Thursday, March 5, 2009

When charitable giving backfires

Meri Nana-Ama Danquah has a really interesting article up at The Root discussing how the used clothing that's donated to charitable organizations ends up harming the textile and fashion industries in many African countries. Danquah writes:

The psychological—and, as a result, financial—blows of the used-clothing industry have been crippling. What seems to be carried over, along with the previously worn clothing, is that old-colonial mentality of "ours is better than yours," the often unspoken belief heralding all that is Western as superior, and all that is African as inferior.
...In some countries, the preference for used clothes has all but killed the local textile industry. The used-clothing industry is Kenya’s seventh largest import, raking in well over 60 million euros per year. Hundreds of thousands of African workers have lost their jobs as a result of these imports. In Malawi, the largest textile company had to close its doors. Other such companies in Mozambique and Uganda are headed toward bankruptcy. Zambian textile workers have staged several strikes in an effort to promote national and international awareness of their plight.

I realize that there are probably competing, or (more accurately) contributing, explanations for the plight of the textile industries. Before reading this article, I had heard that the influx of inexpensive manufactured products from Asian markets had been affecting local businesses in many African countries, and one commenter on this article mentions this dynamic. He also suggests that a lack of government commitment to foster and sustain local industry plays a role. But it seems very unlikely to me that this is the whole story, and the attitudes of local people toward "white people's clothes" that Danquah describes, from her own experience, is very compelling.

This is another example of how a colonial history leaves it's residue in all kinds of unexpected places, how we must constantly be aware of this residue, and how even our most well-intentioned actions can play into it. As with many other choices we make in life, charitable giving is a political action, and requires open-minded thoughtfulness, and attention to the narratives of those who receive the help, as well as the narratives of others from their communities who are effected by it.


  1. Meg'n3/05/2009

    oh my god! this is very interesting, and informative. who woulda thunk?

  2. Lizzay3/05/2009

    Wow. I had no idea. It's so true that being charitable requires more than just giving - it has to be done thoughtfully, as you said.

  3. Michael3/06/2009

    My roomate is an econ grad student, and he's been studying the effects of the influx of cheap goods into nations with struggling economies. The importation of cheap subsidized rice, corn, and beans from the U.S. into Columbia and other S.A. countries, for example, makes traditional farming unprofitable, and leaves coca as the only cash crop available to farmers. And then we wage war on them for producing drugs and spray their entire communities with Roundup.

    I think these kinds of examples lead you to the same old conclusion that, rather than sending cheap food and clothing to poor communities, the truly charitable work would be to give them knowledgable assistance on how to set up and maintain that industry, or if the industry is already present, advise the government on how to protect and nurture it. Protectionism is how nations that are currently economically successful got to that point, and as you can see by looking at U.S. agricultural subsidies, there are ways to get around the rules promoting free trade.

  4. LetThemEatCake3/14/2009

    Does anyone know which charities send clothing to Africa? Like if you leave your old clothes at Goodwill or Salvation Army? How do you trace this stuff?

    It is a great example of how we have to be mindful of everything we do, and how each personal action really is political.