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