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March 21, 2011

I don’t mean to brag, but when it comes to scoring free stuff, I am pretty damn good.  Frugality is a predisposition passed down through Nelson family lineage. We trace our thrifty genes back to my great-grandmother, who relocated to Seattle during the Great Depression and raised three teenage boys as a single mother in a strange new land. My grandfather recalls how she would to alter the standard clothing issued by the welfare office so no one would ever guess her boys were receiving charity. My mother tells stories of visiting grandma in the city and squeezing thrift store bureaus between seats on the public bus to haul home through the hills of Seattle. One can never pass up a good thrifting find. She raised a son who can save a penny and salvage burnt toast, and he a daughter who can sniff out the nearest garage sale in a five mile radius.

I grew up clothed exclusively in second hand, rolling my eyes at my mother’s embarrassing ways. There was the reused plastic silverware, the Tightwad Gazette prominently displayed on our coffee table, and worst of all, those personal sized jams smuggled out of restaurants that always seemed to explode in her purse. There is nothing worse than reaching into mom’s purse for a piece of gum and coming out sticky-strawberry-handed. As I grew older my own thrifty tendencies began to surface. In high school I started shopping “vintage.” Vintage is always the gateway. By college I was a full-blown tightwad. Like mother like daughter.

As I have grown to accept my thriftiness, I have been blessed with the company of likeminded commrades. Perhaps it is what brought us together. For my dear college housemates and I, Costco shopping trips were always scheduled around mealtimes, dumpster-diving was a regular Friday night activity, and Salvation Army dollar days were observed with religious devotion. Over our four years together, we can boast the following treasures:

  • Two Rhode Island Red hens.  These friendly gals provided us with a year’s worth of free eggs.  Double win.
  • 40 uncooked sourdough loaves from the dumpster of a nearby bulk foods store.
  • One extra-large inflatable exercise ball. 
  • A weekly supply of two-day-old bread from the dumpster of the French bakery down the street.
  • Countless free meals from campus events we may or may not have been invited to.

In my new home in Uganda I’m coming to appreciate the art of free from a different perspective. Uganda does not have a public waste disposal system. The trash I produce is deposited in the garbage heap behind our school, and the Cadbury chocolate wrappers that blow back across the campus are shiny little reminders of my consumption. I’m always inspired by the upcycled creations I see around Gulu, produced in absence of an official recycling system. Empty USAID cooking oil cans become toy cars, oil lamps, cooking ladles, and flower pots.  Worn out tires are transformed into flip flops or playground obstacle courses. As I am navigating my new role as a preschool teacher, my freebee finds have mostly taken the shape of toy creations. Empty cereal boxes? What perfect building blocks. Extra plastic bags? Excellent doll stuffing. Leftover fabric scraps? Oh the possibilities!

While this new context is transforming the way I look at waste, I am also coming to see the limitations of freebees in the realm of relief and development.  Many well-meaning groups gain access to donated materials either through their structure of operation or through gifts in kind (GIK). Some such donations are resold and the money is used to fund program costs.  Other materials are shipped to the countries in which they work and distributed free of cost. The problem with the later approach is that the influx of free goods on a local economy displaces legitimate vendors selling the same items. Take the following examples:

TOMS Shoes: Just in case you’ve been under a fashion rock for the past few years, here’s the lowdown on TOMS and their corporate social responsibility. You buy a pair of super-cute hipster shoes (that, from personal experience, are not at all practical in snowy climates) and the folks at TOMS ship a bonus pair to a shoeless kiddo in 3rd world country x. Win-win right? Maybe not.  One would be hard pressed to find any country in the world that does not sell shoes locally, employing many in process.  Dumping thousands of free shoes on a local economy lowers demand in the shoe market thereby negatively impacting local shoe vendors and suppliers.  So sure, maybe some kid will get a free pair of shoes that will last him a year, but maybe his dad’s shoe shop will be out of business because no children in the area need to buy shoes that year.  Local entrepreneurs are discouraged from developing enterprises to meet needs in their own communities. TOMS shoes distributes their donated goods through “shoe drops,” short-term trips where American volunteers travel abroad to hand place thousands of shoes on beneficiaries.    These donation blitzes epitomize poverty tourism  and further perpetuate stereotypes in the West of poverty and helplessness in the global south, and of the need for Western saviors.  These negative images not only strip away the dignity of our global neighbors, but dissuade corporate investors from doing business in these countries.

World Vision’s 100,000 shirts: A few weeks ago, World Vision announced they accepted a donation from the NFL of 100, 000 preprinted t-shirts of the losing Superbowl team, and the international humanitarian blogosphere’s snark brigade* went NUTZO.  Bet WV wishes they kept that little project on the DL.  There are a slew of excellent articles detailing why shipping in and distributing free t-shirts is a bad idea, but the main points boil down to the same argument against TOMS.  T-shirts are available locally. Last week some of these castoffs actually made their way to Gulu, along with a crew of NFL players to distribute them.  Gulu has its fair share of t-shirt vendors and Uganda has a struggling textile industry that needs investors. Why not buy local?  The ugly truth is tax breaks and publicity.  When the NFL donates 100,000 t-shirts they get a pretty sweet tax deduction.  In return, World Vision gets some great PR from the NFL.   What I find particularly saddening about this incident is the way World Vision has hailed the NFL as a hero for its generous donation, calling it “a source of hope and help to thousands of people around the world” (World Vision blog.)   As one of the largest, most well established NGOs in the world, World Vision knows this is bad aid.  It is aid that first and foremost benefits donors and advertising interests, not people and needs.  Moreover, aid is being practiced where development is needed (ahem.Gulu.ahem.)  World Vision has a responsibility to educate its donors, like the NFL, on smart aid and to speak truth to a consumer culture that doesn’t bat an eye to printing 100,000 t-shirts no one will want. 

Mennonite Central Committee School KitsOne of my own organization’s freebee projects is the distribution of donated scholastic materials.  Notebooks, pencils, and rulers are purchased by individual donors and assembled in handmade drawstring sacks that are then bundled and sent to our partners around the world.  Perhaps I’m partial, but there is nothing that pulls at the heartstrings like the image of old order Mennonite ladies stitching their curtains into little education parcels to be shipped overseas.  All the same, while the project may be a good way to involve constituents, it is not the most sustainable practice.  Just like shoes or t-shirts, notebooks, pencils, and rulers are readily available across the globe.  To be fair, MCC also provides a “cash for kits” option where individuals can donate the cost of purchasing kit items locally.  While I would guess this option is not as popular as individually assembled kits, it is a hopeful sign that buying local is an acknowledged option.  This effort could be taken a step further by supporting fair-trade and environmentally conscious options locally.  Through our partnership with Ten Thousand Villages, MCC has connections to numerous fair-trade craft cooperatives, often operating in the same countries these school kits are shipped.  Why not commission the artisans we support to whittle rulers and assemble recylced notebooks like the very ones Ten Thousand Villages carries in its own shops?   

How have you seen relief and development organizations responsibly applying the principle of buying local? And on another note, what is your best free find?

Try and beat 40 uncooked sourdough loaves. I dare you.


*This aptly worded label was coined in Joshua Keating’s “Is George Clooney Helping?”, Foreign Policy, January 10, 2011.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Angela permalink
    March 21, 2011 4:55 pm

    Those 40 loaves were the best tasting loaves I think I’ve ever had. I remember baking them after you guys let them spend the night outside by the kitchen door and reassuring Lizzie that the oven would kill anything harmful. Good golly…such excellent commune times.

  2. Jackie Farah permalink
    March 21, 2011 4:58 pm

    Well said! This to-the-point article clearly exposes the demoralizing affects of bad-aid. How about micro-loans for good aid? Where do Heifer Project’s animal donations fit in the Good-aid/bad-aid analysis? Goats to women in rural Ethiopia to help them develop milk distribution business, for example? Does Heifer use donation money to purchase the animals locally?

    • May 7, 2011 9:11 pm

      Thanks, Jackie. You bring up great examples of “smart aid” with microloans and “passing on” programs like Heifer Project. Of course no approach is a silver bullet in all contexts, but I think the move towards employment, or self-replicating projects, as opposed to handouts is great progress. And yes, as far as I know Heifer does indeed purchase the animals locally. At least I certainly hope no ngo is shipping livestock overseas in the name of development. Now that would be a whole lot messier than t-shirts…

  3. March 21, 2011 5:12 pm

    Holy cannoli. You’re an inspiration.
    The things you write challenge me so much, and I’m completely thankful for that. Keep doin’ what you’re doin’, friend!

    And, Mr. Snake rocks those recycled plastic bags. Time for Uganda to hop on Rwanda’s bandwagon and ban those suckers!

  4. March 21, 2011 5:17 pm

    So good. It so weird to see people walking around in second hand clothing from the US or Europe, sporting a shirt advertising someones 50th family reunion or worse when the shirt is actually offensive when you understand the cultural context (though sometimes funny.) Thanks to our “charity” a seller can purchase a bale of donated clothing for next to nothing and sell shirts for a dollar. There is no textile industry not to mention a local craftspersons that could match those prices. With free distributions we even eliminate the sellers economic potential.

    Best dumpster find: like $800 worth of tools being thrown away at a job site because they had something wrong with them. Most of which were fixed in an hour.

  5. March 22, 2011 4:43 pm

    First of all, GREAT post.

    Secondly – I have to say, sadly, I see more development agencies practicing non-sustainable giving practices than sustainable ones. Here in Costa Rica it has been interesting seeing the development world at work. Since CR is the most wealthy/stable country in the region, it generally gets passed up by the usual development characters, leaving the government to do the developing (a great thing in theory, right?). Unfortunately, corruption and a limited amount of funding being spread quite thin leaves a lot of people with not many options.

    The coolest thing I’ve seen is an organization called Roble Alto – they have housing and education for young kids that come from homes that are unable to support them. They run their entire program on a business they started specifically for this purpose – an egg-laying hen business. They provide up to 90% of the egg-laying hens for this region! (

    And as far as good free/dumpster finds go….I scored a free darkroom photo enlarger, and all my dad’s old darkroom equipment. Win.

  6. Tracie permalink
    March 23, 2011 6:11 am

    Eliza! You ARE an inspiration. You encourage me to think critically about my spending, buying, and supporting practices…thanks, sister. I think perhaps our raspberries were the best free find ever though…ha! Just kidding. That may have been the most miserable day of our summer. Thanks is due to Scott Kolbo for sweet redemption in the form of some very friendly gals! (R.I.P. Lucille…)

  7. Craig Wiley permalink
    March 24, 2011 12:31 am

    Tom’s shoes-wise — I can’t help but remember what Slavoj Zizek said: that their whole veneer of social responsibility isn’t really oriented toward fixing the problems at hand, it’s designed to assuage the guilt people have of knowing they’re involved in propping up exploitative systems (sweatshop labor in shoe production, etc). It then becomes a sort of excuse for not acting further, because these issues can be presented as fixing themselves due to the actions of the benevolent company, there’s really no need for anyone to actually do something.

  8. February 1, 2012 1:34 pm

    Some thing about this post made me make this comment. I have been reading this blog for a whilst now, thanks for the great times.


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