an open letter to 1millionshirts

I come at this from the humblest of perspectives. The following is based on personal experience and study, which, in the grand scheme of things, is nothing compared to the experts out there – most importantly, the Africans who receive aid and then the professionals and academics who keep the industry on its toes. Among others, see Aid Watch, Texas in Africa, Project Diaspora and so forth.

Dear Jason Sadler,

There are already a lot of intelligent people who have criticized your idea and offered valuable input. It would be very, very wise to take advice from them. This includes Texas in Africa, Project Diaspora (TMS Ruge), Good Intentions are Not Enough and so on.

Regardless, as you are soliciting thoughts, I would also like to weigh in. I have copied one of my colleagues here (Joseph Okumu, Executive Director of BOSCO Uganda), as well as TMS Ruge, both Ugandans who can help further this discussion in their own right.

For those of us who have worked in the continent as foreigners (and I am limited to East Africa – which holds some of the countries you indicated would receive t-shirts), this initiative – put bluntly – is a regretful waste of your time and money, others’ time and money, and the resources that go into shipping products and paying customs to/in another continent. And, as you seem a person aware of the value of time, perhaps you might be able to direct your resources into better and more informed investments.

There is a massive used clothing market here in northern Uganda where I live right now – and I’ve seen the same thing across the East African region. While this market perhaps benefited from the original dump of clothing aid which offered products to sell as a derivative, its expansion – and thus the provision of new jobs – is equally hampered by these free products.

A continued aid dump limits local innovation and opportunity. Instead of working towards locally sourcing (new jobs) products to make X and Y pieces of clothing, these countries absorb the free-hand outs from elsewhere and thus fail to develop new industries that would offer additional employment and income. Most people I know here are eager to implement new businesses that rely on locally made resources (which has the potential to be cheaper) and begin successful local, regional and international trade. Why not help out instead of hinder?

You might argue that there are people who are so poor that the above has no relevance to them – they just want their children to have a shirt and shorts on at all times. Well, this is somewhat true. However, these are the extreme poor and are best helped through specific organizations that have a long lasting relationship with these fragile communities. Either way, these communities will take your shirts – and then sell them to a used clothing broker to cover more immediate needs like health costs and food.

On top of the other suggestions you have received, perhaps you could consider using donated funds to fuel micro finance (or full scale industry) initiatives that encourage local production through more experienced organizations or businesses (Acumen, for example).

Another example. There are hundreds of fabulous tailors in the used clothing market here who, instead of selling used clothing for little profit with little potential for expansion, make beautiful dresses, skirts, shirts and otherwise from regionally-sourced cloth. This both leaves room for innovation and provides jobs to people around the continent in clothing production. Perhaps you could invest here.

You could also consider visiting the region before going full-speed ahead with this project and meeting with organizations like BRAC, which are very experienced in economic development and were built from their own struggle against poverty and conflict in areas like Bangladesh.

Personally, I think the best way to measure a project’s worth is to determine whether or not your project and yourself will be necessary in the long-run. You should always have in mind that building local capacity means handing the reins over to a local person in the country of origin. You should also have in mind that becoming irrelevant means building the skills and capacity within a country to achieve the same goal. In this case, 1millionshirts is trying to solve a problem that cannot be solved externally, but only through targeted local development that gives people new jobs and trains them in marketable skills thus reducing poverty.

An onslaught of criticism to an idea you work really hard to build and implement is not fun. However, the bigger picture should make us all wiser and humbler. With continued dependency on aid and free hand-outs, these African countries you target might never emerge from poverty and make the same strides as emerging economic powers. Perhaps you could read Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid, which is a good, if not simplistic, introduction to this fact.

Lastly, and I find this quite funny, I used to visit Toy Market in Nairobi. It’s a huge clothing market with hundreds and hundreds of used clothing stalls. At the peak of the day, the most common customer is a foreigner, re-purchasing the clothes that some well-intentioned American donated. This applies to clothing markets in Nairobi, northern Uganda and beyond. Worth a laugh, no?

[NOTE: There are a myriad of reasons why some countries are failing to emerge from poverty. The above is a simplistic snapshot of one such factor. For more information, please consult those who have dedicated their lives to trying to understand and influence the process of poverty. There are too many such people/organizations to name, but do note Yunus, BRAC and founders, Kiva (despite recent controversy), the Aga Khan Development Network, Samasource and Acumen Fund. All come with their own baggage, but are worth delving into if you want to move beyond the surface argument.]

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