Yoga mats as misguided charity

A few weeks ago, I spotted a pair of TOMS in Goodwill. Knowing the shoes run anywhere from around $50 to $100, it seemed like a cultural moment where the trendy shoes have made it into a second-hand store. Of course, with any well-intended business, you can find TOMS critics. For instance, Foreign Policy recently examined unintended consequences of well-intended gestures, such as donating t-shirts or shoes to impoverished countries. The article and an accompanying slideshow poke at religious organizations' efforts without really offering a nuanced solution. One of the article's main critiques was aimed at the US food aid program.

Bottom line: Donations of cash are nearly always more effective. Even if there are good reasons to give stuff rather than money, in most cases the stuff can be bought locally. Economist Amartya Sen, for example, has conclusively shown that people rarely die of starvation or malnutrition because of a lack of food in the neighborhood or the country. Rather, it is because they can't afford to buy the food that's available. Yet, as Connie Veillette of the Center for Global Development reports, shipping U.S. food abroad in response to humanitarian disasters is so cumbersome it takes four to six months to get there after the crisis begins. Buying food locally, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has found, would be 25 percent cheaper and considerably faster, too.

In the comments section, William O'Keefe, senior director for advocacy for Catholic Relief Services, says that Kenny makes valid points but brushes a broad stroke.

To use the Clinton-era mistakes with rice in Haiti -- well-documented and freely admitted by the former president -- to dismiss the entire US food aid program is also misleading at best. That was a specific program that had specific problems with very little relation to, say, the large US food-assisted emergency relief programs that we at Catholic Relief Services are helping to run in countries like Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. At CRS and other humanitarian organizations, we are constantly monitoring the state of local markets and the effect of aid on local production. We also actively support agricultural development around the world to help people escape the poverty trap and end the need for food aid. This is a complicated and long term endeavor, and the approach varies by community. But until nations and communities are capable of feeding themselves, we are glad that the US aid program helps us feed so many hungry people.

Even though the main article barely touches on religion specifically, an accompanying slideshow touches on a few religious groups. In an attempt to illustrate ways that charities send unnecessary goods that could have unintended consequences, FP took on organizations like the popular TOMS, the company that sells loafer-looking shoes and sends a pair to someone in need.

The brand has become somewhat of a combination fashion statement and public advertisement for the plight of unshod feet in poorer countries. But Saundra Schimmelpfennig, a blogger with experience in non-profit management, criticized TOMS and related ventures as being "good marketing, but bad aid." Schimmelpfennig argued that these programs do nothing more than contribute to poverty tourism and only serve to further undermine the productive capacity of the recipient countries.

It also included a photo of yoga mats, illustrating a yoga studio's request that people donate old yoga mats for Haiti.

Critics questioned the gesture, but the owner of the studio later offered other uses for the mats, including bedding and makeshift shelters.

This is an example of how the slideshow kind of offers a pro and a con, but it doesn't always attempt to look at both sides. For instance, it looks at a few religious groups.

Rows of hand puppets await being shipped off to countries as part of Puppets for Orphans evangelical Christian charity.

Perhaps one might argue that spending even $1 per puppet (judging from the website) is a waste of money, but the slideshow fails to flesh out how this might negatively impact an economy or something else. Here's a similar line from the slideshow:

Clowns from World Vision, a global Christian charity, pose for a picture in the Balkans. World Vision has been sending clowns to visit children in war torn areas of the Balkans to help their recoverery from PTSD.

I'm not interested in defending either of these religious groups and am only interested in the questions journalists should pursue. Maybe this is obvious to the editors at FP, but why are clowns harmful to the children in the Balkans? Is the argument that it's a waste of staff resources? Did a reporter contact World Vision to ask why they do this program?

It seems too easy to take, "Haiti Doesn't Need Your Yoga Mat" and turn it into "Haiti Needs Your Money." Perhaps talking with the organizations about where they allocate their resources would strengthen FP's main point. Otherwise, "just give cash" seems too simplistic.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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