Last week, I saw a street kid walking down the dusty road in Bukoto Markets. He was selling mangos from a bucket and wearing a Carleton University shirt. He stood there, in the midst of the dilapidated market stalls, surrounded by squawking chicken in cages and boda drivers calling out to walking passerbys, wearing the t-shirt of my alma mater. At that moment, the world seemed quite small. Maybe absurdly so.
It wasn't the first time I'd seen a Carleton shirt in Africa. In 2009, I was in Rwanda on an internship program through the university. We went to visit the Gisozi Genocide Memorial in Kigali, and in one room there were the shirts of the genocide victims on display. Some of them were torn, ripped or stained with blood. Some were unrecognizable. But there was a Tim Hortons shirt. And one was a Carleton University t-shirt. We stood there, students from far away in that grim and unfamiliar place, looking at the familiar red and black t-shirt. Did the student who picked it up at the Carleton University bookstore ever imagine that the shirt would end up as part of a genocide memorial?
These two shirts are a miniscule part of the long established first world impulse to send their cast-off clothes to struggling countries such as Uganda or Kenya. So widespread is this practice that over the past two decades serious controversy has been generated around the impact this "charity" has had on African industries.
While these campaigns tug at your heartstrings ("I can save a life with little effort"), the campaigns are often devastating to local industries. During the 1980s, the Kenyan textile industry boomed; it employed 30 per cent of the labour force. But the introduction of liberalized trade policies led to mass importation of donated clothing and devastated the textile industry. The imported textile industry has exploded to $1 billion since 1990.
Over 12 countries have banned imports of textiles in order to protect their own national industries. It's not hard to see why: In 2011, over 13,000 tonnes of textiles were imported to the Ivory Coast, which is miniscule compared to the nearly 80,000 tonnes to Ghana.
A significant reason why countries like Uganda, Nigeria and Haiti lag behind developed countries is because of a combination of a lack of infrastructure and the difficulty in creating formal employment opportunities. A thriving textile industry that produces cotton in Africa contributes to the economy in many ways: It creates a formal workforce (thereby creating economic stability), it pays taxes which can then be invested in infrastructure and education, and it moves countries away from a state of dependence on aid.
Organizations that want to clothe street children should buy clothes from local industries; if adults are paid decent wages, they can send their kids to school and break the "cycle of poverty." Buying locally produced and marketed goods also won't deflate prices of local goods; competition is hard when homegrown businesses cannot even begin to compete with the artificially cheap, imported clothing.
Aid and development are deeply complex and there are no easy answers. But what can be said with some certainty is that the physical donations of goods, be it food or clothes, often have negative impacts on the local economy. It would be far better for aid organizations to buy products locally. Want to provide underwear for women? Buy it in local stores. Want to buy school supplies for kids in Kenya? Trust me, Kenya is crowded with independent market vendors selling pencils and notebooks.
Aid shouldn't be about making North Americans comfortable with a culture of mass consumption and waste. It has to be actually making the lives of people in the recipient country better. If NGO's provide us with the complex narratives that truly describe the realities on the ground, then we have to be prepared to listen.
The ubiquitous presence of t-shirts from places like Carleton University speak to more than the proliferation of cheap clothing imports into Africa. It also demonstrates how interconnected we all are. There is nothing to be gained by being interconnected if we don't really pay attention to each other, and to what the other is saying; to what the other needs or aspires to. But we're not going to change the world only by contributing what makes us feels good. Nor will the world improve if we only give away what we no longer want or need. We'll only change the world through hard work, practicality and listening.