The Best in #SWEDOW

13 May

Here it is. As promised on Twitter just a few days ago, “The Best in #SWEDOW.” Bad aid ideas dreamed up by people who are probably nice enough… but would also appear to be somewhat clueless.

Although the original idea was for this to be a contest, it soon became clear that it would be hard to decide on the very best criteria for determining a winner. In the end, I went with a long list of very honorable mentions in different categories, with one strong personal favorite at the end.

To be considered in this post, nominations had to meet at least the following criteria:

1) Had to be an actual organization, charity or project (no parodies – sorry 1 Million Kittens for Africa).

2) Had to be exclusively or predominantly GIK (gift-in-kind). Something about excess stuff needing someone to need it.

3) Primary focus had to be geographically outside of the country where the organization, charity, or project is based. Local food banks, collecting clothing for local distribution, or the US Marine Corps “Toys For Tots” programs were not considered.

4) And of course, the very best #SWEDOW is used #SWEDOW. Or as they write on the price tags of previously-owned motorcycles at the Harley-Davidson dealership near my house, “already been loved…”

All of the links shared here were tweeted with the #SWEDOW tag sometime within the last week. I’m providing source attribution as accurately as I can. Please don’t fill the comments thread with grumpiness if I’ve attributed the wrong person. It’s all good. I love you all equally.

* * * * *

As I considered the many excellent nominations, I was struck by what feels like…  racism of the #SWEDOW industry: It is almost all for AFRICA. I mean, don’t they need used shoes or knickers in other places, too? There are a few #SWEDOW organizations that focus on multiple regions of the world, and I even found one that focuses exclusively on Central Asia – Afghanistan, to be specific – but the vast majority of #SWEDOW goes to one lone continent. That seems somewhat unfair to me. But perhaps the urgent need for life-saving #SWEDOW from Cairo to Conakry to Cape Verde to Cape Town is so great that focusing on Africa for now is appropriate: bra-less women and flip-flop-less kids in Asia, South America and some suburbs of Seattle will just have to wait their turns.

With that, here are The Best in #SWEDOW:

PETA: Feel pious and send your discarded furs to a place that gets seriously cold in the winter. (from @gentlemandad)

Veganism & Vegetarianism For Africa (From @KeshetBachan)  Always good to see really practical, solid out-of-the-box thinking from the non-aid sector. One of many excellent “cultural #SWEDOW” nominations.

Little Dresses for Africa (from @ithorpe) Horrified at the sight of small African children wearing “Reba McEntire” T-shirts? There IS an alternative: help them look like they’re from “The Sound of Music” instead!

Shoe Aid For Africa (From @mforstater)

Donate Your Old Shoes (from @Katrinskaya)

These two (above) are actually pretty self-explanatory: Africans have no shoes. You’ve been eyeing those lavender over-the-calf faux-zebra-skin stilettos at Nordstrom Rack, but feel guilty because your closet is already too full… there’s a total “win-win” here…

Flip-Flops for Africa (from @meowtree) This one is actually the brainchild of a Nigerian person living in the United States. Additional evidence for my earlier thesis that Diaspora are every bit as capable of thinking total #SWEDOW projects as anyone else.

SEND UNWANTED CLOTHES TO AFRICA (@civoknu) Same basic concept as “Donate Your Old Shoes.” The comments section is particularly… er.. special.

Knickers 4 Africa (from @BSKyambadde) In some countries you can have your used undies shrink-wrapped and then sold to collectors for big money. But not these humanitarians: they’re giving up all of that profit in order to meet an urgent need in… wait for it… AFRICA!

Hands to Hearts (from @alanna_shaikh) A solid option for those unimpressed with Knickers 4 Africa’s professionalism. Plus, they’ve received and some fabulous coverage for them in the PuffHo –  “Bras without Borders” – a cutting edge program in which they prove that they’re specialists, not #SWEDOW generalists, by focusing specifically on Uganda, rather the whole “Heart of Darkness”

Wedding Dresses for – where else? –  AFRICA   (from @solarafrica)

Afghans For Afghans (from @civonku) This cleverly-named charity is “innovating” in the #SWEDOW sector by selecting geographic focus exclusively outside of Africa.

Kids Make Quilts for Haiti (from @cynan_sez) Another great “Out of Africa” option. One of the benefits with this particular scheme is that there is an integrated component of “child labor” (improves likelihood of sustainability).

And my personal favorite…

Hearts to Africa (from @shoesfromthhood)

Check out the website: These guys not only ship your used stuff, but they’ll take a cash donation to help offset the cost of shipping and handling. If you don’t get a warm enough feeling from sending stuff + a cheque, you can actually go to Africa yourself and watch the eyes of a small child light up as you hand over some #SWEDOW.

One huge benefit of supporting this organization is that none of your donation will be wasted on any kind of community assessment, surveys, evaluations, or coordination: they open the box or barrel or whatever in more or less any old community and hand the stuff out randomly. NGOs just make aid so complicated, when it really doesn’t have to be…

* * *

That’s it for today. I’m thinking that I might make The Best in #SWEDOW a regular on this blog. Please continue to tweet your nominations with the #SWEDOW tag. And if you have not done so already, be sure to read the original #SWEDOW post.

22 Responses to “The Best in #SWEDOW”

  1. Michael Keizer 13 May, 2010 at 7:44 pm #

    I think this one merits at least an honourable mention.

  2. Alanna 14 May, 2010 at 12:35 am #

    Little dresses for Africa. WOW.

  3. Rebecca Snavely 14 May, 2010 at 1:25 pm #

    While I respect your years of work around the globe and your passion for focusing on smart aid, I’d like to ask you to post with caution and do your own investigation, especially when you labeling groups as “worst aid ideas”. Your blog mocks sending bras to Uganda and denigrates the organization Hands to Hearts International which is willing to facilitate the distribution. I don’t think an attack on small NGOs meeting the needs of those they work with is warranted, especially without you having met or interviewed those doing the work, or the women living in the villages they work with.

    I’d also like to point out the recklessness of naming Hands to Hearts International in a post about poorly informed aid organizations. Bras without Borders was a response to the direct request from the women in Uganda for bras in their IDP packages. Hands to Hearts International is distinct from this, but willing to partner to provide the means to distribute the bras to those who want them.

    Next, I fail to see how it is racist to offer to meet requested needs of women in Uganda? If a woman on my block, if a neighbor, asks for my help, I work to find a way to meet her need. It so happens that Hands to Hearts works with neighbors in Uganda, where the needs are basic, like bras, and asked for. From the women who live and work there, “These are women who own one set of clothes that are literally falling off of them because they are in tatters. Many live on less than one dollar a day. They cannot afford bras. No one wants to walk around with no breast support. As, women asked for bras as part of their rations in the IDP camps but weren’t given them – so there is a desire.”

    This is a simple, no cost project, someone already traveling to Uganda is delivering a duffel bag filled with bras. We are transferring unused items to people who will use
    them, and have requested them. At the same time, we are providing an opportunity to draw people into a greater conversation about the issues of women have here in Uganda. The issues in Uganda are very complex, as are the needs, but we have found this one, very simple need that we can fill at absolutely no cost. There is no forced bra wearing, women will take them if they want them. We are not making any claims that this project is holistic or comprehensive, it is simply a no-cost transferring of resources and specifically bras to give to women who ask for this “support.”

    Again, I respect what your years of humanitarian aid work around the world has taught you – but please use your experience and look more closely before you label and potentially damage organizations that are meeting requests of those they serve. I’m not a representative for Hands to Hearts International or Bras without Borders, just someone who hopes to help those working on the ground to meet the needs, and think it reckless for you to impugn any organization without researching the facts.


    Rebecca Snavely

    • J. 14 May, 2010 at 2:25 pm #

      I am 110% in favor of Ugandan women receiving bras, if that is what they need. I myself have written large quantities of bras, along with many other female-specific items into proposals, budgets and distribution plans for IDP and disaster response programs around the world.

      I am 110% against sending used bras anywhere, except perhaps the local thrift store in whatever town they were originally discarded in.

      Maybe the Huffington Post could actually highlight examples of good aid – “smart aid” – and educate readers about what it looks like and what things, exactly, make good aid good aid and bad aid bad aid…?

      Just a thought.

    • joe 15 May, 2010 at 7:18 am #

      Rebecca, I think I’d like to say that I’m 100% in favour of used bras providing the recipients value them enough to pay for them. In almost all situations it is clearly far more efficient to buy a container of new bras than to collect and send them from the USA. The only occasions where it is not use the existing wholesale Second Hand Market – which is sustainable as payments by the recipients fund the transportation and distribution costs. If you are committed to ensuring the majority of women get bras, you’d either collect money to buy large volumes of new bras (and then sell them to the recipients at a price they can afford); collect and sell the bras within the USA and donate the proceeds; or put your donations into the existing SHC systems. If you’re not doing any of that, you are definitely doing something so inefficiently as to be reckless. In which case it can only be described as a vanity project.

      The real problem, which remains unaddressed by groups such as Hands to Heart, is that Gifts in Kind perpectuate the idea that it is Kind to throw your trash at poor people in a far away country. Indeed, the evidence is that it is far from kind and is actually destructive on many levels.

  4. Jane Reitsma 14 May, 2010 at 3:02 pm #

    Every time I read about donating used goods I think of the process involved. We buy new clothes for ourselves, our closets fill up, we pull out our old clothes, stuff them into a bag, dump them into a collection box, feel pleased with ourselves, and then go out and buy more new clothes for ourselves.

    I have to agree with J. here. Stop feeling good about the fact that someone got your used bras or shoes or whatever and that they didn’t end up in a local garbage dump. If you believe women in Uganda need bras (as a woman I can certainly understand the need), then raise money and purchase new bras locally in Uganda to distribute. Or better yet, contribute to a social enterprise that empowers Ugandan women to have the resources to buy their own bras.

  5. cateandrebeccasavetheworld 15 May, 2010 at 9:09 am #

    Hi Joe,

    I understand your opinion – but I don’t think you understand the point of my original comment was that I believe it is reckless to denigrate an entire organization like Hands to Hearts Int’l., who does not do this on a regular basis, but was responding to a specific request made by specific women they work with.

    All of their work is surrounding empowering and educating women and children, and to call them names and take away from the amazing work they do on a daily basis based on this one event is irresponsible and mean-spirited. That’s the point I meant to put across.


    • joe 15 May, 2010 at 1:00 pm #

      I’m sorry, I don’t agree. If anything it is reckless for HtHI to pretend that they’re doing anything worthwhile with these underwear donations – they are a waste of money and a vanity project. If they really cared they about the women, wouldn’t they buy them new underwear? If they really cared about the issue in general, wouldn’t they want the most efficent and cost effective way to get underwear to the women in need? You can’t just shoot the messenger if you can’t face the truth.

      Amazing work or not (and to be honest, before this I’d never heard of them), they clearly haven’t got much of a clue about GIK, basic economics or the difference between Good and Bad Aid. If they are such novices on those subjects, I’ve no confidence they have any particular skills in the other areas they say they have proficiency.

  6. Rebecca Harshbarger 16 May, 2010 at 4:38 pm #

    Just wanted to say that I am a new fan of your blog! I’m a journalist who works in New York and Kampala. In New York, I work for the Post, and for a news site that helps Ugandans in the diaspora organize and access independent information to have a larger impact back home, called Ugandans Abroad ( I used to work in Kampala for New Vision and Women’s eNews as a reporter, and might be heading back there soon. Your blog is hilarious, and I’ll definitely be on the lookout for #SWEDOW. Normally, I’d just vent to my friends, but now I have a place to tweet to. Check out journalist Lakshmi Gandhi’s piece on #SWEDOW that she wrote for Ugandans Abroad at Best wishes, Rebecca

    • J. 27 May, 2010 at 8:30 am #

      Thank you for reading and being a fan! (who doesn’t love having fans???🙂 )

      Yes, I’m familiar with Ugandans Abroad. You’ll see my comment in the thread below the post that you mention, and Lakshmi Gandhi and I follow each other on Twitter…

      All the best,


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