In Zambia, Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl: Why is World Vision perpetuating discredited T-shirt aid?

Editor's Note 4: 10:45am 2/15: @saundra_s reports there are now 36 bloggers that have posted on this (excluding WV itself or its staffers), of which 35 are against. One more against here from faith perspective. Now have a Twitter hashtag #100kshirts.

Editor's Note 3: 8:45am 2/15: heard from @WorldVisionUSA finally! got this direct message on Twitter: "Thanks for following WV! For even more opportunities to get involved, check us out on Facebook."

Editor's Note 2 3:30pm: still silence from the @WorldVisionUSA palace as more bloggers post and more protesters gather outside in Aid Twitter Square.

Editor's Note 10:16am: Sorry World Vision, Aid Watch committed a major factual error due to the incompetence of one of our alleged experts. This supposed NFL and zoological expert with the initials W.E. initially got the team wrong in the picture, it is the losing 2007 team Chicago Bears.

As it has for 15 years, World Vision took credit last week for accepting the donation of 100,000 unwanted Super Bowl T-shirts from NFL merchandisers to ship to poor people across the world.

The T-shirts are the result of NFL merchandisers printing championship shirts for both teams in the Super Bowl so they’re prepared to immediately sell to fans of the winning team, whichever one that turns out to be. The merchandisers get a tax deduction for donating the losing team’s shirts (saying that the losers actually won) to World Vision, and World Vision (according to their website) ships the shirts abroad, this year to Armenia, Romania, Zambia and Nicaragua.

(Saundra S has a great post explaining the financial incentives that keep this arrangement in place. Among other things, World Vision uses the shirts to fictionally lower its overhead cost ratios, great for bragging about its efficiency.)

To quickly reiterate some of the arguments against SWEDOW (Stuff We DOn’t Want) aid:

  1. It’s not needed. Seriously, neither the developing world as a whole nor the specific recipient countries named by World Vision suffer an undersupply of T-shirts.
  2. It’s not cost effective. The cost of collecting, sorting, shipping and distributing bulky, low-value items like a bunch of T-shirts does not justify the (very questionable) benefit. And don’t forget to include the opportunity cost, the lost chance to allocate those same, considerable resources to provide something better, like clean water or medicine. (A World Vision PR rep told the New York times in 2007: “Where these items go, the people don’t have electricity or running water.")
  3. It can perpetuate local community’s dependence on free handouts and stifle home-grown economic initiatives, not to mention putting out of business local shirt sellers.

In comparison to the storm of protest that greeted aid neophyte Jason Sadler (aka the 1 Million Shirts Guy, aka Mr. Haterade) when he launched his idea to send a million T-shirts to Africa last year, the unexemplary behavior by aid behemoth and standard-setter World Vision has provoked far fewer critical posts.

Self-preservation-minded aid bloggers who work with World Vision might be  rationally self-censoring, and we've also heard reports that some bloggers received email requests not to blog about this topic.  This episode may reveal the current limits of the burgeoning power of by-the-people aid criticism.

Then again, this week has been an auspicious one for people-power protesting policies that should have been chucked in the bin of history long ago.  As the controversy spreads, World Vision can't avoid debating these policies with their supporters and critics. Will next January see World Vision bragging about its 16th year of sending loser shirts to poor people, or will people-power finally halt this disgrace?