Bad Aid

Written by Plant With Purpose on May 13, 2010 in General

by Corbyn Small

I wanted to take a second to talk about a topic that is not often discussed outside of the realm of the Aid and Community Development field: ‘are good intentions good enough?‘ It is a touchy topic because there are so many people who have a desire to do something good for the ‘less fortunate’, either in their community or in a developing country, but do not have a lot of accessible ways to do so.

An example that has received a lot of attention on aid blogs and within community development organizations in the last two weeks is Jason Salder’s campaign called ‘1 million shirts.’ Sadler started a creative advertising company two years ago that was based on his ability to write well and market himself as a promotional opportunity to businesses around the globe. His company is called ‘I wear your shirt.’ Jason’s most recent idea, ‘1 million shirts,’ reached out to people across the United States, asking them to send him a t-shirt, and two non-profit partners would help him distribute these shirts all across Africa to those that do not have shirts.

On the surface it would seem that Jason has found a way to take his successful business idea here in the States, motivate people to do good, and take a chunk out of a major ‘need’ in Africa. But there’s been a lot of push back from the development and aid community. The main question that I have heard and I think sums up the discussion is, ‘since when has aid been about the donor?

Who is identifying the needs of the continent of Africa in this situation? Is it a group of professionals whose career is community development, have studied effective aid, and have built relationships with local leadership in African communities to help them identify their own needs? Or is the focus of the 1 million shirts campaign about a very generalized idea that people in Africa do not have much and we should share what we have with them because we are more fortunate?

The fact is, the latter is true about much of the aid that has been given abroad, and there are major concerns of undermining local economies, giving things away that weren’t asked for to begin with, using valuable capital and human resources to ship and distribute these items, etc. While good intentions are there for Sadler and many others, should we consider a thought that William Easterly, New York University economics professor, brings up about bad aid, “If a surgeon is about to operate on me, I’m not all that interested in whether he has good intentions. I hope he doesn’t have evil intentions, but I’m much more interested in whether he knows what he’s doing. People have a double standard about aid.” As this example is coming to a close, covered the debate yesterday stating, “Donating clothing is a sensitive topic in Africa because many countries’ textile industries collapsed under the weight of secondhand-clothing imports that were introduced in the 1970s and ’80s.”

Jason Sadler, has responded nobly to the immense amount of criticism he has received and has made changes to his campaign. He made a statement in his article, “Listening, Learning, and Shifting Focus” on his web page. Jason fell into a longstanding debate and struggle in the aid world, and in my opinion he has taken some very graceful and humbling steps to ‘get it right.’ At the same time, Sadler has possibly helped the rest of ‘us’ in the development world provide more teachable moments to those that we work with as we build advocacy and continue fundraising for our own programs abroad.

It is easy for those who work in the Community Development world to have a “snarky” attitude (as Bill Easterly himself says) toward those who have good intentions but are implementing technically ‘bad aid.’ For us here at Plant With Purpose we constantly come back to some form of this ‘bad aid’ debate, and our resolution is that as a Community Development organization we are not only committed to our field staff and program participants abroad, but equally responsible to our constituents and individuals here in the U.S. Our goal is to help develop trains of thought and understanding about how to make the most effective and beneficial impact in the lives that we are trying to help. There is a transformation that takes place as we learn from each other and figure out what we can do to empower the poor. Because after all, development is all about empowering individuals to identify their own needs and solve their own problems.


Corbyn Small serves as Plant With Purpose’s Outreach Coordinator. He cultivates relationships with donors, churches, artists and musicians to generate interest and enthusiasm for Plant With Purpose’s life-changing programs. He is also responsible for the volunteer and intern opportunities in the Plant With Purpose office.

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