Posts Tagged ‘SWEDOW’

the giant and unsinkable ship....

It seems like so long ago that the aid and development blogosphere was up in arms about Jason Sadler’s One Million Shirts initiative. Unfortunately the 60-year-old aid and development giant, World Vision USA, is engaged in a similar effort – the donation of 100,000 NFL t-shirts to 4 countries. This is something World Vision USA has been doing for the past 15 years, even though the benefits of this type of program are very questionable in terms of whether they actually contribute effectively to World Vision’s overall vision and mission. Several aid workers have called them out on this; you can see the list of posts here. Talesfromthehood has given some recommendations on what would need to happen to move things forward and stop this kind of ‘bad aid.’

A day or so after the peak of the 1 million shirts outrage last May, I wrote the post below, titled “The elephant in the room“. Most of it is still valid, so I’m re-posting it. Maybe next year, around this time, I could post something that indicates that NGOs and the aid and development community in general are moving forward on some of these items.

Though there are some pretty interesting things happening in the aid and development world (for example, the “Smart Aid” initiative) and some circles that are focusing on aid transparency and related aid practice improvements (some of the folks leading these efforts are listed in the post below), it still feels like we are in much the same place we were last year. Shifting the course of the giant aid machine is very slow work.

The elephant in the room, from May 2, 2010

One of the best things about the Great Tshirt Debate has been the variety of voices and perspectives that are weighing in.  This one potentially misguided project was able to catalyze a huge discussion on the nature of ‘aid’.  Once again the power of social media to engage people in debate and dialogue was demonstrated.

There are a lot of angles to follow up on from last week’s blow up. There’s a lot to unpack and it goes much deeper than a conversation about t-shirts.  One thread I find particularly interesting is the use of social media and ICTs (information and communication technologies) for bringing greater accountability and generating input and dialogue around ideas for aid and development.

Christopher FabianOwen Barder and @Morealtitude wrote about this specifically in relation to the Tshirt Debate; and Duncan GreeneOwen BarderAidwatch,  Tim Ogden, and others in a broader debate about accountability, aid and development. Certainly there are many posts and discussions out there on this topic.

Some things that stand out for me in the aftermath of the tshirt discussion:

Broadening perspectives.

It’s easy to forget that we all mean something different when we use the terms ‘aid’ and ‘development.’ There is a big difference between emergency aid and longer-term development.  And there are countless theories and approaches and understandings of both of those terms  (Alanna Shaikh and Talesfromthehood have both written on that).  This was really apparent throughout the discussion last week and in the on-going commentary.

I’m still trying to sort out in my own mind the difference between the various aid and development theories, the perspectives of the ‘aid bloggers’ that I follow, and the frameworks of other people who were involved in the Tshirt Debate. People’s views are intimately linked with cultural, political, economic and religious worldviews, and varying levels of snark (which I have to say can be very intimidating) making it even more interesting.  Before Twitter and the blogosphere, I certainly didn’t have daily exposure and access to such an array of thoughts.  Score one for social media.

The elephant in the room.

All this access to all these perspectives and on-line debate and open participation is great for me. And for you. Because we read English and have access to the internet.

But there is a really big elephant in the room.  One that was lurking on the global conference call hosted by Mobile Active on April 30 and that is still standing around quietly as the discussions continue.  I’m talking about the voices and perspectives of the people that the 1millionshirts project was aimed at helping.

I would bet money that some of those voices would have said “I want a tshirt.”

There are a lot of possible outcomes when ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘donors’ actually talk to each other.  Like donors wanting to give t-shirts and people wanting to receive them.  Then what?  Most of those involved in aid and development and work with local economies can and have listed a myriad of reasons why handouts are not a good idea, but most also believe in listening to voices of ‘beneficiaries.’   It seems paternalistic to say that NGOs or businesspeople know best what people need.  What will happen when more donors and beneficiaries are using social media to talk to one another?  And what if NGOs or governments or business people trying to improve ‘developing country’ economies don’t agree?  Then what?  That’s going to be pretty interesting. For a taste of this can of worms, read this post and related comments.

Development education.

This brings me to thinking about the educational processes that contribute to good development results.  Around the world, people have been presented with hand-out and silver bullet ideas around development and aid for a long time. Donors need to be educated about effective aid and development, but communities do also.  People have been trained to gravitate towards one-off donations and charity mentalities, and need to learn why that isn’t actually very helpful in the long term. They’ve been taught that there is a silver bullet we just need to find. People have also been trained to take hand outs and see themselves as victims and need to re-learn how to take the reins and do for themselves.  This is true everywhere – people look for the easy way out. Consider how many people in the US for example prefer to get plastic surgery or take miracle diet pills and medications over adopting healthier lifestyles involving a good diet and exercise.  Complicated situations require integrated approaches and often need cultural shifts and behavior changes.  Those take time and effort and are hard to explain.  How does social media impact on or shift this in terms of aid and development, and in which direction is it shifting?

Barriers to social media participation.

Both #1millionshirts and Kiva were held up to a huge amount of scrutiny online via social media.  But again, who was scrutinizing, and who had access to the tools and means to participate in these widespread discussions?  It was not the people getting loans from Kiva or the eventual t-shirt wearers.  It was donors and ‘experts’.  I would hope that there are plenty of discussions happening about Kiva programs at local levels, in person, in meetings and in local media or newspapers. But these don’t normally make their way to the internet.

I don’t know Kiva’s programs well, but I would also hope that Kiva staff and/or partners, for example, are listening to that local input and using it to improve their programs on the ground to make them more useful to participants.  And I would hope that those discussions take place within a longer term education, training and relationship building process as with many NGOs.  This kind of input from and dialogue with program participants is every bit as important for adapting and improving programs and initiatives, and maybe more important, than all the public discussions on the internet…. as long as it’s being listened to and responded to, and as long as local offices are taking these messages up the chain within the organization, and as long as local offices also are being listened to and carry weight within the organization. What might be the role of social media there to move those offline discussions further within organizations and to educate, inform and engage the broader public and ensure that responses and changes are forthcoming and everyone learns from it?

There are still huge barriers to social media participation for many people in communities all over the world… not having electricity, computers, smart phones and internet, to start with. There are also barriers like language, literacy, age and gender based discrimination, hierarchies and cultural norms that limit participation in general by particular groups in discussions and decision making.  When working face-to-face, good organizations are in tune with the barriers and find ways to gather input from those typically left out of the discussion.  How can organizations use what they know about engaging more marginalized populations and apply it to a more creative use of social media to ensure that all voices are heard?  What resources and ICT tools would be needed to do that effectively?

Offline to Online to Offline

And how could more of the discussions that happen on the ground with communities, when programs are being designed, implemented, evaluated and re-designed; be shared in the open by those who are involved – whether participants, local bloggers, citizen journalists, NGO workers or others?  And how can the debates happening online make their way back to communities that are not connected? It would be amazing if more program staff and community workers were blogging and sharing their work and their challenges and accomplishments.  And if more organizational decision makers were listening to what their community workers or other staff who are blogging and tweeting are saying. And if more people participating in programs could share their viewpoints via the internet.  This would be useful to the global commons and would also help the fields of aid and development to improve.

How can we support more communities to have access to social media and ICTs as tools to participate more broadly? And how can community members be the owners and drivers of this discussion and input. How can we help bring voices from the grassroots to a broader public and also bring these broader public debates back to communities.  How can the access, language, literacy and cultural barriers be addressed?  There are some programs out there doing this, for example Global Voices RisingMIT’s Department of Play at the Center for Future Civic Media, and the Manenoplatform, but we really need more of it.


I think as connectivity becomes less of a challenge, we will see the younger generation claiming spaces in this way. More organizations should be working to engage more young people in the development process and supporting them to access ICTs and social media.  When a consultation with children and youth was done after the Haiti earthquakes, for example, young people did not say that they wanted hand outs.  They said that they wanted to participate. They wanted to play a stronger role in the recovery and the reconstruction.  They said they wanted education, a voice in how things were to be done, decentralization.

Staff that I’ve worked with on youth and ICT programs in several countries have said that ICTs and community media are excellent tools for engaging youth in the development process and maintaining their interest, for supporting youth-led research and collecting opinions about community processes.  With advances in technology, these voices can reach a much broader and public audience and can be pulled into donor communications as well as used as input in the resource and problem analysis, program design,  program monitoring and evaluation processes.  Youth can access information previously unavailable to them which broadens their own views and helps in their education processes. They can also contribute information and images of themselves and their communities to the online pool of resources so that they are portraying themselves to the world in their own image as opposed to being shown by and through the eyes of outsiders.

In addition to the Tshirt Debate stirring up questions about good donorship, I really hope it stirs up the debate about the value of more local ‘beneficiary’ voices in aid and development discussions, and that it fuels more efforts to use, adapt, and develop social media tools and ICTs to support these voices to join the debate.

What about you?  What do you think?

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Star-shaped Jell-o molds

I finally started a serious de-cluttering process — one that goes farther than my normal spring and fall cleaning. Yesterday was Day 1: Kitchen.

I’ve always been a bit of a pack-rat and as a teenager was one of those ‘alternative’ kids who purchased second-hand clothing from the 60s and 70s to make a fashion statement. But I’ll credit (blame?) my mother-in-law and my mother, for quite different reasons, for encouraging me and enabling me to continue that trend.

If you’ve been reading my blog or know me personally, you’ll know that I lived in an urban barrio in El Salvador for about 10 years in the 1990s. I lived there with my husband, next door to my parents-in-law. My husband’s family had always struggled economically, and we did too for several years after we moved there.

My mother-in-law taught me to never throw anything away because you might need it later. In the fenced-in area in front of the side-by-side apartments that we shared from 1991-2001, you will still find old pieces of tin, plastic, wood and rope. We’d pound nails out of wood we’d scavenged and save them to use later.  Old powdered milk cans served as planters and anything that broke was repaired or reused to the fullest. (I remember my father-in-law and the guy from the water company trying to stop the toilet from running by tying a rock to the pump mechanism to weight and balance it. They didn’t want to listen to my advice so I snuck in afterwards and adjusted the little screw on the top and removed the rock :-)). Last time I went back to visit, I saw that she had turned a psychedelic 1960 dress I’d gotten at the Good Will into pillow cases. Nothing went to waste at the house, and we never threw anything away because it might always come in handy at some point. Talk about living sustainably.

Tiny forks... maybe I should save them for when I have grandkids who come to visit.

My own mother also knows the value of reusing, but she focuses on another aspect: reselling. She currently owns an auction (and no, she is not the auctioneer!), does appraisals, and has worked with antiques. So she collects and sorts things that other people have owned or saved, and sells them for a profit. She’s very good at looking at something and determining its resale value, and she knows how to move merchandise. My family jokes that she’d sell our family photo albums if we let her get a hold of them. (I’m a little bitter about this talent of hers because she gave my entire record collection — including rare bands and hard to find classics — away to the Salvation Army after I moved to El Salvador because they were taking up space and I could ‘just get them all on CD’.) My mother has been sending me boxes of used things that won’t sell at auction for many years now, and I sort through and keep what I like and give away or throw away the rest.

The accidental wedding present - someone put the wrong wedding present for my parents in the box. My aunt was reportedly mortified.

For someone who came back to the US in 2001 with 2 kids and 6 suitcases I’ve certainly amassed a ton of stuff. Through the auction, my mom was able to hook me up with all the basics for furnishing a house when we arrived – bed frames, tables, chairs, couch, dishes, china cabinet, dressers and the like – for really cheap. Most of it is still in use (I’ve been told this ‘look’ is called ‘shabby chic’). I’ve also picked up good condition furniture from neighbors and friends. Add that to the random boxes of auction goods each year and it’s easy to see why my house has gotten increasingly cluttered. I haven’t been able to shake the mindset that things will be useful later and that it’s a shame to throw away something that is perfectly good or oddly interesting.

The ghost of cognitive surpluses past... tiny crocheted teacups and saucers.

This of course is a terribly un-cool and outdated concept on the one hand. Minimalism is the new hip and secretly I’d love to be one of those streamlined design types. But I think many of today’s minimalists are able to rid themselves of everything because they feel confident that they will have the means to replace whatever they might be missing. Downsize and get rid of anything extraneous, and if you are in a bind, just go buy what you need. That’s not something that we could do in El Salvador or even something I can do now.

On the other hand, the reduce, reuse, recycle mindset continues to gain more traction these days. I suppose I could be a poster child for that movement…. Or maybe there are more like me out there with those depression era values, as TalesfromtheHood reminds us in his post American culture 103: still useful after all these years.

The meanings attached to things

I’m not in a situation today where I save old nails, but I still have a hard time getting rid of some things. While de-cluttering the kitchen yesterday, I got to thinking about what the things I don’t use but that I’m loathe to part with say about 1) the person I have been and believe I might become again; and 2) the person I have never been, but imagine I might be one day.

I might one day decide to become a real mom who bakes cakes that go into real cake pans.

Maybe I will make applesauce again the old-fashioned way like I used to 7-8 years ago and I’ll need that early 1900’s style fruit grinding apparatus. In fact it probably would have served for making that cranberry sauce this Thanksgiving…. Maybe one day I will be a real mom and bake cakes and put them inside those 1950s cake pans that I can’t bear to give away…. And won’t it be nice if one day I have grandchildren and I can invite them over and make them jello in little star-shaped molds? Or they can use those tiny colorful forks that only grandma has to eat their dinner. And what about those dinner parties I might host one day, where I’ll use those fancy candle holders, the beautiful antique silverware and the fragile and ornate dishes from the china cabinet…?

Then there are those things that I can’t stand to give away because of nostalgia. They represent something I know I’ll never be and a culture that will probably never return. Who in this day and age would crochet tiny tea cups? (That’s some cognitive surplus if I ever saw it.) And what on earth would they be used for? But how can I part with them? And what about those little silver salt shakers? And those slim, 1960s Danish candles (that my daughter once decided to light in a bundle and almost burned the house down). Or the hand-made doilies that should go under the vases that are stored away because I don’t have a flower garden….

As the only daughter, I automatically got the china....

There are also the things that I don’t use but I keep because they have personal relevance: my great great grandmother’s hand painted Austrian china, brought over with her from Germany on the boat. The pig pitcher that was an accidental wedding gift to my parents from my aunt (she had ordered something by mail, and wasn’t that a bit awkward when my mom opened the box at the reception….)

The de-cluttering’s only just started but I’m thinking a lot about meanings attached to things, and struggling a bit to detach myself at times. I have a feeling I’ll never achieve minimalist stature.

My son goes to college next fall so he will be the lucky recipient of a set of dishes and the linens that will go into the pile when I get started on the closets… I’ll save some other things for my mother-in-law for our next trip down to El Salvador — the good thing is that I can actually ask her what she wants and needs and go from there.  The rest of it will go to the local second-hand shop or into the trash if the life cycle is truly over.

Aid and development workers don’t despair, I will NOT try to send any of my #SWEDOW ‘to Africa’ no matter how wonderful and useful I think my old stuff might be.

Update: The Grandmaster of #SWEDOW has come to the rescue and the best of my personal #SWEDOW will now be put to good use as prizes for The 2010 Best in SWEDOW Contest! Send your nominations for Best Swedow of 2010 to @talesfromthhood and you could win either of the prizes below, or one of the items listed above!

Tilt head back, hear him threaten 'Stop! Move away from the cookie jar. (No recollection of why this is in my house or where it came from).'

I think this is a mobile phone holder from Japan. It says 'Leave your stuffs with me But don't iron my body!' (Sentimental value)

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I have issues with the word ‘charity.’ It makes me squirm and wrinkle my nose when I’m introduced or described as working for a ‘charity.’

‘Charity’ conjures up images of wealthy church ladies in Victorian times, assembling baskets of Christmas food for the poor that their husbands maintain working for miserable salaries the rest of the year. ‘Charity’ to me is working at a soup kitchen but never asking why people don’t have enough to eat, and who should be doing something about it and what needs to change. ‘Charity’ is the community members having to kowtow to the big man in the community for some of his left-overs in difficult times.

‘Charity’ is about power. ‘Charity’ is having pity for those that you are ‘helping’ and seeing ‘the poor’ as helpless victims. ‘Charity’ rests on foundations of guilt, privilege and the belief the ‘the poor will always be with us’.

Most everyone understands the act of ‘charity’. I have more than you do, so I give you some of what I have. You feel grateful for my generosity. I feel good about my generosity. Everyone’s momentarily happy. We do it again next season, nothing changes or gets better; and ‘the poor are always with us’ and kept in check by power imbalances.

‘Charity’ is related to a ‘needs-based’ approach, still used by some non-profit organizations, both large and small.


There’s another approach that is referred to as social justice, related to the ‘rights-based’ approach. This type of approach is a little more complicated, but still not too hard to grasp on the surface.

Needs-based vs. Rights-based

However, social justice or rights-based approaches are not so easy to actually implement, because they imply shifting power, changing systems, demanding that governments and other authorities fulfill their obligations, pushing citizens to take on their civic responsibilities, and getting political. They require those who have power to question why they have it, and they require those who are claiming rights to be empowered and organized. They often require examining one’s own behavior on a broader level. These approaches are not so easy as giving someone some money or your old clothes or a turkey at Thanksgiving. Talk of justice and rights makes a lot of people afraid, both those who hold wealth and power and those that the wealthy and powerful manipulate through the media. However these approaches can lead to long-term and sustainable changes.

This blog post at the Episcopal Cafe (I recommend reading the whole post – it’s short) sums up the difference between charity and social justice quite well. It starts off with this quote:

“Had I but one wish for the churches of America I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice. Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice, a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to eliminate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontation.” – The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., from his book Credo.


When I read about some of the initiatives being promoted these days – the #SWEDOW projects of the world and the idea that ‘anyone can do aid or development’ – more than anything, what irks me is that many (not all) of them are coming from a charity mentality. Sure, if all you need to do is hand out some of your old stuff or build something, maybe anyone can do it. But that’s not really helping much in the long term.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a non-profit, a do-it-yourselfer, an innovator, a business person, a religious-based group, a social media guru, or a movie star who wants to help out. And it doesn’t matter if the person is from (or working in) the US or a ‘developing’ country. The first thing that I look at in an initiative is the approach — is it coming from a charity mentality (in which case I will groan and fume) or is it questioning why the problem is happening in the first place and does it work in a non-patronizing, non-romanticized, respectful way with the people who are affected by the issue in an effort to help resolve it? (In which case I’ll then look further to see if the person or organization initiating the project has done their research to find well-documented good practices and avoid repeating mistakes or potentially doing harm or doing something that’s totally unsustainable.)

I recognize that social justice is not nearly as easy to achieve as ‘charity’. And I recognize that sometimes people need to be fed so that they have the strength to question why they are hungry and so that they have the energy to do something about it. And I don’t want to give the impression that solutions come from the outside, because most of the time they don’t.

I also recognize that ‘people want to do something’. But if ‘doing something’ means ‘charity’ then I am not in favor. It’s important to address the causes, not just treat the symptoms.

Social enterprise with its triple bottom line (people, planet, profit) has come up heavily in the past few years as one way to address poverty. Social entrepreneurship is also a trend that allows people a way to ‘do something’. I’m not as familiar with these approaches as I am with the other approaches, and I admit that I get the two terms confused.

I like that they move away from the charity mentality. But I’m not entirely sure that these approaches do enough on the side of changing power structures and ensuring that those who are marginalized can access their rights. I’m not convinced that the market takes care the people ‘at the bottom’, or balances out society. I’m also concerned that when push comes to shove, the profit motive will always win out over people and planet, and we are back to where we started perhaps… ‘the poor will always be with us’…. The jury is still out on that one for me.

I’m looking forward to seeing what hybrids develop over the next years, and if we will ever finally eliminate poverty and injustice. In any case, I feel pretty confident saying that it’s time to retire the charity mentality.

Some Resources:

Dochas Network’s simple overview of the Rights Based Approach

Bamboo Shoots – a tookit for facilitators working with children using a rights-based approach

Participatory Rural Appraisal (aka Participatory Research and Action) overview

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Anything by Robert Chambers (my development hero!)

Applying a Rights-Based Approach (.pdf)

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'Green bicycles' change students' lives

So I’m sitting at lunch today in Kwale, Kenya and one of my Kenyan colleagues is reading the newspaper. He comments, ‘You know, sometimes what is said to be green is not really green.’  He shows another colleague and me this article:  “‘Green bicycles’ change students’ lives.”

They begin discussing:  How are these bicycles really green? How much are they paying to ship them over to Kenya? This is not even the right model of bicycle. These are not the Black Mamba bicycles like we are used to — these bicycles will not stand up to Kenyan roads. And you won’t find the spare parts here either. We are not short of bicycles here in Kenya. Why not purchase them locally? Why are they shipping in refurbished bicycles?

I tell them about 1millionshirts (an idea to send a ton of used t-shirts to ‘Africa’ that was subsequently taken through the wringer) and SWEDOW (Stuff We Don’t Want — a term made famous by @talesfromthhood to represent the idea of sending unwanted junk to ‘developing countries’ and feeling good about it).

We go back to the article to see what the details are, to see what exactly is it that makes the bicycles ‘green’?  After all, ‘green bicycle’ is in quotes in the headline, so maybe the article’s author is also questioning the real ‘greenness’ of these bicycles.

We read that the project is the brainchild of Kenyan Isaac Kalua, who runs the Green Africa Foundation. He visited Tokyo a few years ago and met Hiroshi Kurokawa, the Chairman of the Japan Bicycle Foundation, and the idea was born.

“The organisation [Japan Bicycle Foundation] receives bicycle donations from wealthy Japanese, refurbishes them and ships them to other Asian countries to help rural people reach school and healthcare centres…. On average, each refurbished bicycle costs Sh12,000, including the cost of shipment.” Kalua was able to convince Kurokawa to ship some to Kenya also.

So, if my calculation is correct, 12,000 Kenyan Shillings is around $150. (This June, 2009, blogpost called “Wanna buy a Kenyan bike” [complete with great photos] details the features that a good bike should have for the Kenyan context, and says that a new one can be purchased in Kenya for $75).

The article explains that in return for receiving a bicycle, “beneficiaries have to plant trees in their homes and schools and also encourage their communities to do so.”  The Japanese ambassador to Kenya says “this is an innovative way to get people to plant trees.” He also says that he looks forward to the day that there will be more Japanese bicycles than Japanese cars on the roads of Kenya.

Continuing on, we read that “…the project is facing challenges from Customs officials who take too long to clear the bicycles, making storage charges to soar. We were forced to pay Sh1.2 million for the storage of the latest batch of bicycles. We find that a big burden since this project is meant to be humanitarian.”  (That’s around $15,000 for storage.)

Handy SWEDOW flowchart

Now, I haven’t visited the project, spoken with project participants/ beneficiaries, nor have I done extensive research on the initiative, so I might be missing something here. But on the surface, using the handy SWEDOW flow chart, (created by Scott Gilmore at Peace Dividend Trust) it looks like the best thing to do with a bunch of used bicycles would be ‘sell them, send the cash to buy local’, or ‘throw them out.’

Greening Africa. Bike riding in Kenya. Tree planting. Recycling/re-using Japanese bicycles. Good ideas, but I bet there is a better, more sustainable, and more cost-effective way to achieve those aims than shipping refurbished bicycles from Japan to Kenya.

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The elephant in the room

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