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Support by another means

"Support by another means" Continued...

Issue: "Upside down," April 9, 2011

What about J's objections? It is true that Jill Youse had the desire to donate her excess breast milk, and that she and the other donors feel good about what they do. But it's also true that she responded to a plea from an organization on the ground in South Africa. As to safety, milk banks are similar to blood banks: Donors are screened, their blood is tested, and the milk pasteurized to kill any bacteria or disease. The milk goes to sick and low-weight babies, and doctors say breast milk is the best thing. One neonatalist recently wrote to Nickerson, "Breast milk makes all the difference. Please send more." And since the milk is going to institutional users, the "ick factor" isn't really an issue.

So, while J's general concerns seem valid, he may have jumped too fast to criticize the International Breast Milk Project. Let's look at another of his winners, Soles 4 Souls.

Wayne Elsey, a shoe executive, founded Soles 4 Souls after he "felt compelled to do something" following the 2004 Asian tsunami. He didn't know what to do, but as he watched TV he saw "a picture of a single shoe washing up on the beach . . . it triggered a few calls to some other executives in the footwear industry and the subsequent donation of a quarter of a million shoes to victims in the devastated countries."

Soles 4 Souls has sent shoes elsewhere-and it drives the aid bloggers crazy. They don't question Mr. Elsey's good intentions-although Slate reported that he makes $500,000 a year, a salary he justifies by saying, "I've given up my prime earning years to do this. I made four times that as a business executive."

The aid bloggers do question his premise. Saundra Schimmelpfennig, who blogs at Good Intentions Are Not Enough, writes, "I challenge anyone to find a single country in the world where there are not shoes for sale in the market­place. There are many better and cheaper ways to get shoes on the feet of the poor."

Schimmelpfennig adds, "Sending donated goods oversees is an appealing idea because it makes you feel like you're really helping while at the same time recycling things that are no longer of any use to you." But since people don't wear shoes for many reasons, both cultural and economic, she says it can be a bad solution, especially if donors don't consult with the people they're trying to help.

Elizabeth Kirk, director of communications at Soles 4 Souls, has a different view. She says her organization listens to criticism and is "always collecting data from partners . . . consistently keeping our ear to the ground. That has led to changes, including working more with non-governmental organizations that are "already on the ground. We trust their instincts and networks." She says the group sometimes buys shoes in-country rather than shipping in used shoes collected in America.

But on the big criticism, that giving shoes or other stuff is more about the donor and the donor's needs than about the recipient, Kirk doesn't back down: "We are trying to meet an issue-lack of footwear-with footwear." Maybe better sanitation is the long-term goal, but Kirk says her organization is focused on the 300 million children worldwide who go without shoes: "You can quickly improve the quality of life and lifespan of a child by giving a pair of shoes." She's impatient with people who "stand against a fence with their hands in their pockets, saying there's a better way to do that."

For now, the aid bloggers and the givers are talking past each other. Schimmelpfennig is concerned about "the impact that the aid project could have on the local economy, that inappropriate donations can do more harm than good." Those concerns don't dissuade organizations like Soles 4 Souls.

But back to underwear: Don't even think of sending your old skivvies or bras to Rwanda. The Rwanda Bureau of Standards (RBS) recently banned both the importation and sales of used nightgowns, men and women's underwear, bras, and undershirts. Inspectors will be guarding the six main border points and the Kigali International Airport to keep out such #SWEDOW. The Rwandan newspaper New Times said of the used underwear, they are "old and cannot serve their purpose."

Saundra Schimmelpfennig says donors should ask six questions before donating goods abroad:
1. Is the donation appropriate for the local climate, culture, and religion?
2. After a disaster, will an influx of donated goods clog the ports?
3. Do the recipients actually need the donation?
4. Are the goods available locally?
5. Will the people receiving the goods be able to afford to fix or replace the donated items?
6. Will donating this item do more harm than good?

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