Saturday, May 22, 2010

Giving is good...?

So I've recently come to the realization that the first thing people see when they Google my name is this blog. Which makes me embarrassed that I have not written an eloquent blog since December 2008. So...I apologize to friends and family...and hope that this is a step in the right direction.

The other day I was in the community of Santa Ana and saw a little girl on the stoop of a pulperia (corner store) with a bright orange shirt that read in English, "Kiss me! ...before my boyfriend sees…” I chuckled a bit, thinking about how cute that was, and remembering a shirt my mom once put on me as a little girl that read "I will not kiss the boys...I will not kiss the boys...I will not kiss the boys" in the chalkboard handwriting of an 8 year old. But then I realized, this little girls' shirt is in English...and she probably has NO clue what it says.

Humorous, sure, but doesn't it raise the question: where did this girls' shirt come from? Yesterday, my driver/assistant asked me what his shirt said. I translated "United Church of Christ Summer Peace Intern 1993" to Spanish for him. He nodded approvingly, and told me he liked the color.

It makes me wonder, you know. Where do these shirts come from? Why do so many of us think it such a good cause to donate our used clothes? Would you want to wear used clothes that belonged to someone from some other country? Would you want a shirt that you didn't even understand what it read?

So I got to thinking about donations, the phenomenon that it really is. People with excess donate, not knowing where exactly their donations will be going or the effects it may have on a person or a population. They feel good; they did a good deed…but what good is it really doing?

Faith-based organizations are probably the most responsible for perpetuating the phenomenon of donations. Faith-based groups will probably never stop donating clothes or other things because the act of giving is perceived as God’s call; a good act for God is nothing shameful, nothing that could cause a sense of racial, cultural, or economic inferiority. After all, GIVING is good.

But what’s the real context, destination, or circumstances of the receiving partner? What kind of paternalism or cycle of dependency could donations be creating?

Asking these questions reminds me of two things, first of which was my experience at the Dominican-Haitian border in 2007. Every Wednesday, the border of these countries opens up for trade and it is one of the most chaotic experiences I’ve ever encountered. Loaded with cargos of rice, eggs, beans, vegetables, mules, you name it, people raced back and forth across the bridge that crossed over “Massacre River,” where, ironically, tens of thousands of Haitians were killed about 80 years ago. Well, some things never change. The “flow” shall we say of trade was very directional. Every Haitian stand was filled donated items—t-shirts, cowboy boots, NYC caps, shoes—while every Dominican stand was overflowing with rice, beans, platano, spices, herbs, and vegetables. The difference in tradable goods is really stark. Haitians have little cultivatable land, little ability to grow or buy the daily needs to feed their families. But they sure do have a lot of t-shirts.

Haitians didn’t need second-hand clothes, they needed food. So what kind of markets have these donations created? They had turned the donation system into a market they could use to be able to purchase the daily basics to survive, which is creative and entrepreneurial, really. I did some research on this and came across a video I remembered seeing as a freshman in college: T-Shirt Travels. The documentary discusses this very issue, looking how donations as a phenomenon have created what is really a black market, with people from the receiving country purchasing barrels of donated clothes to be able to sell in the local marketplaces…sometimes even fighting to get the “good” clothes to be able to sell them at a higher price and make money to feed or educate their families. It’s really fascinating…if you wanna take a deeper look, here’s a link to PBS T-Shirt Travels. In sum, what happens in the simple act of giving or donating can be much more complex than assumed. What if it has created a sense of dependency or of inferiority or even a black market that perhaps even further marginalizes people? What good, then, is giving?

Now it’s time to play a little devil’s advocate. Through all this discussion, the simple fact does remain…if a little girl needs the shirt off my back, why not give her the shirt off my back? Isn’t that humanity? If there wasn’t North-to-South (developed-to-developing) country relations, what would international development organizations exist for? Though everyone likes to think development is heading towards East-to-West dynamics, acting more in side-by-side partnership rather than in hierarchies, the fact remains that “developed countries” fund “developing countries.” And financial relations are often not an equal flow. The need for program evaluation has been borne out of a desire for accountability to show results or get grants for projects funded by “Northern” partners. And the same “flow” goes for donations, inevitably…so why fight it?

The heart of humanity comes down to those moments when you, personally, sit down and have a conversation with a child from one of our rural communities, and you see that they’ve worn the same shirt for over a week and it’s dirty. It’s those moments when I think two things: 1) Why not give that child another shirt if we have it to offer? And 2) Let’s go talk to his mom about washing their clothes and bathing her kids regularly. Being poor does not mean you have to be dirty. That’s one of the profound lessons I’ve learned from an awesome Honduran teacher who many times has brought his students back home to bathe before returning to class. “Old clothes are one thing,” he says, “but dirty clothes are another.”

That sense of humanity in giving is also enhanced during one particular circumstance: emergency relief—but it’s a difficult situation post-aftermath. For example, after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Honduras received so many donations and it was during this time when “brigades” really began--service trip to help with relief aid. Initially, it worked…get the aid necessary to the places who need it. But over time, Hondurans became accustomed to receiving relief donations, which has now changed Honduran-international dynamics entirely. Communities now EXPECT to receive goods, projects, seed capital for nothing in return, sometimes not even their effort. We like to call that, lack of sweat equity…and it’s a dangerous territory. How can an organization work on a project without the buy-in and collaboration of the community? If communities expect to just receive for free or without any time or sweat on their part, will the project will be valued, understood, and used appropriately in the future? Does giving create a cycle of dependency, or is one appreciative recipient worth whatever other secondary consequences that may arise? That’s a tough question.

I don’t have an answer. I think it’s a fascinating issue and one lots of international NGOs and governments have to face. At the end of the day, though I don’t have an answer, I have an opinion. And that opinion is that donations are inevitable because we as humans have a desire to give and receive. But they should be done personally and strategically, after getting to know the person or the organization to who you would be donating, really understanding where those items are going to and how they will be used, and having confidence that the people or the organization that receive or filter those donations will make the best decision as to how to use and distribute them appropriately.