In Box

Haiti Doesn't Need Your Old T-Shirt

The West can (and should) stop dumping its hand-me-downs on the developing world.

The Green Bay Packers this year beat the Pittsburgh Steelers to win Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas. In parts of the developing world, however, an alternate reality exists: "Pittsburgh Steelers: Super Bowl XLV Champions" appears emblazoned on T-shirts from Nicaragua to Zambia. The shirt wearers, of course, are not an international cadre of Steelers die-hards, but recipients of the many thousands of excess shirts the National Football League produced to anticipate the post-game merchandising frenzy. Each year, the NFL donates the losing team's shirts to the charity World Vision, which then ships them off to developing countries to be handed out for free.

Everyone wins, right? The NFL offloads 100,000 shirts (and hats and sweatshirts) that can't be sold -- and takes the donation as a tax break. World Vision gets clothes to distribute at no cost. And some Nicaraguans and Zambians get a free shirt. What's not to like?

Quite a lot, as it happens -- so much so that there's even a Twitter hashtag, #SWEDOW, for "Stuff We Don't Want," to track such developed-world offloading, whether it's knit teddy bears for kids in refugee camps, handmade puppets for orphans, yoga mats for Haiti, or dresses made out of pillowcases for African children. The blog Tales from the Hood, run by an anonymous aid worker, even set up a SWEDOW prize, won by Knickers 4 Africa, a (thankfully now defunct) British NGO set up a couple of years ago to send panties south of the Sahara.

Here's the trouble with dumping stuff we don't want on people in need: What they need is rarely the stuff we don't want. And even when they do need that kind of stuff, there are much better ways for them to get it than for a Western NGO to gather donations at a suburban warehouse, ship everything off to Africa or South America, and then try to distribute it to remote areas. World Vision, for example, spends 58 cents per shirt on shipping, warehousing, and distributing them, according to data reported by the blog Aid Watch -- well within the range of what a secondhand shirt costs in a developing country. Bringing in shirts from outside also hurts the local economy: Garth Frazer of the University of Toronto estimates that increased used-clothing imports accounted for about half of the decline in apparel industry employment in Africa between 1981 and 2000. Want to really help a Zambian? Give him a shirt made in Zambia.

The mother of all SWEDOW is the $2 billion-plus U.S. food aid program, a boondoggle that lingers on only because of the lobbying muscle of agricultural conglomerates. (Perhaps the most embarrassing moment was when the United States airdropped 2.4 million Pop-Tarts on Afghanistan in January 2002.) Harvard University's Nathan Nunn and Yale University's Nancy Qian have shown that the scale of U.S. food aid isn't strongly tied to how much recipient countries actually require it -- but it does rise after a bumper crop in the American heartland, suggesting that food aid is far more about dumping American leftovers than about sending help where help's needed. And just like secondhand clothing, castoff food exports can hurt local economies. Between the 1980s and today, subsidized rice exports from the United States to Haiti wiped out thousands of local farmers and helped reduce the proportion of locally produced rice consumed in the country from 47 to 15 percent. Former President Bill Clinton concluded that the food aid program "may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked.… I had to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did."

Bottom line: Donations of cash are nearly always more effective. Even if there are good reasons to give stuff rather than money, in most cases the stuff can be bought locally. Economist Amartya Sen, for example, has conclusively shown that people rarely die of starvation or malnutrition because of a lack of food in the neighborhood or the country. Rather, it is because they can't afford to buy the food that's available. Yet, as Connie Veillette of the Center for Global Development reports, shipping U.S. food abroad in response to humanitarian disasters is so cumbersome it takes four to six months to get there after the crisis begins. Buying food locally, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has found, would be 25 percent cheaper and considerably faster, too.

In some cases, if there really is a local shortage and the goods really are needed urgently, the short-term good done by clothing or food aid may well outweigh any long-term costs in terms of local development. But if people donate SWEDOW, they may be less likely to give much-needed cash. A study by Aradhna Krishna of the University of Michigan, for example, suggests that charitable giving may be lower among consumers who buy cause-related products because they feel they've already done their part. Philanthrocapitalism may be chic: The company Toms Shoes has met with considerable commercial success selling cheap footwear with the added hook that for each pair you buy, the company gives a pair to a kid in the developing world (it's sold more than a million pairs to date). But what if consumers are buying Toms instead of donating to charity, as some surely are? Much better to stop giving them the stuff we don't want -- and start giving them the money they do.


In Box

Responsibility to Protect: A Short History

Just what is a just war?

The first French missiles that streaked over Benghazi in March were more than the beginning of the end for Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi -- they were also the first real-world test of the international community's new rules for humanitarian intervention. The conflict made an instant catchphrase out of "responsibility to protect" -- and its inevitable clunky acronym, R2P -- a doctrine adopted by the United Nations in 2005 and invoked for the first time to justify the bombing. R2P was intended to be the first piece in a new international legal framework for stopping war crimes after a century of ad hoc humanitarianism. But did the removal of Qaddafi's pariah regime -- while similar atrocities were allowed to continue in Syria and elsewhere -- mark the dawn of a new era, or the same old inconsistent approach debated in a new vocabulary?

In On the Law of War and Peace, Dutch legal philosopher Hugo Grotius argues that intervening to help a people resist tyranny constitutes a just war.

Britain bans the slave trade. At the urging of abolitionists, British naval vessels patrolling the Atlantic begin interdicting other countries' slave ships -- the first example of a country enforcing human rights beyond its shores.

Polish Jewish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin, appalled by the slaughter of more than a million ethnic Armenians by the Ottomans during World War I and by Hitler's rise, begins a crusade for international legal protection from ethnically motivated mass killings. He is rebuffed by the League of Nations, where one delegate objects that such crimes occur "too seldom to legislate." That same year, the first concentration camps open in Germany.

Twenty-four Nazis are put on trial at Nuremberg by the Allies for atrocities committed during World War II; 19 are convicted. The legal proceedings, however, focus on war crimes and so do not fully establish a precedent for prosecuting "genocide" (a term coined two years earlier by Lemkin, who lost dozens of family members in the Holocaust).

Lemkin lobbies the three-year-old United Nations relentlessly for legal protections against genocide, and on Dec. 9 the U.N. General Assembly votes unanimously to adopt the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (though the United States doesn't ratify it until 1988).


European colonialism ends with the liberation of 57 countries in Asia and Africa. State sovereignty is an important and sensitive issue for the countries recently freed from the yoke of Western rule and one that will be used for decades to come as an argument against humanitarian intervention.

India intervenes in a bloody civil war between Pakistan and East Pakistan, which declares independence as Bangladesh. Seven years later Vietnam invades Pol Pot's Cambodia, and in 1979 Tanzania deposes dictator Idi Amin in neighboring Uganda. All three wars are fought under the banner of national interest, but as each also aimed to avert the mass slaughter of civilians, international-law scholars later look to them as precursors -- however faint -- of the humanitarian interventions to come.

The Soviet Union collapses. The next decade's conflicts don't carry the lofty geopolitical stakes of the Cold War and are more likely to happen within countries' own borders, complicating the prospect of outside forces stepping in.

Ethnic Hutus begin killing Tutsis in Rwanda. Susan Rice, then an aide on U.S. President Bill Clinton's National Security Council, says of the crisis, "If we use the word 'genocide' and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?" The United States does nothing, and by July, 800,000 Rwandans are dead.

Bosnian Serb forces massacre more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica, while Dutch U.N. peacekeepers look on helplessly.

Brookings Institution scholar Francis Deng, later the U.N.'s special advisor for the prevention of genocide, co-authors Sovereignty as Responsibility. The influential treatise argues that sovereign states are defined not by the inviolability of their borders -- the assumption of the post-colonial era -- but by their obligation to protect their citizens.


The United States and NATO seek U.N. Security Council approval to intervene in Serbia's persecution of ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo. China and Russia veto it, but NATO, eager to avoid a repeat of its mid-1990s failures, starts bombing anyway. The action -- broadly supported, successful, and illegal -- sets an uneasy precedent.

Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan complains that "'human rights taking precedence over sovereignty' and 'humanitarian intervention' seem to be in vogue these days," threatening to "wreak havoc" on international relations.

With the U.N.'s backing, Canada convenes the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, a blue-ribbon panel co-chaired by Australian politician Gareth Evans and charged with drawing up guidelines for humanitarian intervention. The panel's report, "The Responsibility to Protect," released in December 2001, puts the term on paper for the first time.

At its World Summit, the U.N. unanimously adopts "responsibility to protect" as a guiding principle for the prevention of "atrocity crimes." "It cannot be right," Secretary-General Kofi Annan declares, "when the international community is faced with genocide or massive human rights abuses, for the United Nations to stand by and let them unfold to the end."

When Cyclone Nargis strikes a hapless Burma, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner argues that the "responsibility to protect" obligates the international community to step in. Writing in Britain's Guardian, Archbishop Desmond Tutu similarly invokes the principle in calling for a nonmilitary intervention in Zimbabwe. Neither persuades the Security Council.

U.S. President Barack Obama takes office. His foreign-policy team includes two prominent anti-genocide advocates: U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who is haunted by the U.S. failure in Rwanda, and special assistant Samantha Power, who reported on the Srebrenica massacre as a journalist and later wrote A Problem from Hell, an influential critique of the U.S. government's response to genocide.


2011: LIBYA

February 15: The Arab Spring arrives in Libya. After several days of protests in major cities, fighting breaks out between protesters and security forces in Benghazi. On Feb. 22, Muammar al-Qaddafi orders a violent crackdown, vowing to go "house by house" to find and kill the rebels.

March 17: As Libyan tanks threaten Benghazi, the Security Council passes Resolution 1973, for the first time invoking the "responsibility to protect" to condemn Qaddafi and impose a no-fly zone over his country. Two days later, a French fighter jet fires the first shots in the coalition forces' strike on Libya.

March-April: As NATO bombs, debate reopens over the legitimacy and limits of the R2P doctrine. Evans argues in a March 24 Sydney Morning Herald editorial that a military action intended to kill or unseat Qaddafi or to otherwise support a rebel victory "is simply not permissible under the explicit legal terms of UN resolution 1973. Nor is it permissible under the moral first principles of the 'responsibility to protect' doctrine." And though a European official warns in April that the Libya intervention should be "a warning sign" to regimes undertaking bloody crackdowns in U.S. allies Bahrain and Yemen as well as Syria, the U.N. takes no action.

August 20: Backed by NATO air power, Libyan rebels end Qaddafi's four-decade rule. The expansion of the allies' U.N.-sanctioned involvement, from enforcing a no-fly zone to unequivocally helping the rebels win the war, prompts Indian U.N. Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri to remark, "Libya has given R2P a bad name." But New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, among others, argues, "The intervention has been done right" -- that after the disgraces of Rwanda and Bosnia and the overreach of Iraq, an atrocity has finally been stopped, in time and for the right reasons. "[T]he idea that the West must at times be prepared to fight for its values against barbarism," he writes, "is the best hope for a 21st century less cruel than the 20th."