This post was written in response to 100,000 reasons to love the Super Bowl
Well, after spending the past three days talking with World Vision staff in international programs, corporate engagement and gifts-in-kind operations, I can tell you that your criticisms and comments have sparked some good internal discussion within the organization.
I would like to provide some additional specifics based on what I’ve learned to add to the conversation about why World Vision disagrees with the carte blanche assessment that all GIK is bad aid and has no plans to abandon its use, as some suggest it should.
At the same time, I’ll also let you know that, among our staff, there is a great deal of agreement with some of the criticisms that have been posted here and elsewhere in the blogosphere. In my conversations, I’ve heard overwhelming agreement that product distribution done poorly and in isolation from other development work is, in fact, bad aid. To be sure, no one at World Vision believes that a tee shirt, in and of itself, is going to improve living conditions and opportunities in developing communities. In addition, World Vision doesn’t claim that GIK work alone is sustainable. In fact, no aid tactic, in and of itself, is sustainable. But if used as a tool in good development work, GIK can facilitate good, sustainable development.
To be sure, as much as World Vision’s staff work to minimize the potential drawbacks of GIK and strengthen its benefits, there’s clear consensus that World Vision must keep improving the way it works. Right now, your criticisms have sparked discussions about improving internal processes and structures to further empower field offices to communicate their needs.
At the same time, it may be helpful to share with you what I’ve learned about the safeguards, standards and best practices that World Vision does employ to make sure that it’s doing the best GIK work possible.
1) Targeted donations – we don’t just take anything
First of all, World Vision works to target its donor partners so that we only procure supplies that are helpful in the communities where we work. World Vision works with companies that provide medicines and medical supplies, school supplies, toys and clothing based on targeted lists of strategy driven products our field offices proactively request.
These are products that have facilitated development in many different areas. While some specific products (e.g. winter clothes in Central America or Spanish books in French-speaking countries) may not be appropriate in all contexts, these broad types of product have proven to help us do sustainable development work. With these lists in mind, our staff pursue relationships with corporations that can provide these products. We don’t develop relationships with companies that can’t help us procure the supplies our field staff ask for. We never accept low-quality product in general and we don’t accept used clothing, linens, bedding, shoes or books (and only on rare occasions do we accept any other used product).
2) We don’t “dump” product without analysis– in fact, we can’t begin to meet the targeted requests we receive from the field
Some of you have expressed legitimate concerns about whether or not the product we distribute puts local vendors out of work or hinders their opportunities to work.
As a safeguard against that impact, our field staff look at their local economies and the local availability of items and then provide us with lists of items they want us to procure, as well as supplies they no longer need. Each year, we alter what materials we send to any given country based on that field-based research. I’ve been given many examples of communities that needed particular supplies for several years, but, over time, as the communities became more self-sustaining, no longer needed those products. In some cases, their requests for products changed as their communities developed and they were able to produce or access products locally.
Another key point is that, the quantity of product we distribute is too small to have any measurable impact on local economies. As an example, over the past three years, we’ve received about 375,000 articles of clothing from sporting events like the Super Bowl. Those 375,000 articles of clothing have been shipped to multiple communities each, within 31 different countries. That means that, over three years, on average, only about 12,000 articles of clothing were sent to each country and divided among multiple communities, which often number more than 30,000 people each. The scale simply isn’t significant enough to flood a market.
In addition, World Vision’s experience has been that we cannot meet the demand that we receive from the field. As an example, we can only meet about 5 percent of the proactive requests for clothing that we receive from our field offices around the world.
World Vision’s GIK staff tell me that communities often communicate how they’re using the product they request as tools to reach the next step in their communities’ development. Saving money on clothing or school supplies, for example, helps families use the precious cash they do have to develop their small businesses or pay for their children’s medical care.
3) Partnerships that allow us to share our work with the American public – yes, we need to do that too.
I’ll be honest with you, the NFL is a interesting example in this larger debate about GIK. While the supplies we receive fit our lists of needs (children’s and adult clothing), it also offers us a unique opportunity. This relationship offers us a chance to communicate about our work with millions of people who would never know about it if we limited our interaction to some of the more technical and niche companies with which we do valuable work.
The fact that we can meet other needs as well as programmatic needs doesn’t negate the usefulness of the product. When children need clean clothes to protect their health or allow them to go to school, the fact that the shirt has a Steelers logo on it isn’t particularly relevant.
While I’d love to say that we don’t need exposure or funding to do our development work, it simply isn’t true. Certainly, it would be bad aid to accept useless product only to gain exposure or funding. But when we can do both, it’s only common sense that we would do so.
At the same time, I have also heard criticism that focuses on how much NGOs talk about GIK. The upshot of the criticism is that we talk about it as being a bigger, more powerful tool than it really is. While, with most of this response, I’m summarizing and conveying what I’ve learned from staff in other departments – people who know much more about this issue than I do. However, as a communicator, I will tell you that I’m taking that specific criticism to heart.
It is easy to talk about GIK. It’s easy to understand it. It’s much more difficult to talk about the deeper issues that drive poverty – and difficult for the average person to understand those issues. I know that within my team, we already have started discussions around whether we need to adjust our strategies: work harder to help the public understand things that they generally tune out and back off a bit from stories that people want to hear, but that don’t always represent the whole of our work.
As with any debate, I know that there will be ranges of perspectives held going into this discussion.
Certainly, there is a existing spectrum of opinion ranging from
1) those who absolutely oppose the use of GIK to
2) those who support a nuanced conditional strategic use of product in appropriate contexts to
3) those who believe that any product sent with good intentions is helpful.
World Vision holds the second viewpoint and is committed to continual improvement of that work.
@morealtitude is right in his description of World Vision’s leadership in the relief and development community:
“You are signatory to the Red Cross Code of Conduct and the INGO Accountability Charter. You have been a part of the creation of the Sphere Project, and involved in programs such as the Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP), the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Practice (ALNAP), People in Aid (PIA) and the Emergency Capacity Building Project (ECB).”
This commitment to best practices and continuous learning is also true in the GIK part of our global work. @Good_Intents posted that “Nonprofits and aid workers come under tremendous pressure to accept these questionable donations. This is one of the reasons the Interagency Gifts-In-Kind Standards Project of AERDO (the Association of Evangelical Relief and Development Organizations) was created and subsequently included in InterAction’s PVO (Private Voluntary Organization) Standards. These are standards that non-profits who are members of InterAction – which World Vision is – agree to follow.” In fact, World Vision led AERDO’s standards project, and also shepherded the process of InterAction’s adoption of the standards.
Rather than writing off GIK as 100 percent “bad aid,” World Vision is choosing to work on improving the GIK system to ensure that it continues to facilitate good aid.
I’m sure this post won’t satisfy everyone, but I’m hopeful that it at least communicates that World Vision is thinking about the criticisms that have been leveled and that we are willing to both dialogue about it and consider adjustments to our programming as a result.
I don’t have room in this post to address every criticism that has been leveled against us, but I can tell you, having participated in some of the internal discussions on this issue, World Vision’s staff are not dismissing these criticisms. There are healthy and exciting debates going on internally and I’m optimistic that, informed by insights from within and outside of World Vision, we can continue to improve our work – both within GIK and outside of it. I’ll keep updating this group as the internal dialogue continues.
In the meantime, please do keep commenting. The constructive criticism that has come out during this discussion has created valuable dialogue within World Vision. Keep talking to us – both privately and publicly. And allow us to communicate how our work is changing as a result of your feedback.
Amy, WV Communications
Read our latest updates to this discussion GIK and development programming, The financial costs and benefits of sending a shirt overseas, and Basic overview of World Vision’s strategy and structure and our U.S. GIK operations.