A Million Shirts, A Billion Better Ideas

This week’s commotion is brought to you by…the number one million.

Following in the (misguided) steps of Shoes for Haiti, 1MillionShirts is a 501c3 nonprofit started by two entrepreneurs. Its mission? To send one million t-shirts to Africa.

Expert commentary by Matt Collin of Aid Thoughts

Saundra Schimmelpfennig has an up-to-date compendium of related blog posts; as of April 29, there are 23 such posts. These numerous opinions can be divided into two camps: those delineating exactly why gifts in kind such as t-shirts are not helpful and those that discuss the significance of this heated debate.

As Laura Freschi at Aid Watch points out, 1MillionShirts is both inefficient and unnecessary. After shipping and customs, the shirts would probably cost more than locally produced shirts. Additionally, dumping donated clothes would harm the local textile industry, which has the potential to be sustainable, unlike 1MillionShirts. Furthermore, although there are many things that Africans need—vaccines, roads and clean water to name a few—shirtlessness does not number among those needs.

Laura Seay, a political science professor specializing in African politics, suggests that the founders apply their social media skills to raise funds and/or awareness or buy t-shirts from African textile manufacturers, which would boost the local economy. She underlines the importance of community-based needs assessment, commenting that this is a donor-centric development project, whose primary purpose is to continue to exist.

The Tales from the Hood blog actually condemns HELP International and Water Is Life, the two charities that partnered with 1MillionShirts, because as charities, purportedly knowledgeable about effective aid practices, they should have considered the points listed above.

The next stage of the t-shirt controversy begins when one of the founders angrily responds via a video that has been dubbed “I don’t drink hatorade,” a direct quote from his response. He asks critics of his project to contact him privately by calling or emailing, rather than attacking him publicly via Twitter. This resulted in a viral backlash; it turns out indignant aid practitioners and development economists are not to be underestimated.

The backlash was so monumental that it has the aid community all a-twitter about what this all means. Owen Barder claims that it is a groundbreaking moment, as it is the first time an aid project appraisal has been crowdsourced, something Dennis Whittle has been advocating. Indeed, this ruckus happened precisely because the discussion took place in public and not via phone or email. To quote Siena Anstis, 1MillionShirts is simply a “regretful waste of…time and money.” Let’s hope crowdsourcing continues to work its magic—maybe people will finally stop sending shoes to Haiti. No “Soles 4 Souls,” please.

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