Unintended consequences

This is a subject which always fascinates me – “potential negative outcomes” from “perceived positive acts”. I’ve seen this kind of thing in the field before, but today found a blog which brings it much closer to home and, as a result, makes it far more relevant to far more people.

On her inspiring “Good Intentions are Not Enough” blog, Saundra Schimmelpfennig gives us “5 questions you should ask before donating goods overseasโ€:

Is the donation appropriate for the local climate, culture, and religion?
Do they actually need the donation?
Are the goods available locally?
Will the people receiving the goods be able to afford to fix or replace the donated item?
Will donating this item do more harm than good?

This reminded me a little of the opening of one of my older posts, which shared some application development observations in the social mobile space:

Understanding is important

Sometimes we think we’re doing the right thing because our intentions may be good, but things don’t always turn out that way.

Saundra is currently taking a year off to write “Beyond Good Intentions: How to Make Your Disaster Donations Do the Good You Intended”. Her book and blog are an attempt to start a conversation about the endemic problems in aid and how we, as donors, can impact its quality. I can’t wait. In the meantime, you can follow Saundra on Twitter.

27 thoughts on “Unintended consequences

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  2. Yinka says:

    Few months ago, we had old computers at work that we wanted to get rid off. The Deputy director said we should send them to some ‘organizations’ that sends old machines to Africa. I politely refused and sent them to landfill instead.

    Of what use is an machine that is more than 5 years old, what programs will it run?, how long will it take to boot e.t.c

    I’ll rather cheap or affordable computers are available in Africa than to ferry old useless ones at the slightest opportunity in the name of charity.

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  6. Janine says:

    Thanks for highlighting these. Sometimes we just don’t stop to think. It’s well worth reading Saundra’s wider post on this, which has some good tips for people with loads of old stuff to ‘donate’. Thanks again!!

  7. Jon Camfield says:

    There is a good discussion on the morality of development over at Blood and Milk as well – http://bloodandmilk.org/?p=1348

    during my Peace Corps stint our director got excited by one of these donation programs and we ended up with 15 dusty 486s and one Pentium. This was in 2003, mind you. It became a horrible time-waste, as the director couldn’t stomach tossing them (especially after having to pay tariffs and import duties as if they were new), but there was so little that could be done. We scrapped a few to beef up the others and installed FreeDOS eventually.

  8. kiwanja says:

    @Yinka @Jon – “Donating” computers is a whole different ball game than flip-flops and t-shirts, obviously. ๐Ÿ˜‰ And one that’s been well documented. I share your comments and concerns, though.

    The recycling of mobile phones is an interesting angle, of course. I took a look at the “Big Five” from Saundra and applied them to the recent Hope Phones project, which has been getting great traction since it launched. Not surprisingly it passed all the criteria with flying colours (which is one reason it’s doing so well). Maybe once we have 100% penetration of mobiles in the developing world then there may be far less need to be doing this, and we’ll need to find something else to do with our old handsets (and flip-flops!). We’re nowhere near that point yet, of course.

    I think Saundra’s book is going to be very interesting when it comes out as it joins a growing discussion on “bad aid”.

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  14. Alanna says:

    In defense of Hope Phones, those phones are not being sent abroad. They’re just selling the phones to a recycler and using the money to fund their work.

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  17. kiwanja says:

    @Alanna – Ah, I see that my language wasn’t clear. I’ll edit my comment. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m in total support of Hope Phones. I meant that it cleared the five criteria, not failed them!

  18. Josh Nebsit says:

    Thanks, Alanna. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I think Saundra’s questions hold a lot of utility. I’ve heard a million stories of medical donation processes gone bad.

    Regarding Hope Phones, it’s just as Alanna says – but 100% of the funds raised are used to purchase phones for community health workers involved in our projects. That means old phones are (1) reused or recycled locally, and (2) reincarnated as powerful, *requested* tools internationally.

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