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A Look at World Vision’s Responses Pt.1

February 23, 2011

To their immense credit, World Vision USA has chosen to engage with their critics on their Gift in Kind (GiK) programs, recently posting what is the beginning of a series of blog posts that outline numerous aspects of their GiK programs, from finances to how they are integrated into larger programs. This engagement is extremely welcomed as it gives a chance for measured dialogue. In that vein, since I was one of the bloggers who stepped out and critiqued their programs (and ironically/oddly enough was included on World Vision Mag’s “smartaid” Twitter list with more illustrious names than mine), I thought I would take the time to continue to engage in the discussion, returning the favor.

Their first blog response was titled, “Basic overview of World Vision’s strategy and structure and our U.S. GIK operations” which gave a breakdown of their GiK giving. There were a couple key issues from this intro that I would like to engage with.

First, there was lacking any note of the larger structural issues around GiK, especially as it relates to my post on the consumptive patterns that GiK promotes and their relation with social justice and poverty reduction. The post mentioned that they had changed their strategies, which:

“further emphasized our need to focus on addressing the causes of poverty over relieving the symptoms of poverty.”

GiK programs seem obviously counter-intuitive to this goal. How does sending shirts address the causes of poverty, lack of access to resources to make/buy clothing, global consumption which contributes to environmental destruction that often affects the bottom billion disproportionately, or global protectionism which aids in the inability of many areas to produce materials to even consider making these clothing items? How does sending used medical equipment aid in reducing the systemic lack of medical training or staff, the global poaching of trained professionals to use the equipment, or the lack of resources to maintain the equipment? How does shipping text books address the reasons why there are no local publishers, why there are few trained teachers to teach the texts, or why students are dropping out of school despite not having to pay fees or for textbooks?

This first post chose to focus, instead, on explaining how the NFL shirts were a drop in the bucket of their larger GiK programs (25% of their donations) and in spreading (diffusing) the issue of GiKs to their partners (a good chunk of their GiK donations are not used by them…but how does this change the issues?). Again, the big picture is avoided: The NFL shirts are symptomatic of a larger GiK issue which needs to be addressed.

The second post in the series, titled “The financial costs and benefits of sending a shirt overseas” suffers from many of the same issues, choosing to focus specifically on shirts rather than GiKs overall. While it may be different for shirts, World Vision did not shy away from an overall number of $1.82/shirt for shipping, when averaged among all their programs, a number provided by Saundra S. at Good Intentions Are Not Enough. Which essentially means that, t-shirts are cheap to ship (their number is $0.58/shirt) but other things are much more expensive.

Really, the number is less important than the issue of where this money could be otherwise spent. World Vision asks what they consider to be the hard question, in:

If we asked someone in a developing country if they would like us to give them $0.58 or a shirt, what would their response be?

Instead of asking this question, there is another question that should be asked instead.

Assuming a GiK such as this one (t-shirts) went to one place (NFL Shirts are being split to 4 countries, but this is just a ‘drop in the bucket’ as WV assures us, I’m sure there are other GiK t-shirt programs which are similar), the question should be: Does the community want the shirts or the $5800 spent on shipping to use towards something more sustainable, something that addresses the “causes of poverty”? Seeing as t-shirts are cheap to ship compared to other GiKs and such a small percentage, this number undoubtedly goes up on other cases. Is shipping pallets of toys or office supplies or shoes the best use of resources?

World Vision’s partial answer: Well, sometimes donors pay for shipping too. Pause. So, if the donors are willing to pay xamount for shipping, I imagine they might also be willing to pay xamount for another, more sustainable project? A second part of World Vision’s response is that donations such as clothes free up family’s resources to spend on other areas such as food, first aid, etc…

Assuming that clothing took priority over food to begin with is quite the assumption (perhaps?), but even in this case the question that should be asked is: Could the money not be used more sustainably? The issue is not, as World Vision puts it, if the $0.58 cents will buy a shirt in xcountry (they estimate $2-8) because those shirts to buy are not sustainable either, they come from discarded and sold Goodwill items, cheap Asian imports, etc… Rather, could that money be used as part of a “larger programmatic response” to stimulate local production or in ways that compound the investment so that people can afford to buy $2 shirts that already flood the market?

The gist of my part of the discussion is this: World Vision says one thing in their official releases and vision (“focus on addressing the causes of poverty”) while doing the exact opposite with their GiK programs. While I applaud World Vision’s engagement, they are tackling the dollars and cents while ignoring the larger cost of their GiK programs – the buttressing of global systems of poverty as grounded in globalized, neoliberal consumption. It’s not about 100,000 NFL shirts or whether or not shipping costs for these shirts is $0.58  or $1.82. From a development/aid/good steward perspective, it is about whether or not these GiKs efficiently use the resources in a sustainable attack on the roots of poverty. From a faith perspective, are they the best way to advocate Christ’s love and his passion for justice and the poor?

A final question  to be answered, hopefully in future World Vision posts, is who these programs benefit most. While someone who receives a new NFL shirt may save a difference of $1.42 a shirt (WV’s #), how much does this benefit World Vision’s bottom line or publicity, the NFL’s tax write off, the factories that produce the shirts, the people employed to sort the shirts on the US side, etc… I’m pretty sure the people with the shirts don’t end up as the winner…

PS: You can track all the contributions to the discussion here.

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