For those of you who do not obsessively follow every international development blog, World Vision is taking a lot of heat right now for a press release they put on their blog, touting WV’s distribution of Superbowl t-shirts. (That’s all the recap I am giving you – you can catch up here.)

In aid jargon, donating things instead of running a program or giving money is known as Gifts-in-Kind, or GIK. I know a little bit about GIK. My current employer does not get involved with GIK because it’s a company, but I’ve worked for several organizations that used it in their programs, and I’ve partnered with even more.

GIK can be done in better ways and worse ways. It’s pretty much always better to buy locally, but if you’re a managing a program on a limited budget and you can have HQ ship some cool looking American stuff for free instead of buying the same old things from the bazaar with your tiny program budget, you are generally going to jump on the GIK. Because in your context, in your little budget, it makes your program go farther.

And rest assured, you can tell the difference between the local stuff and the imported stuff. It’s a mystery, since it’s all made in China anyway. But as an Uzbek friend once told me in frustration “China sends all their good things to America and sells their junk in Uzbekistan.” From what I’ve seen that’s true for the most of the developing world. So actual, new, for the US market t-shirts do have a certain cache. They are great for filling weird niches: prizes for the winners of community education contests, gifts to health outreach volunteers, that kind of thing.

Other kinds of GIK are even more versatile. Better GIK happens when your local team – field office, country office – writes to HQ and says “we need 130 Salter scales, 50 stopwatches with a second hand, and as many mercury thermometers as you can send us.” And then a team in the US reaches out to corporate partners with the wishlist, collects donations, and sends as much of the request as they can send, ideally by sea using funding from some donor who really only ever funds transport.

Yes, it would still be better to buy all these things from the local economy and help create the demand for them. But no one is supporting that with a donation. Instead you get US companies offering you their products because they want the tax break. And you decide that weighing more babies has a greater social benefit that buying locally and weighing fewer babies.

Worse GIK happens when the fundraising office in the US gets contacted by some company that has, say, 37,000 tarpaulins or seven high-tech wheelchairs to offer. And then the fundraising department sends a mass email to every country office asking who can use tarps or wheelchairs. And if you say no – tarps cost $.79 locally and the wheelchairs will just rust in your climate – they push you, and point out that if we take this donation, we form a relationship, and maybe next time the company will give us stuff we actually want. Or even money. And depending on how much room you have in your budget for shipping costs, and how capable you feel of standing up to your senior management team, you either keep saying no or let them ship the damn tarpaulins on the theory that at least you can preposition them for earthquake response.

The absolute worst GIK is when the suchandsuch diaspora contacts your office out of the blue after, say, a horrific mudslide in rural suchandsuch, and tells you they’ve collected two container loads of clothes and household goods and would your NGO be able to ship them overseas and distribute them? And when you ask them to help with the shipping and distribution costs, they get all mad, because they are already making a generous donation of old shoes and dented cooking pots.

I have never worked for World Vision, and it’s unlikely I will ever do so, because I’m not Christian and have no intention of faking it. But I’ve seen plenty of their programs in action, and World Vision is generally solid. Their program teams know what they’re doing. They’re just not the type of organization that wanders through town handing out t-shirts to people who look poor or doing some other kind of GIK dumping effort. They seem a lot more likely to be doing GIK the better way.

It’s still a messed-up system. The obsessive focus on overhead rates pushes NGOs to use GIK to make that rate look lower. It’s an arms race where everyone has to do it because some organizations do. And it’s depressing to need money so badly you’ll take the crappy donation of used forks in the hopes that the donor will do better for you next time. But the need is huge and the money is limited, and most people do what they have to do to keep the good programs alive.

I don’t have an obvious conclusion to this post. There’s no tidy wrap up. (This is the longest post I have written in months because I can’t find a clean ending) Doing GIK well takes a lot of work, generally more work than the value of the item, from finding a good way to distribute it to doing all the valuing and costing paperwork. But reducing the paperwork involved is clearly not the solution. Stopping GIK might be the solution, if anyone could actually find a way to do that. Except that once in a while it really works.

Okay, I’m just going to stop typing now. Feel free to sort me out in the comments.

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