The sudden popularity of the Romney-Ryan ticket in Kenya is a good opportunity to remind everyone that sending clothes to the developing world is about the least effective form of charity ever invented.
1. Nobody’s being kept in poverty by their lack of a Romney-Ryan shirt. It’s pretty clear from the photos The Daily Caller posted that whatever disadvantages these kids have, they’ve got the shirt thing covered. Barring evidence that Kenya is undergoing a textile shortage, these gifts are part of the same Stuff We Don’t Want (SWEDOW) phenomenon that caused some well-meaning Brits to establish a charity called Knickers for Africa.
2. Besides the general uselessness of clothing donations, they may undermine local markets for textiles. It’s one thing when a steady stream of cheap imports comes into a market. It’s another thing entirely when a sudden-shock of free clothes displace a local vendors, or in the case of truly large donations, puts a local manufacturer out of business. Here’s an abstract excerpt from U. Toronto economist Garth Frazer:
Given that used clothing is initially provided as a donation, it shares characteristics with food aid, which in all cases assists consumers, but at times clearly harms African food producers…used-clothing imports are found to have a negative impact on apparel and textile production in Africa, explaining roughly 40% of the decline in African apparel production and roughly 50% of the decline in apparel employment.
3. Overland shipping costs are high and the money spent on shipping/handling would be better used as a cash donation. My suggestion to the well-intentioned Romney supporters behind this effort is to sell these shirts to hipsters who will wear them ironically and donate the proceeds.
At least these donations weren’t made in the aftermath of a humanitarian disaster. Gifts-in-kind are especially detrimental in the wake of tragedy, when useless clothing donations clog up ports and make it difficult for relief officials to get truly needed supplies to the needy.
The Romney volunteers who made these donations had the best of intentions. Good intentions aren’t enough.