Monday, 5 March 2012

talking about stuff.

Last week I finished up a month of trying to not buy anything that I didn't need (I don't know if it was cheating to buy dinner with friends, but... I may have done that - that's filling a certain need though I think) as a way to evaluate what I really need and to help me value what I already have. It was kind of freeing to know that certain things were off-limits. In the same vein of "things we don't need" (sort of) I want to take a look at this issue from a different perspective.

You may have heard the term "SWEDOW" - stuff we don't want. It's used to refer to donations that are unnecessary and even harmful to those to whom they are given, usually under the pretense of aid. A classic example of this is World Vision's donation of Superbowl t-shirts, branded with the losing team.

Every article I read on this topic had this photo, so I thought I'd throw it in too.
Donations of 100 000 free t-shirts can inefficient at best, and harmful at worst. The main reasons for discouraging SWEDOW are:
  • the financial cost to ship the products over. Donating something you already have may seem handy, because you have it, you don't need it and other people [seem to] need it, so it seems to follow that you should fill that gap. However, this isn't as simple as dropping off some clothes at your Goodwill downtown. Shipping, packaging, customs -it adds up. But it's not even as if all that is somehow worth it. Typically donations of this kind are items that are readily available in a given country anyway, so all the money spent on bringing over the donations is wasted.
  • Even more, this is money that could be invested into local suppliers. What if you had a coffee shop, but then someone decided to fly in and start giving out free coffee right in front of your shop because they wanted to help. Bringing in a bunch of free stuff can be pretty damaging to a local economy.
  • It's really just sloppy, and disrespectful to people's real needs. If everyone had enough shirts for a year, there would still be big issues. It feels good to treat a symptom for a while, but ultimately you're doing more harm by not addressing the illness. By not even taking the time to understand the issues at play in a developing country we are acting in ignorance and blatantly disrespecting the people we claim to care about.
Probably one of the most dangerous things about SWEDOW is that it makes you feel like you're helping, when really you are not at all. Your conscience may be temporarily salved so you don't feel a need to enact any real change. This concept is articulated by philosopher Slavoj Zizek in his compelling (and in this link, animated!) lecture, First as Tragedy, then as Farce.

Don't get me wrong - there are certainly times when it is important to intervene and provide free "stuff" that people need. I'm not saying let people go naked and hungry while we wade through red tape and sort out policy and systemic issues. But of course, the costs (I don't mean just financial) and benefits must be weighed, and the time and place for this type of intervention must be carefully discerned.

P.S. In the interest of keeping this a balanced discussion, I'll link to World Vision's defense of its donations.

Monday, 20 February 2012

a different kind of victory garden.

There is something really exciting happening in Hamilton! Hamilton Victory Gardens are in their second official year of operation, and I am so excited to be involved.

For one thing, I am looking forward to digging my hands into soil again - I had a garden when I was younger that ended up with my dad taking care of it and a cucumber takeover. More importantly though, this is an amazing model for holistic community development.

Hamilton Victory Gardens is an urban gardening project where the harvest goes to food banks as well as the surrounding community. It involves people who live in the neighbourhood as well as those who use the food banks so it is a real community effort. I went to the first meeting of the season last week and I was truly impressed with the mission of this organization. One of the things that I was most taken with was their emphasis on having this be a truly communal effort; one of the speakers was a man named Carl, who was a patron of the Good Shepherd food bank and became involved in the Victory Garden in order to contribute.

That is something that really makes this project stand out. Rather than simply providing people with handouts (although they are much fresher and healthier handouts than typical food bank fare!), the gardens allow people to take ownership of their situation and provides autonomy and a sense of purpose for those in need. A project like this has the ability to change the tone of a community – people feel like they are involved in something, and they are also reaping the rewards of their work. The garden is in the north end of the city, and of the things that the speakers noted last week was that they had never encountered any problems with vandalism or people interfering with their crops. It seems people appreciate having empty lots turned into useful, beautiful areas.

It is such a simple, exciting idea! And there are a ton of ways that this can grow and really make an impact, including evolving into a business endeavor for those in the community, and a community event center (see Hill St. Community Garden for the potential that urban agriculture has!)

This isn’t just a good idea for addressing poverty though.  As a culture, we are very separated from the food that we eat - where it comes from, how it is made, what it is made of. The ability to grow your own food isn't just a useful skill for those who are short on it. When I go to pick up groceries I often marvel at modern, Western conveniences. Around the corner I can get Mini-Wheats at ANY hour of the day or night. And I do. In the scope of all the people who have lived, and all of the people on the planet now, our way of life is incredibly unique – it has to be, it’s not very sustainable.

This year, Hamilton Victory Gardens plans to add six more locations, and provide ten times more produce than last year - so there is plenty of room for helping hands, both clean and dirty!