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World Vision Super Bowl Shirts: the Final Chapter

Remember back in February when World Vision’s proud announcement that they were sending abroad 100,000 Super Bowl champion T-shirts emblazoned with the name of the losing team, as they have for the last 15 years, provoked aid blogger ire? We’ve been following the controversy—and occasionally piling on joining in—and here’s the latest.

In an email to Aid Watch, World Vision disclosed that total transport and administrative cost per T-shirt was 58 cents, which is uncomfortably high relative to low market values (a quick spot check  produces estimates ranging from 20 cents to $1.20 for a T-shirt) in Africa’s saturated second-hand clothing markets.

Source: World Vision, March 2011

World Vision also sent us documents from two districts in central in Uganda* that received donated clothing, although NOT specifically the loser Super Bowl T-shirts that started this whole controversy. We learned that the donated clothing was used as part of World Vision’s health programs which aim to “improve access to better health services, safe water and sanitation.” Specifically, World Vision said:

Provision of clothing was done for women and children in extremely poor conditions to protect them from weather and to raise their self-esteem. Providing clothing also served to increase trust among the beneficiaries and encourage them to participate in other health services, including voluntary counseling and testing for HIV.

This led us to focus on the health and HIV/AIDS sections as we sifted through the documents for answers to two questions which arose in the debate.

First question we asked: Can World Vision show that they rigorously assess the need for gifts-in-kind in the communities where they work?

World Vision answered: Needs assessments are carried out by national offices, and the rigor of these assessments varies from office to office.

What the documents showed: World Vision sent us one program design document from the final phase of a 12-year, multi-sector program that ended in 2010, and one needs assessment from a neighboring region (WV couldn’t find the needs assessment for the 12-year project).

The needs assessment identified the most important problems faced by the community, and made recommendations how WV should deal with them. It did not discuss at any point the clothing needs of villagers, or how clothing donations might alleviate any of the problems mentioned in the 67-page report.

The program design documents, intended to “point out gaps that still exist in the community as expressed by the people,” made only one mention of gifts-in-kind. “Gifts in kind will be planned for on annual basis and this is meant to supplement the project fund in achieving project planned activities.”

The main report did not mention a need for clothing. However, I did learn that the region described is among those most heartbreakingly affected by HIV/AIDS, with high numbers of orphans and child-headed households, and after some digging I found an HIV/AIDS sub-report embedded within the main report that did mention clothing:

Most of these [orphaned children] lack care and support in terms of emotional coping, physical requirements like food, shelter, clothing, and limited access to basic social services like education and health.

Another embedded sub-report (actually a proposal for outside funding to support HIV/AIDS orphans in the area) was more specific:

Special needs will be identified for each of the selected families and the project will organize to procure and provide the essential needs for the children and guardians. These will include beddings, bicycles, clothing, cooking pans, washing basins and water tanks.

Our conclusion on the first question: No.

Second question we asked: Can WV point to any evidence that the 15-year distribution of Super Bowl T-shirts, or, more broadly, any distribution of clothing, has “facilitate[d] good, sustainable development”?

World Vision answered: No, “because the Superbowl clothing isn’t a program. It’s a donation. We evaluate the results of our programs…many of the programs where we use GIK have been enormously successful in facilitating good, sustainable development. Our evidence for that would be individual program evaluations from a variety of national offices.”

What the documents showed: WV sent us one annual report and program evaluations for each phase of the same 12-year project discussed above. After hours of reading, a picture emerged of a community decimated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and valiantly struggling to provide support for the large populations of vulnerable children made orphans or adopted into already over-stretched extended families.

An annual report from 2006 gave the only specific accounting of the type of gifts-in-kind distributed:

GIK was received and distributed to children and these included 115 pairs of canvas shoes, 50 pairs of baby shoes, 900 T- shirts, 225 Gin trousers, 500 pairs of socks, 125 dolls and 200 blankets. This benefited 1615 children in the community.

In a report from the first phase of the project, evaluators noted that some villagers were able to sell eggs from a poultry project to buy clothes (this shows that clothing is available for purchase in the community, and probably not at prohibitive prices for most people). Clothing was also mentioned as an obstacle to achieving the program’s “Christian Witness” objective: the poor don’t attend church because “they lack good cloth to put on and feel not worth attending.”

Regarding World Vision’s ability to show success in facilitating sustainable development through their programming in general, the 2006 evaluation said “tracking changes…attributable to World Vision support” is “quite difficult” because over the course of the 12-year project priorities and goals shifted, and because early baseline measurements don’t match up with later evaluations.

Nonetheless, the final report attributed many positive health outcomes to project activities. For example, reduced malaria incidence; improved sanitation practices; and reduced prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

We don’t see any basis for attribution of these outcomes to World Vision, since the program was not designed in such a way to make such attribution possible. The resources provided by World Vision—clinics built, medicines supplied, HIV awareness courses given—are characterized as improving health outcomes, but also as very thinly spread over a large area with acute health needs.

As to sustaining project gains as WV funding ends, WV reported that local organizations have been trained in skills like proposal writing, resource mobilization and networking so that they can take over WV services. Villagers in the final survey said they learned “vocational, business management, leaderships, improved farming, HIV/AIDS care, positive parenting, and sanitation management skills,” all of which would provide a “pillar to further development in this area.”

Our conclusion on the second question: While we appreciate WV’s transparency in sharing these documents with Aid Watch, we have to conclude that the answer is no. There is no real evidence in these hundreds of pages of reports that the clothing donations are more than a minor afterthought to World’s Vision’s health programming (although gifts-in-kind are a major source of World Vision’s revenue). Given the aforementioned costs required to ship donations from the US abroad there is no development-related reason to continue this outdated, dependency-creating practice.

*World Vision asked us not to publish the names of the regions, or any other identifying information about the projects.

Related posts:

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

World Vision responds to blogger questions


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  1. Nela wrote:

    Although I am impressed that World Vision actually provided any documentation, I am shocked at how little it has to do with the actual issues they claim to address. How is it that they manage to get so many donations from so many people when they are ineffective and unable to truly justify their actions? Furthermore, this campaign in sending superbowl shirts is sending the wrong message to the general public – pretty much that our garbage can be beneficial to someone else – which is doing nothing to alleviate poverty in developing countries. Even worse, a local radio station in Ottawa recently decided to follow the WV “plan” and asked listeners to donate used hockey jerseys from a traded player with a tagline very similar to “send what you no longer need to the starving kids in Africa,” which is deplorable. World Vision really needs to get it together because many people see them as a reputable example of aid due to their visibility.

    Posted March 16, 2011 at 12:23 am | Permalink
  2. John Gibbs wrote:

    I disagree with the way you have argued the issue. Of course people in Africa need clothing, as do people in every country of the world. It doesn’t take any “rigorous assessment” to determine that people need clothing. If they can get if for free, that takes the pressure off their other expenses. Undoubtably the recipients regard themselves as better off after taking the free clothing. If like the rest of us in the non-US world they don’t know and don’t care who won the Superbowl, the graphics on the front of the shirts don’t matter. The only objection to providing free T-shirts is that it tends to impede long-term development rather than assist it, because free handouts distort the local economy. This is the issue with all forms of free aid. Aid agencies are only in the “development” business for marketing purposes. In reality they are in the “distress alleviation” business. Clearly the answer to your first question is Yes and the answer to your second question is No.

    Posted March 16, 2011 at 3:32 am | Permalink
  3. geckonomist wrote:

    Should the final chapter not be that Laura Freschi compensates the 100.000 poor people that won’t receive a free T-shirt because of her “intervention” ?

    Posted March 16, 2011 at 5:53 am | Permalink
  4. Christopher wrote:

    “I am afflicted with AIDS .. and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”, is probably not what many have in mind when they donate to a charity or an aid organization.

    It’d been nice, if there hadn’t been such a waste of resources in the first and the teams had made use of just in time production contracts to boost supplies AFTER they’d won. Waste is waste. The temporary shortfall in winner’s shirts would have been offset by status obsessed “fans” increased willingness to pay. In terms of economics its a temporary demand spike. Die hard fans already have all the paraphernalia way before their team reaches the finals.

    Imported “free” t-shirts can seriously hurt local textile market by driving down demand for non-free t-shirt as well as prices. Would be nice, if WorldVision paid attention to matching perceived needs with actual needs as well as local conditions and stopped its illegal dumping activities. Keep the crap in the USA and have it flood the bargain bins. Four months after the Superbowl few people are lining up for whats by then perceived as last years winner and most are already gearing up for the next NFL season . . .

    Posted March 16, 2011 at 6:07 am | Permalink
  5. William Easterly wrote:


    Glad to hear that you’ve accepted the point that cash transfers would be superior to a t shirt.

    Posted March 16, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink
  6. Greg Pratt wrote:

    Africa has a vibrant market in used clothing, Pietra Rivoli described the Tanzania market for used clothing in her book – The Travels of a T Shirt (a book that seemed to channel The Elusive Quest for Growth).

    The exerpt below gives a sense of what Rivoli found – this book is a narrative rather than attempt at science, that said, reading this book by donors might have provided some feedback to this project.

    Tanzania: A Second-Hand Economy?

    By Pietra Rivoli | Friday, June 24, 2005

    Used clothing is by far America’s largest export to Tanzania. Tanzanian cities are full of clothing markets selling Mitumba — used clothing from Americans and Europeans — which fetches a tidy profit for local vendors. Pietra Rivoli, international business professor at Georgetown University, explores how small Tanzanian entrepreneurs clothe the country with cast-off Western garments.

    I would note that the market seems to address a need at a lower cost than the project described. The costs outlined in Rivoli’s book are 2005 so it might be instructive to return to the market, if it still exists.

    Rivoli outlined another benefit to this market process in her book – it is fun.

    Posted March 16, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink
  7. geckonomist wrote:

    Prof. Easterly, unfortunately, you missed the point, which is lack of accountability. Of Aidwatch.

    You might be right that free goods are worse.
    But as an economist, you should ask “compared to what?”
    Compared to nothing (=what the poor get from your interventions)??

    Posted March 16, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  8. Jacob AG wrote:

    I would love to know how to figure out, in a rigorous way, what the effect of donated clothing is on transportation costs in Malawi. The country has very high transport costs, which by one estimate make up 30% of its total import bill. The practice of Western NGOs importing (or is it exporting?) used clothing to the Malawian poor represents a rightward shift in demand for transportation, which ye olde economic theory suggests should make transportation (and by extension all of Malawi’s imports and exports) more expensive… but by how much?

    So do I have an idea for a PhD dissertation or what?

    Posted March 16, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  9. joe wrote:

    Which just goes to show what nonsense this is and what kind of contortions are needed to make it sound in any way reasonable.

    @geckonmist – actions are frequently justified on the basis that they’re ‘better than nothing’. But surely that is beside the point, given that when you have nothing, almost anything you get, however bad, is better than what you had.

    The question of whether these wasteful t-shirts serve a useful purpose to the communities they are supposed to help is a real one. A secondary one is whether the same thing could be done in a more efficient way.

    Whether or not Bill Easterly is physically doing anything himself is shooting the messenger and attacking a straw man of your own devising.

    Posted March 17, 2011 at 3:59 am | Permalink
  10. Laura wrote:

    I think it’s a good argument and obviously well supported here that the World Vision doesn’t fully assess the need for particular gifts in certain areas. I think one of the primary if not the most important aspect of sending donations and gifts to particular communities is that they need to figure out exactly what is needed. If this is not done than not only could you be taking items away from communities that really do need those, but also you could be unaware that you are hurting the community in which you are bringing those items into. For example, if you are giving the extra NFL t-shirts to communities that don’t really need clothing, but instead are in more need or something else than you could be wasting the t-shirts. There are communities that are in huge need of clothing; there is no doubt about that. So organizations should make sure that the communities they are sending the items to are really the ones that need them. Also, you don’t want them to be unaware if they are actually hurting the community they are sending the items into. They need to look at the markets and economy and see how or if it will be affected by bringing in all these free items and flooding the market. More evaluation needs to be done when handling donations and gifts so that they really are helping instead of indirectly harming.

    Posted March 19, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  11. Nahla wrote:

    I have to say that even if I do respect WV willingness to make this world a better place for the less privileged, I believe that their communication strategy sends misleading messages to donors. It is not ok to promote stereotypes and take advantage of other’s vulnerability to solicit people. I strongly believe that playing on people’s emotion is NOT the way to educate them on the really reasons why some regions are poor, what can be done about it and certainly not have a lasting impact on poverty.

    This Super Bowl T-shirt example shows that in addition to revisiting their fundraising approach, WV should adjust its operational strategy. How can an organization present itself as development actor when they have no idea (or don’t really care) what their target communities really need? This has nothing to do with the cultural and geographical distance between WV and the communities since many local («indigenous») nonprofits tend to offer all kinds of services and gifts regardless of what is really needed and if their actions really have an impact.

    I would like WV to demonstrate how giving away T-shirts encourage people to take HIV test.

    Posted March 21, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Permalink
  12. Anne wrote:

    Have followed with interest your posts on shirts. Here’s my Q: I provide technical support to a group of African professionals that has chosen to support a local orphanage (nothing to do with our project — just something they do). They told me that the orphanage seeks clothes for the kids; I was going to Africa with one suitcase anyway, so I filled a second suitcase (at zero cost) full of slightly used kids’ soccer uniforms collected for them by my kids’ school service club. I can’t figure out how this ruins a local market or hurts anyone — do I need to feel guilty, or is this something I can do whenever I’m going on a trip with extra baggage allowance?

    Posted March 22, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  13. Zach wrote:

    I don’t understand why people make such a big deal about the cast off Superbowl shirts. It does not matter if the shirt is for a losing team I could not even tell you who played in the Superbowl now and i watched the whole game. The fact is that brand new high quality T shirts are being given to individuals in need. I worked in a soup kitchen over spring break and where the homeless people lined up to come inside workers had tables set up with used clothing that almost no one here in America would wear. One morning a lady came through and got a pair of boots and I think she must have shown them off to every women in the kitchen. If an old pair of boots can make someone in America feel good I am pretty sure that a brand new t shirt in a developing country makes people there happy too.

    Posted March 24, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

6 Trackbacks

  1. […] original post here: World Vision Super Bowl Shirts: the Final Chapter AKPC_IDS += […]

  2. […] That is from a working paper by Ned Augenblick and Jesse Cunha. Cunha is giving a talk at TAMU on Weds., March 23, on a different paper: “Testing Paternalism: Cash vs. In-kind Transfers,” a very timely topic. […]

  3. […] World Vision Super Bowl Shirts: The final chapter – Aid Watch – A must read, analyzes World Vision documentation for evidence supporting World […]

  4. […] AidWatch’s post on the controversy surrounding sending those pre-printed Super Bowl Championship shirts of the losing team to Africa. A roundup of tweets on the subject by Shotgun Shack here. […]

  5. […] have been following the World Vision / NFL shirt controversy, Aid Watch has given me permission to crosspost their analysis of the program. The analysis is based on documentation sent to Aid Watch by World Vision and the […]

  6. By Rafe’s Roundup March 19 at Catallaxy Files on March 18, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    […] absurd face of foreign aid. WTF?  For many years World Vision has been sending abroad 100,000 Super Bowl champion T-shirts […]

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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