A few years ago I came home to find a plastic grocery bag with a note attached to my front door. “We’re collecting shoes to send to needy communities in Africa,” the note read. “Please leave this bag full of unwanted shoes you would like to donate on your porch and we will pick them up next Sunday! Thanks for making a difference for vulnerable children in Africa!”
I think I threw up in my mouth a little.
As someone who’s worked in partnership with rural communities in northern Uganda for the past seven years, I have made a lot of mistakes in my journey to break down and understand my own tendencies toward white saviorism and white supremacy— including collecting my old junk in countless suitcases with the intention of donating them to families in northern Uganda who “needed” my “gently used” Adidas Superstars sneakers and Old Navy flip flops more than I did. Listen — I’ve been the girl who held donation drives and asked for everyone’s used clothes and junk all in the name of “making a difference”. Unfortunately, I’ve also learned the hard way that donating your old sh*t to vulnerable, marginalized or under-resourced communities abroad can be a toxic perpetuation of white saviorism and potetially harmful to the local economies of the very communities you were trying to support.
In hopes of preventing YOU from making the same mistakes I have in my journey to become a more ethical and conscientious global citizen, here’s why you should consider alternative ways to make a difference before filling that bag up with your old shoes…
Whatever you’re donating, a local entrepreneur is already selling.
Once upon a time I held a clothing donation drive before one of my trips to visit my co-founder in Uganda. We collected something like 100 pairs of flip flops and shoes, as well as a handful of backpacks and old tee shirts from my parent’s company that nobody was using anymore.
“Our friends in Uganda NEED items like this,” I would tell my friends, showing them a pair of kids sized Payless shoes. Rather than doing enough research or actually even asking my Ugandan friends where we might purchase these items locally, I had convinced myself that the rural villages we were partnering with had no access to shoes at all.*I’m cringing while writing this…*
To my surprise, on the Sunday after we’d arrived in Uganda, my friends and I found a lively, colorful and bustling marketplace in Namasale town full of local vendors selling everything from pots and pans, to clothing, to electronics and (what do you know!) about 1,000 different kinds of shoes in all sizes.
The items I was hoping to “donate” were locally available, and actually cost less than what I paid for the extra baggage allowance on Air Emirates for my “shoe donation” bag — I just hadn’t cared enough to consider that I could’ve helped to make a more ethical impact by shopping locally and donating those items I’d bought to the students at our school, Global Leaders. My assumptions about what was or wasn’t “available” in this community was proof of the deeply rooted, highly toxic stereotypes that western culture perpetuates about African countries.
On another trip to Uganda years later, my friends and I came across another group of “Mzungus” (slang term for white foreigners) who were from a solar installation nonprofit. When we asked about the work they were doing in northern Uganda, we learned that they brought a shipping container full of “donated” solar panels from Iowa and a team of American solar engineers to install them at a local school. When I asked their team leader if there were no Ugandan run companies producing solar panels in-country, she looked at me like I’d just slapped her across the face. How DARE I question their good intentions!
The unfortunate truth is, even now, in a time where we are more connected to information than any other moment in history, Americans still believe that African countries are completely without highly educated, skilled professionals or massively successful corporations that are already producing (locally) whatever product (or service) it is we’re trying to “donate”.
It’s horrifying to imagine that Americans are more willing to front the $50,000+ that it costs to send a shipping containter full of American-made solar panels and pay for business-class plane tickets for engineers from Iowa to take pictures of themselves installing a panel on a crumbling school building RATHER than paying that same amount to a locally-owned and operated solar-panel company in Uganda (who provides jobs and benefits to employees and their families) to do it themselves.
Handouts don’t help anyone — good business does.
Thankfully for me, my Ugandan friends and teammates are very, very patient and loving people who have helped me identify, unravel and unlearn my own white savior tendencies by calling me in to make better choices, rather than calling me out with shame. They’ve helped me to understand that while my material “donations” are well meaning, handouts sustain cycles of dependency that keep local economies from flourishing.
During that first trip to the local market in Namasale, I learned that I could make a bigger impact by using my purchasing power and redistributing wealth in ways that strengthen small businesses and keep local shop doors open.
Watching how my Ugandan friends interacted with the local shopkeepers — many of whom they’ve known for decades, whose earnings support their children who attend our school — I learned that these entrepreneurs were the very families I’d hoped to be “supporting” with my donations anyway. By collecting cash from my friends in the USA, (rather than their old shoes and other used sh*t) we could make a longer lasting impact on people like Okello Sarah*, one of the best local tailors in town who sews our students’ uniforms or Mama Eve*, a single mom who sells a variety of groceries from her small shop to pay her son’s way through school.
By doing business with local entrepreneurs, we are effectively redistributing wealth in a small, but powerful way that puts cash into the hands of communities and empowers them to reinvest in their businesses, invest in their children’s futures and in the transformation of their OWN communities through commerce.
It’s for this reason that our organization, Far Away Friends, created The Market Day Fund — a fun, virtual “market” for our supporters to shop for items that they’d like to “purchase” from local businesses in northern Uganda, and then donate to our school in Namasale, Global Leaders Primary. Donations from this fund are pooled together and wired to my Co-founder and Country Director, who then purchases those items (such as livestock, AfriPads, produce or supplies for Teachers) directly from small vendors and local entrepreneurs in her home village and across Amolatar district.
The Market Day Fund is an ethical and sustainable way to strengthen local economies in the communities we partner with in Uganda, rather than collecting your old college t-shirts and Old Navy flip flops that *literally* nobody wants. Let us help you let go of your need to be the “savior” with a yearning to travel across the world and physically place shoes on the feet of African children *I threw up a little bit again just writing that* and instead, actually help to make an impact by allowing our Country Director (a fierce, female local leader, born and raised in the villages we serve) to shop from (and thus, invest in) local entrepreneurs she knows personally on your behalf.
Next time you see a “Shoe Drive for Africa” bin at your local library, or find a plastic bag with a donation request hanging off your front door handle, remember, I made those mistakes before — so you don’t have to.
To learn more about Far Away Friends and to shop The Market Day Fund (open now through Feb 25), visit our website at www.farawayfriends.org | Far Away Friends is a registered 501c3 nonprofit organization.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.