This past week, an interesting debate erupted in the aid community on the role of the layman in international charity, after Jason Sadler started an organization dedicated to sending 1,000,000 shirts to African countries.
Called 1millionshirts, Sadler's initial plan was to gather these t-shirts in the US along with monetary donations. The monetary donations would support shipping the shirts abroad.
These are the kinds of ideas that aid experts have been railing against for many years. While free clothing may have started a new second-hand clothing market across the African continent, hand-outs actually risk stemming the expansion of local industries which could offer employment to many.
The basic premise of the aid community's complaints was that "good intentions are not enough." When dealing with human lives and the intricacies of international aid and its long-term effect, the layman should not have a determining role in deciding what resources go where. They may act as a conduit between their own communities and the professionals who have the necessary knowledge to determine and allocate resources properly.
Of course, most perceive any charity as good charity. However, when putting one's ego aside – I am doing something good therefore it must be somewhat good – one has the opportunity to see the negative aspect of unvetted giving. Crippling problems include duplication, wasted resources (administration, customs on shipping etc.), lack of coordination, and faulty priorities, among many others.
The debate against 1millionshirts, which was particularly prominent on Twitter (follow #1millionshirts) and blogs, sparked a reconsideration within the organization itself and, most importantly, ignited an important, albeit difficult, conversation on how to teach the layman to help effectively.
Minimizing the long-term effects of aid dependency has become an important component in top of the line aid and development organizations and bridging this new priority with those willing to donate their time to raise resources is key. Without this bridge, we may continue to see the dependency syndrome that some believe continues to cripple the African continent.