Donating sports equipment to Africa

Similar to my poverty porn post, this blog post will be rehashing a fairly common theme that comes up in the development sector and the development blogosphere: donations-in-kind and the Buy One Give One concept. Donations-in-kind refer to donating goods such as clothing, shoes, food, etc, instead of giving cash. I believe this practice is fairly common in the sport for development field. Through various friends and newspaper articles I have come across a number of examples. The most common one I have encountered is volunteers for a programme called Hoops 4 Hope shipping containers of equipment to Africa (click here for one example).

Within the development sector this is heavily frowned upon. To read about the arguments I would recommend visiting the Good Intentions are Not Enough blog. The author has written extensively on the issue. She has even written a post specifically referencing the donating of sports equipment (click here). I would also recommend doing a google search on onemilliontshirts. Or check out the Good Intentions post here. The discussion/ debate/demolition of the onemilliontshirts idea serves as a good summation regarding the feelings towards donated goods and as development drama goes it was fairly entertaining.

I actually started writing this post a couple of weeks ago and I was going to use this logic to denounce donating sports equipment. However, after a couple of weeks of thinking on it, I am instead going to try and argue both sides.

There are many arguments against donating goods, but the main ones that are relevant to sports equipment relate to the economic impact and the relevance of the donated goods. Shipping a container of equipment that will be given away for free can suffocate local businesses selling similar products, or deter businesses from ever being started. Additionally, the cost of shipping containers to Africa can be enormous. For the cost of shipping equipment you could, in many cases, purchase new equipment locally. There is also a risk that the equipment might not be suitable for local conditions. Would it be helpful to donate a container full of football boots suitable for playing on grass in damp northern climates when local fields are a mixture of hard packed dirt - almost as hard as concrete - and occasional patches of grass?

All this makes perfect sense. The argument can be strengthened further with an example from my work in Lesotho. One of my volunteer coaches is currently not employed. He would like to set up a business in Lesotho to sell sports equipment. Currently, there is one small sports store in Maseru, but most people who need sports equipment will cross the border and purchase what they need in South Africa. It would appear that there is a need in Lesotho for a store that can supply sports equipment. Would this business be successful? If I had to wager on my friend's success I would place a cynical bet against him. The reason can be illustrated with two social enterprises that I came across during the World Cup: One World Futbol (All things aside I would recommend checking this out. They market their product as the most durable football in the world. It is made out of foam, never requires inflating,and cannot be punctured. It is also produced in Canada. Good for the Canadian economy, but maybe not so much for the economies of the communities where the balls will be donated) and Kick4Change. Both organizations operate on a Buy One Give One (BOGO) model. Part of the profits from your purchases will be used to send equipment to disadvantaged groups. To coincide with the World Cup, Kick4Change has implemented a Pledge my Seat campaign that aims to send large numbers of football boots to Africa. So, getting back to my friend, how successful would his sporting goods shop be if One World Futbol and Kick4Change dumped thousands of free footballs and boots into Lesotho. He would obviously struggle. In fact it would not make a lot of sense for him to even start the business. Another article that talks about the Buy One Give One philanthropy hurting African business can be read here.

The arguments make sense. For the most part I agree with them. They are hard to argue against. However, the problem I have is that there is often a knee jerk reaction to even the mere suggestion of shipping in equipment from an external source. Usually, this reaction limits discussion. I believe that debate is always good, so I will try to bring up a couple of points of exception.

An article I read that got me thinking more about this topic was written by Elizabeth Pisani. She is an epidemiologist who has worked with UNAIDS and has been involved in the HIV/AIDS sector for a while. Recently I read her book called 'Wisdom of Whores' and as a result of that I started to follow her blog by the same title. Her most recent article talks about the conflict between scientific evidence and political evidence. She argues that you cannot look to scientific evidence in isolation to impact policy. In her field, HIV/AIDS, evidence points to the effectiveness of offering services to injection drug users in dealing with the epidemic. The problem is that the evidence of politics demonstrates that politicians will not support these programmes because helping junkies does not go over well with the general electorate. I think the same conflict occurs in a lot of situations; a conflict between what you should do in theory and what actually works in reality.

A similar conflict occurs in the donation of goods. I would label this economic logic versus donor logic. I am avoiding the term evidence because as far as I know there are no scientific studies relating to the economic impact of donating sporting goods on developing economies. Also, some argue that treating the field of economics as a science is a bit of a stretch. We can ask a similar question that Pisani alludes to in her post: is it constructive to look at the donation of goods from an isolated idealism? Is it constructive for people to condemn the donation of equipment as poor practice without considering donor behavior? Looking at donor behaviour, are people likely to donate cash for an organization to buy equipment locally, or would they prefer to donate goods, or participate in a BOGO offer? I believe that if a programme were to refuse donated goods and instead ask for cash to buy equipment locally that they may struggle. They may end up diverting resources and time away from their programmes and towards educating the donors. Ultimately, you may end up in a situation where you are taking the right stance, but the beneficiaries of your project suffer because you lack the resources to implement your programmes. Instead of dismissing all forms of donated goods as evil based on economic logic, would it not make more sense to engage with the donating organizations and hope to create change over time?

If an organization in Lesotho partners with social enterprises such as One World Futbol or Kick4Change then they may receive free publicity, increase their exposure, and possibly attract more funding. With more funding they can expand programmes, hire more local staff, offer stipends to volunteers, and contribute more money to the local economy. Would these economic inputs offset putting my friend out of business? Would the economic impact of a strengthened local programme be more significant then helping a single businessman sell sporting equipment? This argument could also be extended to donation campaigns. As volunteers canvas their community in search of donations they are publicizing and promoting organizations. This promotion could lead to increased funding and strengthening programmes.

Additionally engaging with social enterprise presents opportunities to expand to local markets in the future. I sent a couple of emails to Kick4Change to find out where their equipment is manufactured. I received a reply from one of their founders who was very open and approachable. He mentioned that their ultimate goal is to move towards local manufacturing, so that the sports equipment they provide to disadvantaged groups in Africa is manufactured locally. For an example, an organization already doing this is Alive and Kicking. They have stitching centres in Kenya and Zambia. They produce footballs locally and provide jobs for people in their programmes. If these social enterprises are engaged with and supported, regardless of where their equipment is initially coming from, then over time local economic opportunities can be created. If these organizations are immediately dismissed because they are perceived to be doing damage to the local economy then future opportunities may be missed.

July 24, 2010

Emotional Rainclouds and Fire Hoses

Starting on Tuesday of this past week the organization I’m working with, LENEPWHA (the Lesotho Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS), was hosting a workshop involving HIV/AIDS testing and counseling, psycho-social support, positive prevention, and palliative care. Five of the coaches from the football part of the project were included in the workshop and I thought that for the most part I would just check in to see how things were going sporadically over the week. I ended up attending the whole workshop. It worked out well. I was able to bring my English-Sesotho dictionary and used the time to improve my language skills. I also ended up being the designated photographer/videographer.

I was pretty happy with my role until the morning of the last day of the workshop. I arrived at the workshop a few minutes late. There were a couple of participants loitering outside smoking, so I just took a second to chat with them before proceeding inside the conference hall. Inside the hall the participants were standing in a circle. On the ground, In the middle of the circle was a large HIV/AIDS ribbon made out of leaves and pebbles.

In my role as photographer I started taking some pictures and video without thinking. It took me a few seconds to realize what was happening. It was a sharing circle - I don't know if this is the correct term, but it describes the activity fairly well.

In an earlier post (doom and gloom binge) I talked about being drawn to this type of work because of the emotions involved. Even though I’m working with an HIV/AIDS organization, with people who are HIV positive, the presence of HIV/AIDS and death seems distant. I am not sure what I expected, but at some level I must have thought that there would be this ever-present cloud of grief raining on everything. It hasn’t been that way and I think the normalcy has surprised me slightly. I would not say that people are suppressing their emotions, but similar to anywhere else there has to be some form of emotional compartmentalization for people and society to function.

If I thought there would be this emotional rain cloud in Lesotho I think the sharing circle showed me that it is actually more like a fire hose. I was in this room with about 30 other people. I was the only white guy – not really an issue because LENEPWHA are incredibly welcoming, notice the picture of me in the traditional Basotho blanket, but it makes me feel like I stand out –

I was the only person who has not been affected by HIV/AIDS, and I was the jackass holding a camera. I couldn’t completely comprehend everything, but from what I heard and what I was told later, people were talking about learning about their status, getting sick, friends and family dying, and discrimination and stigma - families disowning them, friends abandoning them, husbands throwing them out. Almost all of the participants were crying or had tears in their eyes. While telling their stories many became inconsolable – crying hysterically. A couple of minutes in and I wanted to leave that room more than I have ever wanted to leave anywhere, but I wasn’t sure if that would be offensive – as much as I felt like I stood out no one was really taking notice of me. At this moment of trying to decide if I should stay or if I should go the project manager tells me that I can go into the middle of the circle to get some better photos and video. I must have looked like he had turned a fire hose on me from a couple of feet away. I whispered ‘umm…I would not feel very comfortable doing that’. Luckily one of the local LENEPWHA staff was fine with it, so I handed the camera over to him. In retrospect I think that it would have been fine for me to jump in the middle of the circle and shove my camera in peoples’ faces, but at the time it seemed like a horrible idea.

After the activity was over it was like someone turned off the valve on the fire hydrant and everything was back to normal. People who had collapsed in tears only a few minutes earlier were now laughing, joking, and posing for pictures with the HIV ribbon made of leaves.

I can only imagine what it is like to be branded as HIV positive: marginalized, discriminated against, and stigmatized. In a sense you have to put your emotions into a compartment and lock them up. I can only imagine what this sharing circle can provide: a safe space to unlock that compartment, to share, to vent, to console, and to comfort. It was very powerful.

July 18, 2010

Poverty Porn in Sport for Development

I have started reading a lot of ‘development’ blogs since I have been in Lesotho. I would like to think it's because I am trying to learn and stay engaged in what is happening, but mostly I think it's because after dark my town shuts down, I don’t have a TV, I read through the books I buy pretty quickly, and I have internet access. That means I end up wasting a lot of time on the blogosphere. I often come across posts that I find interesting, but I sit on them for a while until I find a way of reworking them into something more relevant to my line of work – sport for development.

Something that surfaces a fair bit is the idea of poverty porn. The term refers to the process in which an organization, in an effort to solicit funds or attention from concerned global citizens, will portray people as poor, starving, helpless victims. I would highly recommend checking out this blog post and photography project – Perspectives of Poverty - by Duncan McNicholl who is working with Engineers Without Borders in Malawi. Also I would recommend checking out William Easterly’s blog. He has one post titled ‘should starving people be tourist attractions;' like many of his other posts it initiated a discussion and further posts on his blog.

In terms of marketing I suppose it is necessary. If you want someone to donate to your organization or pay attention to your message it is important that your publicity elicits an emotional response and implies that the audience can help. It is especially important since you are attempting to have the audience donate to projects or organizations that are most likely operating in a country that the they have never visited before. Nicholas Krisof is a writer with the New York Times. He is often accused of producing poverty porn – depicting black Africans as victims and white foreigners as saviours. He recently hosted a youtube Q&A and had to respond to this question. His response was similar to what I describe. His justification is that he needs to grab the attention of the audience and the best way to do this is to have a protagonist that is white/american.

Because I am a fan of Right to Play on facebook I was sent links to some of their new advertisements earlier this year. They are just short clips, but the images and text are very loaded. The first commercial titled ‘assembly’ is of a young boy putting together a gun. The text on the screen says ‘let him be good at something else/ let him play’. It conjures images of victimized child soldiers and then pleads with the concerned viewer to allow him to play. The second commercial has a young boy playing in a dump, using an object - maybe a discarded computer component - as a toy car. The text pops up and says ‘this shouldn’t be so fun for him/ let him play’. Again, it represents a power dynamic where the child is a victim and the audience has the power to let him play – even though he is playing, just not in the proper way. Is it not slightly pretentious for us to dictate what should and should not be fun?

From a marketing sense the ads are good. I think they follow a similar formula to other Right to Play commercials and I believe that Right to Play is not doing too badly in terms of fundraising. Also, I might be a hypocrite for arguing against this type of advertising since I am sure that the images and emotions reflected in these videos played a role in me choosing the path I am on.

July 10, 2010

Diamonds, gold, oil, coffee and…football players

I actually wrote this before the World Cup, but I never got around to posting it. However, I read a couple of interesting news articles during my trip that were related.

At the conference I attended in Glasgow there was a lot of talk about how social enterprise could assist with sport for development programmes becoming more sustainable. A lot of the presentations were interesting, but I am not sure I agree with the overall idea. The founder of Magic Bus gave a presentation on what their organization has done. His presentation was great and I admire the work the organization has done in India, but he mentioned something at the end of his presentation that has stuck with me. Recently Magic Bus has established a professional football team and it sees the sale of players as a possible social enterprise. The Mathare Youth Sports Association, a very long running and effective programme operating in Kenya, has also sold some of the players it has produced. The presentation got me thinking more about the sale and movement of players.

I have always found the movement of players and the globalization of sport to be an interesting topic. I suppose African players moving to Europe is an inevitable aspect of globalization. The ability of players to move between countries fairly easily and the ability of clubs to search out and buy top talent create a fairly open market. Some argue that this ‘leg drain’ is not really an issue because there are systems in place to ensure that athletes remain connected to their country. Even if a player is bought by Manchester United that player will still return home to play with and represent the national team. This isn’t the same for doctors and nurses.

However, for some reason in my mind I see a lot of parallels between the migration of players to Europe and the extraction of many other commodities from Africa. A resource is taken out of a country with very little investment, value is added elsewhere, and then huge profits are made off of that resource. Sepp Blatter has mentioned the same thing, but with slightly stronger words – equating the process to ‘social and economic rape’. You could argue that there is some trickle down economic effect. Players who go on to make millions will return some of that money to their country’s economy. Also, Sepp Blatter made that statement a number of years ago and there are now FIFA rules which dictate that a small percentage of transfer fees must go to clubs who contributed to a player’s development. On the other hand a lot of European clubs are establishing their own development academies in Africa. This would in effect eliminate any compensation for African clubs.

Over the past couple of years this extraction of players has also become fairly market driven. There is a perception that European clubs are only really looking for a certain type of African player. If you look around the European leagues there seems to be a disproportionate number of African defensive-midfielders and African strikers. Some former players, coaches, and analysts point at this development as the death of African football. They argue that player development in Africa is now based on the needs of European clubs and what those clubs perceive to be African strengths. As a result, African nations are not producing the same types of players they did in the past and are not able to produce the same type of creative, spontaneous, attacking football that they have become known for - this logic seemed to act as a justification for the 'poor' performance of African teams at this World Cup.

If you are really stretching you could probably even draw parallels between this type of specialization and previous failed agricultural development efforts. African football is being ruined by the market demands placed on it from European football in much the same way that the agricultural sector in some countries was destroyed by structural adjustment policies that advocated production and export of specific crops. Like I said, that might be stretching a bit. I am sure that part of the process is also governed by African children wanting to emulate their heroes – in this way the system is self-perpetuating. It might be similar to how so many hockey goaltenders seem to come out of Quebec.

I have sort of departed from my original idea relating to sport for development organizations selling players as a social enterprise. Football is a business, so it is understandable that European clubs will look for talent in Africa and try to use that talent to their own advantage. However, having sport for development organizations capitalizing on this market comes across as incongruous. It is hard for me to comment because I have no direct experience with selling football players, but it seems like it could possibly create a number of contradictions within the field of sport for development.

July 8, 2010

The Worst Job for a World Cup Fan?

While I was attending some World Cup games in South Africa the on field security personnel would always capture my attention. They would march out onto the field in their bright orange jackets and take up positions at about two meter intervals around the field. For the entire game they would watch the crowd. For the most part they seemed very diligent. I never saw anyone sneak a peak of the action.

I tried to imagine what it would be like having your back turned to a World Cup match for its entire duration. I don’t know if I would have the patience for it, but it would be interesting to experience a sporting event only based on the sounds and reactions of the crowd.

July 7, 2010