Lyric You in Lilacs

May 24, 2010

The Shirt Off Your Back

Filed under: Uncategorized — lyricyouinlilacs @ 5:51 am
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Whoever said “it’s the thought that counts” must have worked in the aid industry.  Last month, the guy who started iwearyourshirt.com decided he wanted to “give back.”  And where else to start but Africa, right?  The new charity is called 1millionshirts.org, and was originally designed to collect used t-shirts to send to 11 countries (Kenya, Uganda, DR Congo, Ghana, Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Swaziland, and South Africa).  On the surface, it might seem like a nice idea.  All of these countries have high rates of poverty, and it’s certainly laudable to want to help meet people’s needs.

The problem with ideas like 1 Million Shirts, though, is that good intentions don’t always equal good outcomes.  Shortly after 1millionshirts.org went live, development bloggers got wind of the project and started offering their own critiques, most of which were pretty damning.  Among the highlights:

  • Projects like this often amount to export dumping, which hurts local economies.
  • The cost of shipping huge quantities of low-value t-shirts from the United States to Africa is prohibitively expensive.  That money could be put to better use on local projects in the targeted countries.
  • By way of alternative ideas, instead of starting a new NGO, there’s always the option of helping an established group already working in (or better yet, run by) the local community one wants to help.  Or, as Texas in Africa suggested, one could help African textile manufacturers and cotton producers by purchasing t-shirts from African vendors themselves.

After NYU economist Bill Easterly offered his critique of 1millionshirts.org, the organization’s founder responded by blogging this nugget:  “At the very least I ask you to respect my intentions to do good and to not write offensive and ignorant things.  Thanks for taking the time to write about my cause.”  For me, this statement sums up much of what’s wrong with so many ill-conceived aid projects today.  As Tales from the Hood put it:

Somebody please tell me exactly when aid became about the donor? Why do we insist on coddling people with bad aid ideas just because they “mean well” or their “heart’s in the right place”? Why is it so hard for everyone to remember that aid is not about the [EXPLETIVE DELETED] donor?

But perhaps all the criticism got through, after all.  Just yesterday, the founder of 1 Million Shirts decided to suspend his project, educate himself, and re-shift the focus of his efforts.  In a humble mea culpa, he wrote:

From the good criticism and thoughtfulness of the right people (meet: @tmsruge & mjamme) we are learning that what we were trying to do was wrong. While on the surface it may look like there are people in villages/countries in Africa that could use clothing, there is a bigger issue and we would have done more harm than good by simply donating 1,000,000 t-shirts.

One thing I personally want to do with this project is to help educate people who were/are in the same position I was/am. There isn’t a clear resource that explains the ins and outs of what people in other countries around the world need. I’m not saying I’m going to create that, what I am going to try to do is educate people through this website as I continue to learn.

Kudos to him.

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Does HELP help enough?

Filed under: Uncategorized — lyricyouinlilacs @ 5:48 am
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In an effort to shore up Haiti’s devastated post-earthquake economy, the House and Senate just introduced a bipartisan bill—the Haiti Economic Lift Program (HELP) Act—to expand duty-free imports from Haiti to the United States.  The bill specifically targets Haiti’s garment industry, which is responsible for 90 percent of the country’s exports and a full one-third of its manufacturing jobs.  HELP, which is slated to last 10 years, would more than double the amount of Haitian knit and woven goods to hit American stores.  And while some in Haiti’s government had hoped for a longer timeframe and a more generous increase in tariff preference levels, the HELP Act looks good, at least at first glance.

If HELP has any problems, they’re not so much with what it does, as with what it doesn’t do.  At the Center for Global Development, Kimberly Ann Elliot has done some great analyses of the benefits and limitations of the current legislation.  She notes that “the majority of [textile] exports, currently under the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act, are unaffected by the bill and will continue to be subject to complicated eligibility rules that restrict where Haitian exporters can source fabric and other inputs, thereby raising their costs.”  One of the problems with previous U.S. efforts to help Haiti grow its garment sector was that the United States attached stipulations requiring Haitian manufacturers to purchase necessary raw materials from the United States.  While HELP waives those requirements for a number of textiles, a large swath of other apparel goods—especially those exported under the HOPE Act of 2006 and the HOPE II Act of 2008—are still subject to the old regulations.  HELP is clearly a move in the right direction.  But unfortunately, for a large part of Haiti’s economy, HELP may not help enough.

The Blame-Game over Slavery (revised)

Filed under: Uncategorized — lyricyouinlilacs @ 5:45 am

A few weeks ago, Henry Louis Gates published an op-ed in the New York Times called “Ending the Slavery Blame-Game.”  The piece was clearly designed to instigate a thoughtful discussion about the issue of reparations, but instead it provoked a firestorm of criticism, due at least in part to Gates’s own lack of clarity.

The gist of Gates’s argument is that both blacks and whites were responsible for the enslavement of African Americans, because Africans themselves participated in the sale of slaves to white merchants.  As Gates put it:

[It is important] to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong, to white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization. And reaching that understanding is a vital precursor to any just and lasting agreement on the divisive issue of slavery reparations.

Some people have interpreted Gates’s views as an attempt to negate, or at the very least downplay, the importance or longevity of slavery in the United States.  Others, like Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic, have noted that Gates doesn’t want to “end the slavery blame-game” so much as “he’s interested in fiddling with the foul-count. The vocabulary of blame is key—instead of speciously blaming white Americans for the crimes of their presumed ancestors, Gates speciously blames Africans.”

Coates makes a good point, but it’s not clear that even he got Gates right.  Over at The Root, where Gates is editor-in-chief, one contributor quoted an e-mail exchange he had with the author, in which the latter tried to clarify his argument:

We should get some sort of symbolic reparations from the African governments from whence most of our ancestors were captured, and then use that to get concessions (affirmative action, etc.) from the U.S. government. If African governments can do it, then there would be no excuse for the American government not to. And I am thinking of things like symbolic citizenship, opportunities to buy land, long-term tourist visas, etc., whatever!

It’s too bad that Gates didn’t just come out and make this point in his op-ed.  The clarification could have spared a lot of anger.  But even if he had been more explicit, his piece would still have suffered from some painful lapses in logic—lapses that are truly bizarre coming from a scholar so familiar with African history.  Why, for example, should today’s African governments be held responsible for the behavior of the pre-colonial kingdoms and tribes that were involved in the slave trade?  The Kongo Kingdom of Central Africa (which Gates mentions, and to which he assigns some blame) no longer exists, at least not as a political entity.  Why should the Democratic Republic of Congo be held responsible for the decisions of an institution that once flourished in its territory, but never became part of the modern state (due to the pernicious effects of colonialism)?  Unlike the Kongo Kingdom, the United States still does exist, with its political and economic institutions intact—which is precisely why the debate over reparations has focused so heavily on the U.S. government.

But beyond points like these—which, again, should have been obvious to a scholar of Gates’s stature—the lack of political savvy that permeates this op-ed is worrisome.  The tenor of his entire article, beginning with its unfortunate title, risks giving credence to those individuals who might try to avert their gaze from the historical legacies of slavery on U.S. soil.  Remember that Gates published this piece just three weeks after the Bob McDonnell controversy over Confederate History Month in Virginia.  Given that Gates’s fame derives from the fact that he writes and think about race for a living, I expected better.  Much better.

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