Like my energy drink or the kids starve. Image via Africa is a country

Maybe their hearts were in the right place. Maybe not. Either way, these are solid contenders for the title of “worst attempts at helping others since colonialism.”
1. One million t-shirts for Africa

Foreign aid circles employ the cynical acronym SWEDOW (stuff we don’t want) to describe initiatives like Jason Sadler’s 1 Million T-Shirts project. Sadler had admittedly never been to Africa, and had never worked in an aid or development environment before. But he cared a great deal, and came up with the idea to send a million free shirts to Africa in order to help the people there.

Like some sort of lightning rod for the combined venom of the humanitarian aid world, Jason found himself pilloried across the web in a matter of weeks. Everyone from armchair bloggers to senior economists spat fire on his dream until it eventually ground to a halt. In July 2010, Jason threw in the towel and abandoned his scheme. And somewhere in Africa, an economy sighed in relief.

Why was the idea so bad?

Image cia PDX Reader

Firstly, it’s debatable whether there is actually a need for T-shirts in Africa. There is practically nowhere that people who want shirts are unable to afford them. Wanting to donate them is a classic case of having something you want to donate and assuming it is needed. Just because you have a really large hammer does not mean that everything in the world is a nail.

Secondly, dumping a million free shirts is inefficient. What it would cost to pack them, ship them, and transport them overland to wherever it is they are meant to go would cost close to the manufacturing cost of the shirts in the first place. That’s just incredibly wasteful. If you wanted to get people shirts, it would be far more cost effective to simply commission their manufacture locally, creating a stimulus to the local textile economy in the process.

Which brings us to the third critique of free stuff. When people in the target community already have an economy functioning in part on the sale and repair of the stuff you want to donate (shirts in this instance), then dumping a million of them free is the economic equivalent of an atom bomb. Why buy a shirt anymore when you can get a five-year supply for free? Why get yours repaired when you can simply toss it and get another? And in the process everyone who once sold shirts or practiced tailoring finds themselves unemployed and unable to provide money for themselves or their families to buy anything.

Except shirts. Because those are now free.

And before you think dumping free shirts is the sin of an uneducated maverick, Jason’s poor logic was subsequently repeated by World Vision, in accepting 100,000 NFL shirts to dump on some poor, shirtless village in Africa.

2. TOMS Buy-One-Give-One

Bearing in mind all of the criticisms above, TOMS Shoes has built a brand on the premise that buying one pair of their shoes automatically includes the provision of another pair to an underprivileged child in a developing nation somewhere. Three months after Jason abandoned sending a million shirts to Africa, TOMS celebrated sending a million pairs of shoes to the underprivileged. It continues to do so.

While there are possibly more people in the world who need shoes than might need shirts (though this is debatable), TOMS can be (and has been) broadly criticised for the same kinds of unintended consequences of dumping shoes in places where people might otherwise be employed to make them.

Further, though, the TOMS campaign — like the million shirts — misses the fundamental point that not having a pair of shoes (or a shirt, christmas toy, etc.) is not a problem about not having shoes. It’s a problem of poverty. Shoelessness, such as it is, is a symptom of a much bigger and more complex problem. And while donating a pair of shoes helps shoelessness, it does not help poverty.

Things like jobs help poverty. Jobs making things like shoes, for example. But TOMS doesn’t make its shoes in Africa, it makes them in China where it’s presumably cheaper to make two pairs of shoes and give one away than it is to get people in a needier community to make one pair of shoes.

The result of this setup, as Zizek explains most succinctly, is that on a big-picture level, TOMS (and other buy-my-product-and-donate companies) are busy building the exploitative global structure that produces economic inequality, while on the other hand pretending that supporting them actually does something to fix it.

It doesn’t. It just gives people shoes.

3. Machine gun preacher

The criticisms of TOMS, Jason, and other purveyors of SWEDOW tend to be intellectual, economic concerns. Problems with Sam Childers, the machine gun preacher, are so much more straightforward.

It’s dangerous and insane.

After a misspent youth in the United States and a few years behind bars, Childers headed to Sudan on a missionary project to repair huts devastated in the war. There he would be commanded by God to build an orphanage for local children and, incidentally, take up arms against the Lord’s Resistance Army, who was terrorizing the region. With an AK-47 and a Bible, Sam would spread the wrath of the Lord and rescue abducted children for the next few years.

Imagine John Rambo with a biker’s beard hunting rebels in the savannah and you pretty much get the idea.

No matter how much you care to help the women/children/villages/gorillas in a particular warzone, trying to solve what is in effect a problem of armed insecurity through establishing another minor armed militia is never a good idea. However entertaining the film turns out to be, it’s the security studies equivalent of pouring gasoline on a forest fire. Peace — and a long-term future for those affected by violence in what is now South Sudan — can only be guaranteed through a diplomatic agreement between the groups that command the thousands of men with guns. Playing Rambo in the bush would not be tolerated back home, and it shouldn’t be here in Africa.

Childers is not the first person to get the crazy idea of solving violent situations by running in with guns. Hussein Mohammed Farah Aidid is an ex-Marine, and the son of Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid (of Black Hawk Down fame), who returned to Somalia in 1996 to lead the powerful Habr Gedir clan in the country’s civil war. That hasn’t worked out so well either.

4. 50 Cent ransoming children in Somalia

Just this month, rapper 50 Cent visited Dolow in Somalia at the request of the World Food Programme. The trip was presumably intended to raise awareness of the issues in the way that Angelina Jolie and George Clooney did for Sudan and Oprah did for South Africa. There are quite a few examples of celebrities connecting with Africa actually. There is even a map to keep track of who has “dibs” on what region.

If the trip was nothing more than Fifty touring hard-hit areas in order to bring the world’s lazy media along, then it would have been useful at best, and benign at worst. But there is more.

If you Like the Facebook page for his Street King energy drink, he will provide a meal for a child in need. If the page received a million Likes before Sunday, he would donate an additional million meals.

So let’s break that down.

  1. If you Like Fifty’s Facebook page — without even buying the drink — a child, presumably in Somalia, gets fed.
  2. We can infer that there is a pot of dollars somewhere earmarked for feeding needy children. Two million meals worth of feeding if you count the million Like-meals plus the potential million bonus.
  3. Those meals, while they could be donated, and have presumably been budgeted for, will not be, except to the extent that you give Street King props online.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is called extortion. Dramatically photographed, concealed-as-humanitarian-activism, extortion. I can feed so very many meals to these starving children, but I won’t unless you give me something.

The benefit of involving celebrities in foreign aid work is often that it works to focus the attention of their fans and the media machine more generally on understanding, for however brief a moment, something that is happening somewhere in the world. Out of that can come the kind of empathy and activism that makes things like the Save Darfur campaign possible.

The celebrity’s contribution, though, hinges on whether they can successfully translate attention on them into attention to the issues. When a humanitarian issue becomes a platform for pushing an energy drink on the back of people’s suffering, we should be ashamed.

5. Donor fund restrictions

Not so much an organisation or a specific event, this a policy constraint that isn’t as widely known as it should be. When many governments donate foreign aid money to countries that have been wracked by disasters, or which require long-term assistance, it often comes with a giant asterisk in the fine print:

A significant portion of the cash provided for such assistance must be spent on goods and services provided by suppliers from the donating country.

Not only inefficient, this policy prescription can lead to outright ridiculous results. In the case of the Mozambique floods in 2000, I met a medical volunteer who explained how the only US-made bikes that they could find to get around the country on short notice were Harley Davidsons. And so three of them ended up running between medical stations like some breed of medical Hell’s Angel. Fascinating to behold, but utterly wasteful.

Far more troublesome, as is often the case, are the economics of this sort of donate-and-bill-back activity. Where the donor aid money is tied to spending on donor-country products and services, far less of the amount spent in foreign aid actually ends up benefitting the recipient country. Few local people are employed, and few local organisations see any new opportunities to bid for and provide aid-goods.

This has two effects: firstly, what could have been a large financial boost arriving with the humanitarian aid is effectively neutered — shunted into a much smaller economy-within-the-economy; secondly, without the opportunity for competitive pricing on local goods, the money is spent on buying comparatively expensive imported products and staff. Harley Davidsons, rather than dirtbikes, for a tenth of the price.

6. Making food aid the same colour as cluster munitions.

Probably the most devastating screw-up in the history of helping was the decisions that lead to cluster munitions and daily food ration packets both being coloured canary yellow.

Left is delicious. Right will kill you. You try telling the difference if you can't read English and live out in the steppes.

Each yellow BLU-97 bomblet is the size of a soda can and is capable of killing anyone within a 50 meter radius and severely injuring anyone within 100 meters from the detonation. A Humanitarian Daily Rations (HDR) package contains a 2,000 calorie meal.

It was inevitable that Afghans coming across the yellow packages in the field would confuse the two. Children in particular — with no English and little idea of what a BLU-97 is even if they did — would investigate the yellow containers and try to pick them up, with devastating consequences that an Air Force general described as “unfortunate.”

7. Making USAID a foreign policy tool

In 1990, on the eve of the first Gulf War, Yemeni Ambassador Abdullah Saleh al-Ashtal voted no to using force against Iraq in a security council session. US Ambassador Thomas Pickering walked to the Yemeni Ambassador’s seat and retorted, “That was the most expensive No vote you ever cast.” Immediately afterwards, USAID ceased operations and funding in Yemen.

USAID, despite its appearances as a benign, well-intentioned member of the humanitarian aid community, is deeply compromised in being beholden to the whims of US foreign policy. Unlike organisations like Médecins Sans Frontières which strictly guard their neutrality, USAID’s ability to hand out food aid and other assistance is subject to the political agenda of groups like Congress and the US Military.

In the case of the army, USAID in Afghanistan has repeatedly had to participate in administering humanitarian relief in cooperation with army elements engaged in the “hearts and minds” strategy of manipulating assistance in order to win over civilian populations. The unfortunate side effect of this relationship is that USAID’s operations come to be seen by opposing forces as complicit in the enemy war effort and thus legitimate targets. An even more unfortunate side effect is that other humanitarian groups with far more benevolent agendas may find themselves tarred with the same political brush and unwittingly targeted for attacks and abductions too.

Sometimes bad foreign aid is just the consequence of someone caring too much, but knowing too little. Other times it’s people who should have known better not being diligent in considering the consequences of their actions. And sometimes politicians and unscrupulous businessmen are simply manipulating the suffering of others for their own ends. When it’s benign or thwarted, it’s easy enough to laugh it off. But when a bad idea is carried through, the results can be diabolical.