The notion of “good enough for the poor” is more common than I would hope. If not expressed verbally, it is definitely visible in actions, and it sets my teeth on edge. Whilst plenty of people have written about not donating our junk and about not giving away expired food, these patterns continue because the sentiment that promotes them seems to be very naturally occurring. It is easy to point the finger at donors, especially those that benefit more from donation dumping, and are not really looking out for the best interests of the people they’re targeting (I am looking at you Corn Soy Blend). However, blame also falls on the many NGOs that continue to accept these practices, particularly because they seem to view donations as cost cutting options.
For example, I know of a school project that boards students year-round, gives them an education and depends on in-kind donations for the children’s food. This means that what they receive dictates the quality and variety of food consumed. The students once got a truckload of carrots and ate that for three weeks, which they ended up hating, as anyone with a palate would. Yet for the most part students get nonperishable items, and so their diet often lacks fresh fruit and vegetables. This is not a good model in terms of children’s nutrition. Nevertheless, how can an organisation with a limited budget work around such a situation? When do you start demanding that your donors provide balanced meals?
There comes a point when it is also the organisation’s responsibility to educate its donors. There is a need to have meetings to analyse the costs and benefits of getting what the organisation needs via donations – healthy food, functional vehicles, books in the correct language – just to name a few. However, it is the organisation’s responsibility not to fall into thinking, “well we are asking for donations, we cannot look a gift horse in the mouth”.
How can we, as mediators between donors and recipients, help guide the process? Firstly, we should refuse to accept bad donations that will often add costs and leave no benefits. Secondly, we need to set standards for ourselves in knowing what we will ask for. This includes deciding how to breach topics such as asking for cash instead of in-kind donations. With cash we can ensure that what we purchase is good, given at the correct times and provides people with the necessary nutrients. Monitoring and evaluation and accounting transparency can help demonstrate the good use of cash. We need to start changing the conversation by explaining that, despite commonly held assumptions, in-kind donations do not ensure responsible resource use, and that money is not necessarily a vehicle for corruption. The irony is that cash is often painted as the villain when in fact most in-kind donations guarantee waste because they can be useless or require higher shipping and/or storage costs.
In most cases, the reasons these practices persist comes down to a simple principle – the “this is better than nothing” mentality. Our standard should not be “better than no help at all”, but how can we do the most good possible? Continuing with the current mentality is equivalent to saying that “giving a Twinkie to a starving child is better than feeding it nothing”. Well, perhaps, but can’t we do better than the Twinkie? Can’t we guarantee real food that will help the child to recuperate? We need to start asking ourselves what we aspire to and how far we are from making our work the best it can possibly be. This will require measurements and evaluations that tangibly demonstrate results, which become the guide for moving forward. It will require standing up to donors to demand what is best for people, even if it means losing some donations.
In the end, it is about finding what will work best, even if it requires simplifying and making the programs smaller, because it is better to do a job well with a few people than stumble through with the hope of having a positive benefit on a larger population. It is a situation where we hire qualified teachers for a salary instead of depending on gap year volunteers to teach English. Yes, a real teacher will be expensive but, frankly, can a clueless volunteer really teach English? Maybe one every once in a while, but volunteers rotate and eventually someone incompetent will show up; do we not believe that children deserve better? Would it not be better to teach fewer kids, but do so properly? If we are claiming children are learning, we need to guarantee that is the case. So, please let us move our standards from “better than nothing” and into real objectives that we are aiming to achieve, and let us bring our donors along and educate them in the process.
Featured image shows a pile of clothes. Photo from Flickr.