I know it’s free, I still don’t want it

I’ve read a couple articles today on some of the most ignorant and harmful donations that have been given to countries after a disaster or from people who have the intention of “helping.” There’s a really good site called Good Intentions Are Not Enough that provides readers with the knowledge, tools, and resources they need to ensure that their donations match their good intentions.

Some explicitly ignorant and dangerous donations, even with the best intentions, include:

  • Dog food donations to feed children in Kenya. Needless to say, the government rejected the “aid.” A Kenyan spokesperson said, “Kenyan children are not in such shortage of food to resort to eating dog food.”
  • Winter hat, coats, and gloves donated to southern Thailand after the tsunami
  • Canned pork and skimpy clothing donated to Muslim communities

That’s just the start of it. Some of these are pretty funny and other cases are very dangerous. In one case, people dropped baby formula in a country. After disasters, baby formula mixed with contaminated water can lead to severe diarrhea and potentially death due to dehydration.

Useless free things is a global problem

How many times have you received gifts for your birthday or other holidays that you tossed or re-gifted? It’s probably because people didn’t ask, “What would be useful for you? Do you need anything?” I know people have good intentions, but often many things we get are wasteful.

In in the 10 years I’ve been working in Canada, I’ve seen a few projects that been implemented as badly as some development projects. The problem and uselessness of free stuff does not just happen in other countries. Just because we’re allegedly  “educated,” doesn’t mean people know how to implement projects effectively. These are some of the same problems I’ve seen in projects implemented in Canada as international development projects:

  • Decisions being made by people from higher levels who are completely disconnected from what’s happening from the ground
  • Lack of time and initiative spent learning from the people they are attempting to serve and what resources already exist
  • Language barriers
  • Complicated instructions
  • Measuring success with numbers alone over actual impact
  • Wasting loads of money no the wrong promotional channels
  • The assumption that free things are useful for financially poorer people

The right language and reading level would help

I worked for an organization that was implementing a project where policies and complicated instructions limited the number of participants. The application forms were complicated and the target audience were people who read at a grade 2 or 3 level. In many cases of international aid or development, instructions were in a language that was different than the people they were trying to “help.” How are people supposed to know how to use the product or know what the product is?

Measuring numbers, not impact

The project measured their so-called success by the number of free kits they distributed to their customers. However, when we talked to the people, the repeated feedback we got from them was, “The instructions are confusing and complicated.” We went to some housing buildings and there were boxes of kits just sitting there being unused. Numbers say very little about the actual impact on people.

Similarly, with many international development projects, the number of schools build, books distributed or clothes shipped say very little about effective impact for people. How are empty schools beneficial for children if there are not teachers to teach them? How are the 10,000 books shipped helpful for kids who can’t read them? How are the clothes useful for people who now don’t need to buy them from local merchants because they are now getting them for free?

More dollars does not always equal more effective promotion

I don’t even want to know how much the organization we were working with spent on mass media advertising, including bus ads, radio ads and promoting the website. A few problems:

  • The ads were cluttered with all of the other ads on transit and the radio. Awareness does not equate to action. The target audience were very busy in their daily lives, will they go through the long complicated application form after being exposed to an ad for two seconds?
  • The application was put online but many of the people went to food banks, did not have easy access to a computer or were too busy to go through the long process.

One of my past professors was a communication consultant. He was given a very healthy budget to do a do not drink and drive campaign to high school students. He could have used the money to do a campaign, stage events and so on. But instead he chose the most effective and cost effective method: having a victim of drunk driving tell their story.

We need to learn before we can help. I feel like the most effective projects are based on at least 75% consultation and 25% execution. It seems like many projects are 90% execution based on 10% presumptions.

In sum, before accepting or giving something for free, find out if it will actually be beneficial.If not, you can simply say, “No thank you.”

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