WTF Friday, 10/21/11

You guys blew it. Day of Gaddafi’s death was the perfect chance to push this through without anyone noticing.

“And Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he was ‘glad’ that Gaddafi had been captured.” Truly moving stuff.

The third comment down from “Atrawick” attempts to eviscerate an argument I’ve made and heard many times. Figure I could get some input from our readers?

Chris Maggio


  1. ATRAWICK: "this article is wrong

    I've never commented on an article before but I just can't let this go. Let me get this straight, its better to sleep on the ground than on a yoga mat, better to go without shoes than own new ones, better to wear an old torn shirt than to have the Superbowl losers t-shirt. I see repeated statements referencing damaging to local economies. Have you ever been to these places Paula (the author)? I've worked on over the past 25 years in over 30 countries, most of which are third world, and the financial systems you refer to are mostly agriculture and construction. The majority of textile manufacturing is done on large scale production lines. Plus, these people who make $50 a month can't afford to buy new mats, tee shirts and shoes regardless of where they are made. Go back and look at the faces of the people in the pics you used. Do they look offended, oppressed or devalued. Better yet, do like most reporters do, take a business class flight over there, stay at one of the 5 star hotels and tell the rest of us we are not helping. But maybe you can be different, maybe you can go out to one of these villages and ask for the stuff back, you know, so you can help them."

  2. I won't even get into these weird strawman rationalizations, because the main argument, at least for me, is actually that gifts in kind are almost always huge misallocation of resources. Because once you figure out who needs the stuff it, ship it, clear it through customs, and get it delivered out in the hinterland, you've almost always spent more money than the stuff is actually worth. Yes, a pile of burning $100 bills would help to keep a homeless person warm, but if somebody went around burning money in front of homeless people you would probably consider them insane, not generous. Same principle applies here: if you think what poor people really need are shirts or yoga mats, you can almost always buy ten in-country for what it would cost to get your old one to the people who need it.

  3. I'm not sure what "eviscerate" means, google says it's the removal of internal organs, but that doesn't really help me…

    Anyway, I appriciate the lengthy discussion instigated by the Atrawick-comment: people care about this a lot! It does surprise me that so many people are not bothered at all by the fact their stuff is not needed and bad for local economies. I agree with stuffisthings: these donations are not the most efficient way.

    However, many people don't want to donate money, because of all the scandals with NGOs and GOs that misuse the money. And buying "in-country" isn't easy if you don't know anyone in that country and going there yourself obviously defeats the purpose (because it is expensive). So I guess the slide-show is interesting, but could have offered an alternative? That would probably calm people down a little.

  4. Re: what anonymous said, I think there is a certain level of entitlement going on with people who think like this. Their thought process seems to be: *I* want to feel good about helping people, and since I am such a helpful and generous person, it shouldn't matter whether the stuff I'm giving is needed (or even harmful!), and I refuse to give actual money because I heard somewhere or other than some NGO might have misused some money one time, and I refuse to do any sort of research on which organizations are doing good work, because I am too busy, though I have no qualms about forcing the staff at my favorite NGO to figure out what to do with all my donated junk.

    I think it's perfectly valid to challenge these well-intentioned people when the alternative is, say, organizations trying to save lives after the tsunami having to spend hours sorting through donations of sweatshirts, dogfood, and thong underwear. Feeling good about donating to "charity" is not their right, any more than it is an obligation for poor people to feel grateful for whatever they are given.

    As for positive solutions for people who absolutely must feel they are personally "doing something": why not spend 20-30 minutes on Google researching a effective, preferably local charity that deals with the issue or region you are concerned with, then hold a garage sale (or sell your stuff to a vintage store, or on Ebay) where the proceeds go to that organization.

  5. Cheers to you, Intern Chris! Totally missed this FP article; I was happy to post my opinion. 🙂

  6. Yeah dude, Atrawick misses the point entirely. Nobody is saying that they're better off sleeping on the floor than on the yoga mat. But they're probably better of being given cash to buy a mattress locally, and helping the local economy, than getting a yoga mat from you.

    Not eviscerated, bro.

  7. I tried to get someone from that comment thread to respond here because a lot of people seemed to agree with Atrawick. Guess I just ended up with a few people reinforcing my opinion. Or is that secretly what I wanted all along…

  8. The two sides here are framing the choice differently, and so are both coming to obvious, but different conclusions.

    Atrawick frames the choice as between stuff and nothing. Stuffisthings frames the choice as between stuff and cash.

    Of course, cash > stuff > nothing.

    The interesting discussion is which alternative is the real one faced by people in general, or by the audience of the FP article. That is, for how many donors is cash or other efficient giving in their psychologically available option list?

    Also interesting and apparently not settled: Assuming a donor who is willing to give neither cash nor research efficient charities, in what circumstances is stuff really better than nothing?

  9. Cheers to you, Intern Chris! Totally missed this FP article; I was happy to post my opinion. :

  10. Hi there, this FP article and the related discussions stimulated a controversial TEDx talk called ‘Accountable Aid’ by Katharina Samara WIckrama. She addresses questions like: Is humanitarian aid repeatedly failing to be accountable? To what extent should communities be involved in designing humanitarian aid programmes and measuring success? Should humanitarian responders hold themselves to account to ensure the delivery of quality assistance? How much money could be saved? And how many unwanted yoga mats? Enjoy

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