Don’t Send Your Used Shoes to Africa. Or Maybe Do Send Them.

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Don’t Send Your Used Shoes to Africa. Or Maybe Do Send Them.

*UPDATE in October, 2017, the New York Times published: For Dignity and Development, East Africa Curbs Used Clothes Imports

Yup.

On a recent flight to Kenya, my husband sat beside a Kenya small business owner. Her clothing shop sells locally made dresses using Kenyan materials and employees. She said these used clothes imports make it incredibly difficult to sustain her business. She gave him her business card and the next day he and I visited her shop and I bought an amazing dress.

There is a debate in the development world about whether or not people in developed, wealthy nations should send their used shoes and clothing to less prosperous nations. This debate was raging around our lunch table recently (because even among those doing aid and development work, even in my own family, we don’t all agree).

You have a pile of used clothes and old running shoes or sandals and purses and hats from last season. What do you do with it? Donate seems like the best answer, right? Is it? Is it the best practice for wealthy, developed nations to send their used items to Africa?

who died used clothes(This is a ‘who-died,’ a pile of used clothing in the market in Djibouti. Who-died as in, ‘who died and sent us these clothes?’ Clothes here are often worn until they are completely worn out, the idea that people would give perfectly good clothes while they are still alive is a foreign concept.)

What are some of the problems with sending used things to this side of the world?

  1. About those TOMS“A 2008 study that found that used clothing donations to Africa were responsible for a 50 percent reduction in employment in that sector between 1981 and 2000 on the continent.” Some Bad News about TOMS shoes
  2. Some of the shoes and clothes that land here are not just used, they are trash. Torn, stained, faded. It is embarrassing, to the point of feeling ashamed, to dig through boxes of donations sent to the running team in Djibouti. When people send their garbage, it makes those on the receiving end feel like garbage. Would you wear a bra with two different sized cups? Underwear with one leg stretched so big it sags and the other is tight? A t-shirt with a crooked hem or uneven sleeves?
  3. There are wealthy, well-clothed people in Africa. To be specific, there are wealthy, well-clothed people on my block in Djibouti. There is also a large number of poor families, including a little boy who runs in our street with no pants and no underwear, just a long t-shirt. Lucy and I have a pair of shorts on our front table, waiting for the next time he comes around. Local people, and I include myself while we live here, need to rise up and get involved in our own communities. Outsiders sending free things undermines that by giving local people, from the neighborhood level to top government levels, excuses.
  4. When it comes to running shoes, they have already seen hundreds of miles. You stopped wearing them because they are too old and could cause an injury. It is not any different for an African athlete.
  5. Sending shoes does not solve the underlying problem of shoelessness, which is poverty. Job creation and economic growth will address poverty. Sending shoes undermines the jobs of shoe makers and shoe sellers.
  6. Sending shoes costs money. Why not donate that money to a job-creating charity or a local initiative who could purchase shoes locally?
  7. Studies have found that doing one perceived good deed can contribute to a failure to do another. So doing the easy and anonymous, faceless act of donating used clothing might mean a person is less inclined to get involved in an actual person-to-person interaction that could meet a real and pressing need.
  8. Ways of giving that promote trendy consumerism, like TOMS, that offer a buy one, give one incentive are more about the consumer than the receiver. “So next time you’re faced with buying some slick $200 Armani shades (whose parent company gives a MASSIVE 1% of its total revenue to the Global Fund) why not grab a $20 pair and donate $180 to something worthwhile on the ground.” Craig Greensfield
  9. Donating can feel good, can be helpful, but it can also promote a savior complex. Pippa Biddle
  10. The idea that you can simply donate used clothing to Africa allows the endless consumption of goods in wealthy nations to run on, unabated. Why not buy a new wardrobe every season? Surely some naked kid in Africa can use these out-of-fashion clothes. This is harmful for the environment, damaging to our souls that turn to consuming as religion, and it promotes a wasteful mentality. If all that used clothing wound up in American garbage dumps instead of African markets or African garbage dumps, Americans might start to reconsider the need to constantly purchase new items.

All that being said, I do think there is a place for donations in the world of development and I think a generous, giving spirit is a commendable, spiritual, and beautiful character trait. We are often on the receiving end of incredibly generous donations – from money to books to shoes to school supplies to soccer balls…for which we are grateful and the things go to really good use. I would rather have our girls run in gently used shoes than get thorns in their feet, for example. I will not tell people to stop donating but I will make some recommendations on how to be smart about it.

How can you be wise and generous?

  1. Don’t send your trash.
  2. Don’t donate with the idea that it will save the world. That’s not your job and it won’t be accomplished with a t-shirt anyway.
  3. Don’t send it in ignorance, thinking the continent is filled with naked people. Do a little research, learn about where you are sending your things, use the desire to donate as a launching  pad for educating yourself and your family and your community.
  4. Don’t sent it simply so you can feel better about an addiction to consumption.
  5. Find a useful way to send it. Find an appropriate way to send it. Find a relational way to send it. Rather than dumping at Goodwill, engage with a local community development project, like Girls Run 2 or a school, an organization with which you can form an ongoing relationship or an organization with a proven track-record of relationships and development.
  6. Pay for the shipping yourself, don’t ask the receiving organization to pay for that or for port fees or the inevitable import taxes.
  7. If you aren’t sure that used clothes or shoes will be helpful, relational, or desirable, donate money instead and trust the people on the ground to make wise decision in allocating that money.
  8. Consider the amount of waste involved in constantly updating your wardrobe and shipping those goods and consider renewing your wardrobe less often, less expensively.
  9. Ask yourself, really truly ask and demand an honest answer, Why do you want to send your used clothes to Africa? Why does it make you angry to hear it might not be helpful or that cash would be more useful? Does it challenge your ideas about the continent? Does it challenge your consumerism? A do-gooder-without-pain-or-real-sacrifice attitude? Does it make you feel guilty, confused, uncertain? That’s okay. I will say it again, that’s okay. Everyone I know here, in the US, myself, my family, we all face these issues. So answer the question with courageous integrity and then go about addressing that answer. We are all on a journey and instead of judging or boasting, let’s grow.
  10. Research, ask questions, learn, and then act, with eyes open wide and a heart filled with humble generosity.

We want to help, right? I know that. I wrestle with how best to help every single day here. Sometimes the answers are incredibly painful and sometimes they aren’t answers, they are gropings in the dark, prayers for wisdom, confessions of ignorance. And sometimes we simply need to act, to not be paralyzed by fear,  to do due diligence in seeking wisdom and then to take a risk and act in faith.

 *******

Useful articles:

Second Hand Clothes in Africa on CNN

Am I a Bad Mother or Has Africa Run Out of Shoes?

You Can’t Buy Your Way to Social Justice

NFL T-Shirts

The series: When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They are Being Rich Westerners

Is Foreign Aid Bad for Africa in Time

Why Sending Your Old Clothes to Africa Doesn’t Help in the Huffington Post

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52 Comments

  1. Kate February 28, 2014 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    Thank you! Precisely accurate! Yes. Yes. and more yes!!!

  2. Cindy February 28, 2014 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    So very true. I love that you bring out the fact of personal connection to a person you are giving clothes to, whether it’s the little boy running by, or the old mama who sit on the corner or even mudman. I have a hard time with the shoe drives here in the US, and imagining how many little commercants are going to be put out of business in an African country because no one needs to buy their shoes. Thanks for writing this.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones February 28, 2014 at 5:05 pm - Reply

      Thanks Cindy. I need to keep faces and personal stories connected with giving, it reminds me to give and makes me think about all these issues.

  3. Sherri February 28, 2014 at 4:18 pm - Reply

    I just cringe when I see shoe drives on people’s walls on Facebook. I tried to politely ask a Facebook friend to think again when she posted ‘any shoes’ were welcome for donations. Not sure she did, but oh well. I get the struggle. We buy our personal shoes in the US and not here in Ethiopia. The shoes here are so expensive and fall apart faster. Clothing needs for the children we work with all come from Ethiopia. We do turn a lot of our own clothing into rags but what do we do with the rest of it. A daily struggle!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones February 28, 2014 at 5:07 pm - Reply

      Good point Sherri about our own shoes, I also buy ours in the US for those same reasons – expense and poor quality here. So the used shoes that do arrive are often in better condition, as long as they are decent/gently used. We have seem some real junk come through, too. I’m sure you have thought deeply about this issue, appreciate your wisdom.

  4. Lana February 28, 2014 at 7:17 pm - Reply

    Agree that it’s expensive and usually not worth mailing it that far. That said, I often give my clothes to the locals, but I don’t have to pay any shipping costs (I’m there), and these go to refugees who do not get to buy/sale in the city.

  5. Melissa Goodwin February 28, 2014 at 7:32 pm - Reply

    That point of Sherri’s is my struggle. I agree with all you say above, but I buy our shoes in the states too. I wonder how we can help locals purchase from the states and sell them in the countries we live. If they can could sell new better shoes at the same prices as the junk, the resources of the locals would go farther with longer lasting and we could then buy our shoes locally too.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 1, 2014 at 4:30 am - Reply

      One thing that I obviously don’t address here is the real issue of local governance. Taxes, fees, prices, those things all come into economic decisions and factors and governments have to take responsibility for how those things are handled. There is just no way here that people could buy in the US and sell here because of those taxes and fees, the prices would be go up too high. This post makes it fairly simplified, the issue of giving is so much more than used clothes. Because yes, they really useful for people here, that’s why we give ours away. I don’t know the answer to this stuff, I need to hear from an economist I guess! But I think it is good to wrestle. Even though it is hard to wrestle too.

  6. […] here, I’ve been thinking about the fairly-unknown epidemic of donated clothes (and this blog post by Djibouti Jones inspired me to talk about it too). I was raised to believe that giving to the […]

  7. Karen Evans March 1, 2014 at 8:06 am - Reply

    Thanks for your insights. I do agree whole heartedly with you. Having just returned from 12 months of living in Uganda, it is not just clothing and shoes that are a problem. The dumping of electronic goods ranging from old phones, computers, televisions, moble phones, etc. etc. is also a problem. Most of these items also come from America and the developed world and with the ever changing pace of technology the enormous stock piles of old technology I witnessed was insane. These goods will never move and most likely end up as landfill sometime in the future causing all sorts of problems for the developing world.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 1, 2014 at 5:15 pm - Reply

      You make a really good point about it not just being clothing or shoes but technology and more. And where DOES it all end up?

  8. Rachel Monger March 1, 2014 at 11:08 am - Reply

    Thanks, Rachel! We live in Tanzania and see the piles of charity shop discards for sale. Broken zippers, faded and stained fabric, lost buttons, torn hems … It is so true that good intentions to help need a little more effort and research! A good book looking at the issues you talk about is “When Helping Hurts” by Corbett and Fikkert. You are right, there are no easy or one size-fits-all answers, but donating is not about making us feel better! Thanks, Rachel Monger

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 1, 2014 at 5:16 pm - Reply

      Yes – that book is a MUST read. Thanks for mentioning it here, I’ve got mine all marked up and pages folded…

  9. […] essays I’ve read in a long time.} And, because Djibouti Jones was on a kick this week, “Don’t send your used shoes to Africa” was a must read […]

  10. Nancy March 1, 2014 at 3:48 pm - Reply

    In the DRC I have seen similar effects, textile mills closing down because demand for local fabric declined so much, cobblers and seamstresses run out of business. The solutions you offer are excellent and helpful for anyone who truly has a heart to help. Sharing your post with my friends!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 1, 2014 at 5:16 pm - Reply

      Thanks for sharing it around Nancy. So sad that you can actually see the mills closing down and people being run out of business.

  11. Tracey Dixon March 1, 2014 at 6:39 pm - Reply

    I think this is a very well-thought article, and great comments, too. We are in Central America with a development organization that also hosts short-term groups, semester programs, etc., so we often have people visiting that want to bring down donations. Occasionally (thankfully ONLY occasionally) we have had people donate trash (mostly-used legal pads were among my favorite). We keep an updated list of donation suggestions for each of our ministry sites and encourage people to bring/send things from those lists. Also, when it is a better option to buy things locally (though prices, taxes and quality are an issue here, too), we have explicitly asked for money, and for the most part, b/c people know and trust us, they are okay with that.

    As for the issue of clothes, specifically, a lot of our short-term groups leave clothes behind that pile up in our storage room. Some get used for paint shirts, work project clothes, rags, etc. Anything that is nice enough is used for staff needs, specific individual needs in one of our communities, or even use by our groups of ladies doing micro-finance so that they can do garage sales and fundraisers for their group.

    We don’t have it all figured out on our end, either, but we all need to be challenged to think about these things–whether we’re the giver, the receiver, or the one in charge of stewarding what is given.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 2, 2014 at 4:15 am - Reply

      Used legal pads, ouch. I heard from someone that people used to send them used tea bags. Huh? Thanks for sharing how you use what people donate, I think that is important to hear – the variety of ways things can be used. And that things are used, and can be used really well. It sounds like you have a strong local network and also a wise donating network and are being creative and honest. So good to hear!

  12. Rebecca March 1, 2014 at 6:45 pm - Reply

    A much better way to donate your stuff would be to find a local world vision refugee resettlement office or another organization that resettles people here in the USA. They always need clothes and shoes and household items for people who have fled their country and have landed here with nothing. You don’t have to ship it anywhere- you can help someone right in your own city!

  13. Good Grafe March 1, 2014 at 7:06 pm - Reply

    Hi,
    Since you’ve researched this quite a bit (I haven’t)…. I wonder if anyone has done research on how many people in any particular African country (I live in Kenya) are employed in the use-clothing market business. There are tons in my town making a living out of this. And frankly I’d rather buy good used clothes than flashy but cheap new ones (from China as an example)… that self-destruct so quick!…. I’m sure each country would have different stats on that… just wonder if you’ve read anything on that.?

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 2, 2014 at 4:12 am - Reply

      Great question. I haven’t looked into that, but have thought about it. People here in DJibouti also make money selling the clothes and we don’t have any factories, mills, or textiles being made locally. I will do a bit of research and if I find anything, will post it here in the comments. Maybe someone else knows more?

  14. Cowgirl March 3, 2014 at 7:42 am - Reply

    I completely understand your dilemma. I’ve been talking about this with friends lately, especially in regard to t-shirts. While we may feel good about donating clothing we no longer want, it may not be the right answer. Especially considering that I recently saw a street vendor wearing a Playboy bunny t-shirt…the vendor was a pre-teen boy.

  15. […] wear flip-flops out on the time. These shoes don‘t offer the necessary support and can cause injuries. Limit the wear of time they’re […]

  16. Linda March 17, 2014 at 4:49 am - Reply

    Thank you for the thought-provoking article. I grew up in NE Brazil, the poorest part of the country as an MK/TCK. I can really relate to what you wrote.

  17. Joseph Stoll March 19, 2014 at 6:57 pm - Reply

    This is an amazing article on this. Thanks for taking the time to write it!

  18. Rachel Pieh Jones March 20, 2014 at 4:27 am - Reply

    Thanks Joseph.

  19. Tracy C April 10, 2014 at 10:40 pm - Reply

    I recently came across your article while doing some research for my daughters birthday party. She told me about a month ago that for her birthday she didn’t want anyone to buy her gifts, but instead everyone bring a new pair of shoes so she could donate them to children in need in Africa. After reading this I’m starting to think it isn’t the best idea now. Is there any suggestions that you could give me? She really wants to help less fortunate children…what do you think would be the best way for her to do this?

  20. […] Better to teach fishing, than just hand them a fish for their dinner. Check out these articles by Djibouti Jones and WhyDev to learn […]

  21. Dangerous Riches April 14, 2014 at 8:22 am - Reply

    […] of the idol of wealth. To hold our stuff and money loosely, to be generous to the point of excess, to live unreasonably, to know, and live like we know, that godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought […]

  22. Muthamaki Kimathi April 22, 2014 at 3:47 am - Reply

    I am using my African name because of my identity with Africa and the development of its many cultures and countries in our present competitive world. Reading your comments and those of your supporters, it seems that the concern is about the macro picture and not enough about the micro situation of the people possibly needing the day to day support. You share that a little neighbor of yours is running around in a long tea shirt with no underwear or other protection and covering. Perhaps, because the industry in those countries is faltering and failing, the parents are unable to afford day to day adequate clothing for their children. You also inferred that the quality of the shoes in the country and near by countries may be in question. It seems that you make the case for a helping hand from wherever. While it is true that garbage clothing is no good to anyone, some selected donations can help, if they are needed. Your blog indicated the poverty but then no need for the donations. I have not read any studies that indicate that donations to Africa eliminates African businesses and market activity. I have 2000 good pairs of used shoes for children, men and women being prepared for shipment to Africa. If you can reference a study that proves that donations destroy the African markets, it may impact my decision. Internal development of home grown industries that satisfies the local market, a market that actually has customers who are employed and can afford the products, is what is needed in many places in Africa. In the interim, large corporations rule the same market that those home grown companies would sell its products. Its. competition. Donations do not seek to compete but to supply where support does not or scarcely exists. Ask any of your neighbor families who may welcome the shoes in their micro concern. Poverty and a need for help is a world wide concern. I am 74 years old American and a professional. I and my family could not have progressed that way we did if it had not been for the hand-outs and the hand-ups. We received clothing, shoes and books. Both new and hand-me-downs We shopped at the second hand stores and were covered in the winter and looked good in the summer. We were not ashamed nor did it disrupt the local businesses. We were helped by the adequate clothing to socialize, learn in school and find and work in employment. We were not too proud. We wore the clothing that was good and discarded that which was in too bad condition. Sometimes the mothers and grandmothers used pieces of the discarded clothing for patches and quilts. The attitude and environmental aptitude is important. To understand the life in the trenches requires more than the view from on top…It may require the lived experience of first hand existence in those trenches. Thank you so much for allowing discussion on the issue of donations..

  23. Kimberly April 22, 2014 at 12:35 pm - Reply

    I have lived and worked in Africa for the past 5 years with the National Cycling Team. I have unfortunately had to stop taking donations of “lightly used” cycling clothing after receiving box after box of clothes with no spandex left and stains in the cycling shorts….yes, those stains. I had one person send me a box of clothes and a bike which probably cost him over $100 to ship and I threw EVERYTHING away and gave the bike to my local bike shop to display in exchange for a donation. The bike was 30+ years old…..yes, the National Cycling team needs bikes but they’re professional cyclists. Save me the headache and the hassle of disposing of your unwanted goods and send us the $100 for a training camp, or a rider’s salary, or parts for a new bike.

    Great Post!

  24. […] Better to teach fishing, than just hand them a fish for their dinner. Check out these articles by Djibouti Jones and WhyDev to learn […]

  25. linda onyango April 6, 2015 at 11:18 am - Reply

    Great read about donations to Africa.I am an African to be precise,a Kenyan raised and living in Africa.Its unfortunate that so many donations to Africa are tatters and rejects that you feel is not good to use but yet we still send them here.I believe a cheerful giver consider all these before sending them over as donations.Donations are not bad ,infact i have been trying to calculate the price and nobleness of clothes for donations.For me to sew an african attire in good condition(kitenge) I’ll need a material which will cost me about 500 Kenyan shillings (5 dollars),then pay 900 kenyan shillings (10 dollars) to the tailor ,meaning approximately 15 dollars for me to dress up while a second hand cloth from your donation being sold at 200 shillings ( approximately 2 dollars) is affordable to many people who live in less than a dollar a day compared to the former.Whichever the case,sending your dirty used undergarments to Africa in the name of donations is not help at all,it’s an insult.Send something that even if you lack something and needed help,i can still help you with it without feeling uncomfortable

  26. Sonia Garcia May 22, 2015 at 4:05 pm - Reply

    hi Linda,
    My name is Sonia. I would like to make “pillowcase dresses” for the children in Africa. I will be using new material. I already make them for my church but I would like to start my own ministry. I am a retiree and I have a sewing machine and lots of time. Can you help me to accomplish this by advising me Where to send them and the area most needed? I want to be an independent giver. I will appreciate it very much.
    God Bkessings,
    Sonia
    Humble, Texas

  27. Wilma Brown October 10, 2015 at 10:45 am - Reply

    In Pakistan, one of my colleagues bought dresses from whom we called the “kabariwallas” and lots of women and girls transformed them into beautiful children’s clothes, sold at knockdown prices to raise funds for projects.

  28. Karen Robinson October 10, 2015 at 10:14 pm - Reply

    I am in contact with a family in Gambia. I plan to send money for the woman to travel to Senegal for baby clothing and goods that she sells in her shop. I asked if they could either use or sell my grandchildren’s clothing that are almost like new and they said they would be happy to have it. I do have also 3 pair of shoes that are hardly worn at all. One pair worn maybe twice.

    My question is from the US what is the best way to send a package. The young man asked also for a smart phone, but I’m not sure I will find one I can afford to send.

  29. Jomo Kenyatta Kamanga June 25, 2016 at 2:07 pm - Reply

    I was a bear footed pupil in my primary school about fifty years ago and there are still many in remote parts of my country Malawi still going to school with no shoes on their feet. Please let us help them.

  30. Loobeensky August 10, 2016 at 2:20 pm - Reply

    “You have a pile of used clothes and old running shoes or sandals and purses and hats from last season. What do you do with it?”

    I’ve got lots of old, bad-tailored, cheap clothes and some crafty, more expensive, sometimes tailored on demand things. I’ve never even thought about throwing away the latter while I treat the former like something close to wardrobe-filling rubbish, which it really is, when I think about it a little bit. So I’d say: “Don’t buy just because you can.” 😉

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  32. Ivy November 13, 2016 at 6:20 am - Reply

    Really like your article, which offer me a different viewpoint to this issue:) thank you

  33. Twahah S November 13, 2016 at 10:45 am - Reply

    This is a great platform and i believe a lot of great ideas a re born here
    Think about Uganda
    people put on rags in most country districts.

  34. Peter S March 17, 2017 at 8:04 am - Reply

    If it’s “not our job to save the world”, then whose is it?
    From what I’ve seen of the “development agencies” in Haiti, working at the micro and meso level has a bigger impact than from the corporate charities.

  35. F.U. Daily April 8, 2017 at 12:44 pm - Reply

    I forgot. When did you become an expert on on philanthropy? Do you speak for the millions of people in Africa? Quit being condescending and blow-hardy and let people do what they want. Put up a pen pal list so people can contact people directly that want or need things

  36. Antoinette Hall June 5, 2017 at 5:55 pm - Reply

    I have a group of people I know in Ghana to help a community in Accra, Ghana. Shipping is very expensive, is there a company that will work with a non-profit?

  37. DADrtheFATHER June 20, 2017 at 2:32 am - Reply

    before you discourage people from sending shoes to africa, maybe you should do some research on jugger fleas. if white people were in this type of peril the world would be in a uproar. this is an idiotic article and you are a moron.

    • Patrick Caraway September 13, 2017 at 1:53 pm - Reply

      While I do agree about sending clothing, bringing up race makes you a low life. You don’t have a clue what would happen if the roles were reversed so quit acting like you do. By the way, there poor white people to idiot.

    • Patrick Caraway September 13, 2017 at 1:56 pm - Reply

      ^are….. Your comment doesn’t even make any sense. It’s just a pathetic way for you to spread your racist views

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  39. Adrien Koiba July 11, 2018 at 5:15 am - Reply

    My name is Adrien Koiba,
    Founder of Christ in action foundation in Guinea west africa.
    Donation is very important and fruitful. We work’s amound orphans children, widows and prisoners, sharing the word of God. You may do adonations of shoes, cloths, good if possible money to help carry on the ministry work.and you may have thé blessings from thé father himself. Matthew 25: 34-38

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