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Photo illustration by Krieg Barrie

Support by another means

International Aid | Look closely at bra giveaways and other 'gift in kind' aid projects

Issue: "Upside down," April 9, 2011

"The girls need your support! Literally," wrote Rebecca Snavely on The Huffington Post last year. The former web producer and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times entertainment site said she had received an email from a friend who works in Uganda: "Do you have any bras lying around that you're not going to wear anymore?" it read. "Would you be willing to donate them to women in Uganda who desperately need them?"

Snavely wrote, "Imagine spending every day without a bra. Ouch. Now imagine that your day involves walking miles to the water pump, walking even more miles to the market, and your free time is spent working in the fields . . . without a bra. . . . My own highly scientific guesstimation is that 99.82% of women in rural Uganda do not own a bra." The pitch: An associate traveling to Uganda was "willing to bring a duffle bag of bras. The only problem? WE NEED YOUR USED BRAS IMMEDIATELY!!"

That's typical of how some international aid projects get started. Someone with a big heart sees a problem and sets out to fix it by sending stuff-known as "gifts-in-kind" or "in-kind" donations. An anonymous aid worker who goes by "J" and blogs at Tales from the Hood coined a more acid term: #SWEDOW, or "Stuff We Don't Want" with a Twitter hashtag suggesting a trend and a term that's caught on among aid bloggers.

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In-kind project founders may have good intentions but their efforts are often misguided. Maybe the women in Uganda don't want to wear bras, say critics. Maybe they aren't culturally accepted. Maybe it is more cost effective to send money. Maybe dumping duffle bags full of foreign bras in the marketplace lowers the price and drives local producers out of business. In other words, every problem is more complicated than it first appears, and good-hearted donors can make things worse if they don't understand the culture or the economic effects of their efforts.

Tales from the Hood's "Best in #SWEDOW" 2010 Grand Prize winner was the International Breast Milk Project (IBMP), which claims to be "the only international milk bank in the world." According to its website, "Moms like you have donated over 67,000 bottles of safe donor milk to help orphaned, sick and hungry infants in South Africa and around the world."

I emailed J, who says he has "worked in the field of international aid, relief and development since 1991" and was in a remote area of the Philippines, to find out what makes a project a winner. He defines #SWEDOW as stuff "foisted off onto a recipient community" and says planning happens "far from that community, usually without meaningful input from those the implementers say they want to help." Whether the stuff is new, used, or technologically sophisticated is unimportant to J: The process "is almost always about the donor-and the benefit to beneficiaries is a serendipitous side effect."

J argued that the Breast Milk Project was "dreamed up by someone" without "input from those she meant to help" and said he doubted that imported breast milk would deal with chronic malnutrition "better or more effectively than another intervention or technology." He also cited the project's "'ick' factor" as another qualification for grand prize: "My head is swimming at the possibility for misunderstanding, rumor, gossip, perhaps even intentional misinformation about what 'The Americans' are trying to do by sending their breast milk over for 'our babies' in some remote zone."

I called the International Breast Milk Project executive director Amanda Nickerson, who admitted that the project came about in 2006 when founder Jill Youse looked in her freezer and saw more breast milk than her baby needed. She didn't want to dump it out, so she used Google to figure out where to donate it.

Youse found an orphanage in South Africa that was actively seeking donated breast milk for HIV-infected infants in its care. Youse asked her grandmother to pay the shipping costs to send the milk, kept frozen with dry ice, to South Africa. The project grew, especially after Oprah featured it on her show. IBMP has now sent almost 268,000 ounces of breast milk to a neonatal intensive care unit in Cape Town where babies weigh less than three pounds and are orphaned or their mothers for health reasons can't breastfeed.

Nickerson says for these babies it is a "life or death medical supply"-given by prescription, three weeks at a time, with amounts adjusted according to the baby's size, health, and age. IBMP also has raised and donated more than $186,000 to fund health projects and develop local milk banks in Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa. It makes two shipments of milk a year, 50,000 ounces at a time.

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