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A suggestion for the 1MillionShirts guy

Here’s the back story: A young American entrepreneur wanted to use his powerful social media profiles to do good. He hit on the idea of convincing people to pack up all their unneeded T-shirts, throw in a dollar for shipping, and send them – 1 million of them – somewhere in Africa. He partnered with two charities, applied for 501(c)3 status, and voila, a new cause was born: 1MillionShirts.

Yesterday, professional aid workers, academics, and researchers responded vociferously to this idea. Take a look at these blog posts for more details, but for our purposes we can break it down to two reasons why 1MillionShirts is a poor idea:

  1. It’s terribly inefficient. One million T-shirts are heavy, and shipping and customs cost  a lot, likely more than it would cost to produce those shirts locally. Plus, cheap donated clothes flood local markets, undercutting local textile industries.
  2. It’s just not needed. There are many serious health, economic, social and political problems challenging different African countries today, but lack of T-shirts isn’t one of them. This project idea, like many bad ones, clearly came from thinking “what kind of help do I want to give” rather than “what kind of help would be most useful to some specific group of individuals.”

So it’s safe to say that Jason, the  guy behind 1MillionShirts, is not an expert in giving aid to Africa. But maybe he IS an expert in something.

He is  an expert in reaching people through social media. We can conclude this because Jason makes his living from companies that pays him to wear their T-shirts for a day and spread videos, pictures, blog posts and tweets about it to their networks—see As one of the testimonials on their website puts it, “They are funny, creative guys who really know how to promote you and your products by wearing your shirt.” Another one: “Gotta love a guy who wears a shirt, gets great exposure for the company whose shirt he’s wearing as well as himself, and who manages to turn it into a business.”

After Jason’s do-gooding was met with such a barrage of criticism, he apparently offered to axe the 1MillionShirts campaign if someone could come up with a better idea.

So here’s our suggestion: Why doesn’t he use his own specialized expertise to help get the word out that giving cash is better than giving stuff. I bet if he put his mind to thinking about creative ways to spread that message, he could knock it out of the park.

And if the 1MillionShirts guy doesn’t feel that spreading this important message satisfies their desire to do good in the world, he can still follow the advice of many people who devote their professional lives to thinking about problems like these, and donate cash to a trusted charity with local knowledge and experience working to solve some specific problem—just so long as it isn’t African shirtlessness.

Update: Alanna Shaikh has written a definitive rebuttal to 1MillionShirts and Jason’s reaction to criticism- see it here.
Update 2: See also the open letter from Siena Antsis.
Update 3: A perspective on the broader meaning of the 1MillionShirts fail from Christopher Fabian of UNICEF’s innovation team.
Update 4: This blog post has been edited at Jason’s request to indicate that only Jason (and not Evan, with whom he works on is involved in the 1MillionShirts campaign.

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  1. Lauren wrote:

    As they seem to be successful in promoting the companies whose shirts they wear, it seems like a simple solution would be for them to wear the shirts of some international aid organizations thusly raising money for them. (I know, Bill is having a conniption fit right now, sorry.)

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 9:42 am | Permalink
  2. Alanna wrote:

    I couldn’t fit it into my post, but I would love to see them use their entrepreneurial skills to mentor entrepreneurs in African countries. Could they work with Kiva?

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink
  3. zulusafari wrote:

    I’m so please to see folks not just critiquing these guys, but also offering some real advice. I totally agree with your thoughts.

    One huge problem, there’s just so much red tape. You want to help, you want to help now, not fill out applications, get interviewed (5 times), have a background check and who knows what else.

    All this just to tweet for someone (as an example).

    So how do we lessen the barriers for people who just want to give their time and talents and aren’t even asking for $ back.

    In my own personal work, I’m constantly thinking about ditching my organization and going it alone. I much rather be doing what I’m good at, what I want to do, spending my time making a difference than always doing someone’s bidding who doesn’t have a clue about media and marketing, all the while not valuing my work or giving me enough time to do quality work. AND I’ve been through the massive process already and still think about ditching it all.

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink
  4. Ana Pulido wrote:

    Regardless of the fact that we’d dealing with smart people, with very good intentions (but probably not very well informed and without many analytical tools) I think it’s good to consider that being too harsh on the project itself is not as positive to transmit the message. People put their hearts in their projects and they BELIEVE they are doing good. And the age factor is highly correlated with the access of information and the critical ability. With that said, I’d suggest the 1 Million T-shirts project something of higher impact: using their effective media skills to promote -pro bono, local industries in Africa or other poor regions, in order to spur employment. That assumes previous research in the nature of the local initiatives they would be endorsing. In the same line of thought, adding to the <> suggestion of Laura, they would also need to do research in “cash for what?” and endorse charities that can make good use of the cash. Let’s not forget that one main topic of Aid Watch is that increasing aid by itself can do more harm than good.

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 11:18 am | Permalink
  5. Ana Pulido wrote:

    Sorry, I was so focused writing my comment that I didn’t notice Alanna had suggested basically the same already!

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 11:21 am | Permalink
  6. Reuben wrote:

    Cash is obviously better, but there are people who do need clothing donations if you absolutely feel the need to send some half way around the world.

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  7. Sceptical Secondo wrote:

    Please, folks
    (irrespective of gender, race, sexual observation, religion, physical or mental challenges, age, dyslexics, ……………sigh).

    I can think of about 1 million bigger problems with Aid than one Jason stocking t-shits in Colorado. Come on.

    Allana is based in Tajikistan. If look just a bit to the north, there you’ll find Kyrgyzstan. A US congress committee is, as all of you are busy getting worked up about t-shirts, grilling the US embassy there for doing what the US and most donor countries do. Putting trade, energy and security concerns far before ’empowering development’. Inconveniently, the old opposition that didn’t receive much hospitality a month ago, is now in office.

    I can also think of certain trade policies that have wider consequences for ‘African’ industry than even 1 million second hand t-shirts.

    So, I can’t help but to think of what all this energy put into keyboards in less than 24 hours could have achieved elsewhere.

    Or at the very least, go after that said partner charity and perhaps do some thinking about why it seems that Americans have a special preference for clearing out their basements in this way. I would love to know since I find it to be a puzzling national trait. (btw. I liked the old-shoe piece – it was general while specific in point rather than this preaching to the choir)

    Moreover, if you’re really that concerned about doing what is best, and assuming a lot of you probably hold degrees from the social sciences, you should know better than think bullying this guy will help.

    Ta ta

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 12:18 pm | Permalink
  8. In my own work on similarly dysfunctional helping, I use the concept of the Rescue Industry. This relates to those with good intentions to save migrating prostitutes and sex workers from their fates but who fail to query those people about how they got into illegal networks and why. When I started thinking about this fifteen years ago I was working in ‘development education’ and was struck by the disconnect between what migrants said about their own lives and what western funders and projects said about them. Against all odds, my book has become a steady seller: Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

    I also blog about ‘helping’ issues a couple of times a week, for example, today’s post is about the failure of rescue projects in Cambodia.

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  9. You raise a really critical general point. That, as Lant Pritchett describes, people shouldn’t “turn off their brains when they turn on their hearts” — i.e. they should tap into their unique human capital. But doing so also requires dialogue with those who understand the general equilibrium effects of any intervention, and the ability to take criticism. In this particular case it seems ego is getting in the way from any productive outcome, very unfortunately.

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Permalink
  10. Anne wrote:

    I think all this shows is that regular people genuinely want to help, so long as not too much is asked of them. Send my t-shirt? Sure. Click on an e-petition? No problemo. Donate $10 through a text campaign? Absolutely. Write letters to my congressman? …Uh, I guess, maybe. Deprive myself of a particular good/lifestyle? Um, I don’t think so.. Take to the street and protest? No way. Make an actual sacrifice? You must be crazy.

    Most people want to help by doing something easy that involves little sacrifice. Is why they want to fund the building of a school but won’t bother getting too involved in politics.

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 4:45 pm | Permalink
  11. A post from Chris Fabian, co-leader of the UNICEF Innovation Team, gave a good summary to the explosion of comments/critiques/criticisms/sarcasm that came in response to the 1 Million Shirts idea.

    The importance of transparency in aid projects has become a hot topic, and Fabian makes a point in his post worth repeating:
    “Imagine if a large organization could put out their project plans in a way that was as appealing to comment on as this. Imagine if there was the same transparency and accountability of ideas in development. Imagine if there was the same involvement of donors and implementers – and (watch out!) the beneficiaries of projects. Imagine if we could actually ask people in the developing world what they thought of projects before we started them. And most importantly, perhaps, imagine if we could fail quickly enough at the beginning of a project to not pour in the resources, ego and time that sometimes give otherwise bad ideas an unstoppable, zombie-like momentum. But wait. We can. And it just happened, right in front of you.”

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 5:23 pm | Permalink
  12. Dan Kyba wrote:

    For anyone interested in reading about the life cycle of the T-shirt from cotton ball to the mitumba trade I recommend:

    Rivoli, Pietra. “The Travels of the T-Shirt in the Global Economy”.

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 10:18 pm | Permalink
  13. John wrote:

    Check out all the comments on those links! Wow, the aid community spends as much time and energy smugly ripping into each other as academics do. Only here it’s not just about being the smartest, it’s also about being the most righteous. Having left the cloistered halls for the business world, reading this blog makes me feel at home again.

    Posted April 29, 2010 at 3:56 am | Permalink
  14. geckonomist wrote:

    Dear Laura Freschi and Alanna Schaik, let’s assume you’ve *successfully(?)* stopped this project.

    But usually you demand ACCOUNTABILITY, esp. from OTHERS.

    How exactly are you gonna compensate the 1 million poor people that now won’t receive anything at all because of your actions??

    Are you gonna put your money where your mouth is and wire money to those people and their governments that missed out on the import taxes?

    And dear Alanna, you put a link to an Oxfam report on your blog. But I guess you haven’t taken the time to actually read it, since it conveys the opposite message, namely that the second hand clothing market is a boon for all poor people and that westafricans would be outcompeted by the Asians anyway when it comes to producing new clothes themselves!!

    Keep up the good work, congratulations.

    Posted April 29, 2010 at 10:22 am | Permalink
  15. geckonomist wrote:

    So how does this fit in Prof. Easterly’s preference for “Searchers”?

    Looks to me like a typical searcher, having an idea and go out and implement it. Adjusting it along the way until finding something that works.

    Posted April 29, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  16. Raphael wrote:

    I was a bit puzzled by the Oxfam report reference as well. Second hand clothes (SHC) don’t actually undercut the local market. They undercut Chinese exporters – at least in the West Africa setting.

    I agree, it is terribly inefficient. But then we have to ask: are we comparing T-Shirts to cash or T-shirts to nothing? And if the latter, then does the inefficiency argument still stand? Are T-Shirts better than nothing? Honestly, I’m not sure.

    On the last point, is it needed? Well, SHC can lower the cost of clothing and thus make it more accessible to poorer people. But I agree there are much better ways to help.

    Overall, I agree SHC are a terrible idea in an emergency. But I don’t think it’s as clear cut in a development context. It’s not a great idea, mind you. But not sure it’s as horrible as some people suggest.

    Posted April 29, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink
  17. Jason Sadler wrote:

    I’m looking forward to the phone call tomorrow and hoping people come with open minds and less cynicism.

    Would you mind amending your post to accurately depict the people behind 1MillionShirts? You mention Evan on multiple occasions and he is listed no where on the website and has no need being thrust in the discussion. Thank you.

    Posted April 29, 2010 at 10:59 pm | Permalink
  18. Laura Freschi wrote:

    Jason, I apologize for the mistake of including Evan in the post. I’ve edited it to remove references to Evan, and made a note of it at the bottom of the post. In any case, the suggestion was intended as a serious and constructive one, and I hope you’ll consider it. Regards, Laura

    Posted April 29, 2010 at 11:38 pm | Permalink
  19. Here’s my take on Jason’s idea. His idea was bad but apathy is worse. I’m glad Jason started this whole conversation I believe it will do more good for aid and development in the long run. It’s up to aid workers to educate folks like Jason on how to actually do good for the world.

    Posted April 30, 2010 at 12:59 pm | Permalink
  20. What is popular is not always right and what is right is not always popular.

    Posted April 30, 2010 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  21. Sceptical Secondo wrote:

    In response to the ‘Wow, did I just witness/was-part-of (WUHU) a revolution happening before our very eyes?!!!’ (+ snark is really great, apparently).

    I can think of another thing that we witnessed which isn’t quite as novel, which is probably as old as mankind, and hasn’t anything to do with technology:

    Nothing is better than a common enemy .. wait no … an ex-common enemy seeing the light .. halleluja! How expert are we, who really agree!!!

    And I can think of a couple of other things that were demonstrated too.

    Really bad ‘participatory processes’ if opinions/actions that doesn’t fit ‘Development EXPERTS’ discourse most be bulldozed with the help of snark is what you consider giving helpful and caring advice.

    Totally useless advise when ‘Development EXPERTS’ thinks of ‘alternatives’ that are so obviously ignorant to context. Give money/polio vaccines/…. buy African t-shirts instead – with what money?

    Posted April 30, 2010 at 7:02 pm | Permalink
  22. Ehui wrote:

    Does this theory apply to sending educational books to developing countries as well?

    I am from Ghana, and I support sending books to my primary, secondary school and bookclubs.

    There are only a few publishing companies in Ghana, and while I would want to send money to bookclubs to buy books, sometimes the books aren’t even available on the market. Thoughts?

    Posted May 1, 2010 at 3:03 am | Permalink
  23. Shaun wrote:

    I live in a developing country and volunteer my time to a large NGO which does a great deal of good with “donations in kind” – not shirts or shoes but usually books and furniture, medical equipment, etc. The people we distribute to are extremely grateful. It would no doubt be more efficient for the donors at the other end to wire us funds instead and we could by books and furniture here, but they are not offering cash, they are offering their used goods. So we take them, and do good with them.

    Posted May 3, 2010 at 12:23 am | Permalink
  24. avam wrote:

    Fyi…the transcript of the 1million shirts debate. I’ve been curious to how it turned out on Friday. Not sure if this has been posted anywhere else (I’m one of the few, it would seem, not on Twitter! – so apologies if this is already old news):

    It mentions that the outcomes will be posted on blogs at some point, but it’s interesting to see the actual discussion taking place (as in link above).

    It seems to me that before any changes are made at all the project needs to be halted so Jason Sandler can actually visit a country (or, better yet, more than one) In Africa – specifically those he planned to ship to (hopefully he will look towards more innovative ideas now he has the benefit of expertise on his side). But, the fact that he has not been to the continent at all makes the whole discussion on his side beyond absurd. Come on buddy, you can buy a plane ticket online pretty easy. I’m hoping one of the main things he took away from the discussion was a need to get on a plane pronto.

    Of course it was great that such an open discussion was able to take place at the outset of the idea before more harm could have been done, and the input from those with expertise (particularly those calling from various countries in Africa) was clearly invaluable. But, ultimately, there is no way this discussion should even have taken place (starting up a non-profit, getting on board “ambassadors” ?!) without the person in question having visited the country/countries in question already. This would be the case for Anywhere – not just Africa.

    Posted May 3, 2010 at 5:40 am | Permalink
  25. Alanna wrote:

    The Oxfam report – yes, I read it. It thought it did a good job of showing the complexity of the used clothing industry. There is an existing set of markets and relationships, and a bunch of free used t-shirts is unlikely to be beneficial.

    Posted May 3, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  26. Angelica wrote:

    I live and work in Uganda, East Africa for an organization called Educate!. While I appreciate the nuanced critique/defense of 1Million Shirts, I have to say I absolutely love the original post and its conclusion that perhaps there is a more compelling cause than “African shirtlessness”. You can’t really argue with that; especially when we have a hard time raising money and consciousness for locally-led, youth-led solutions to Africa’s greatest community problems. I wish great media minds would help others with their talent instead of wanting to “do something myself”. Volunteer and/or support an existing effort!

    Posted May 6, 2010 at 4:24 am | Permalink
  27. niti wrote:

    I rather like this post’s take on the whole thing ;p

    Posted May 10, 2010 at 12:13 am | Permalink

7 Trackbacks

  1. By uberVU - social comments on April 28, 2010 at 9:49 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by aidwatch: Also new: A Suggestion for the #1MillionShirts Guys @TexasinAfrica @iwearyourshirt @Talesfromthhood…

  2. […] projects – like giving rape victims cameras to record their ordeals in the Congo or this crazy idea to send a million shirts to Africa.  As Aid Watch aptly puts it, a lot of aid is never about what […]

  3. […] addition to the links in my previous post, Laura at Aid Watch weighed in with a suggestion for the guys at 1 Million Shirts, and Alanna Shaikh made a list of the top five things people say to aid critics and took the time […]

  4. By Another bad AID idea for Africa | Ubuntunomics on April 30, 2010 at 6:12 am

    […] Aid Watcher Dear Jason Blood and Milk […]

  5. By 1 million t-shirts « Open hands on May 2, 2010 at 10:18 am

    […] million t-shirts Here’s a good example by Laura Freschi of AidWatchers of how what seems noble and good can be damaging.  Thanks to Andy […]

  6. […] For wannabes and immature business people, all the apparently easy possibilities for creating attention are a very attractive nuisance. It can appear highly desirable to vie for attention from social media rock stars. A retweet or brief exchange can feel as if you’ve made a personal connection with one of them. A cause gaining attention via social media can easily take on the appearance of an important or broadly popular issue. That’s the case even when it’s grounded on a shaky premise without any strategic thought. […]

  7. […] aquellos que no conozcan el debate, se pueden leer muy buenos resúmenes resumen en Aid Watch, Blood & Milk y Texas in Africa. De todas formas el debate puede resumirse en pocas palabras, […]

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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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