If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life — Henry David Thoreau
There are actions that are good. Unquestionably good.
“Good” meaning that when we do these actions we know for sure that they will cause good to happen in one’s life, maybe happiness, who knows.
And if we don’t know who will benefit from our act because he lives far away – in a poor country, in the “third world” – then it will result in the pinnacle of philanthropy. An example? Giving clothes to some charity. We get rid of clothes we don’t need any more and someone else, who can’t afford buying them, will wear them.
Now, when we give we are not driven by the awareness of its actual consequences for the beneficiary, but because the very act of giving gratifies us. We think we are doing good, so we feel good. How else should we feel when we donate? This makes us “better people” to our own eyes.
What if I told you that those positive consequences are just imagination and that our “good actions” may, in fact, cause other problems? Probably our self-gratification would vanish, replaced by some sort of sense of guilt, or surprise, or delusion, or all of these feelings together. And many would not believe me, would rather reject this possibility. To be honest I, too, had some difficulties, but then I discovered a number of stories and testimonials able to show that it’s all true. Like the story of the blue sweater.
The blue sweater
The protagonist, Jacqueline Novogratz, was an adolescent living in Virginia and had, amongst her clothes, a “wonderful” sweater depicting Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru and, below them, a procession of hopping zebras. Maybe there is no need to stress that such a sweater might have looked wonderful to her only.
However it might be, one day a friend of Jacqueline’s ironised on the sweater stressing her femininity. Then, Jacqueline thought “I must get rid of this sweater”. And immediately after “I will donate it to Goodwill”. A charitable act to close a somewhat painful chapter in her life. Perfect.
Some fifteen years later Jacqueline was walking in the streets of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. A boy runs ahead of her, wearing a blue sweater. A blue sweater with Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru and, below them, a procession of hopping zebras. The eyes wide open, Jacqueline approaches the boy and asks him to stop “can I see your sweater?”. She looks for the label her mother had sewn behind the neck, depicting her initials: JN. The label is there and so are the letters. Astonished, Jacqueline first bursts into laughters, but then suddenly stops. Finding her blue sweater in Kigali 15 years after she had given it to Goodwill was like an epiphany. An epiphany revealing how interconnected this world is, and how invasive international “aid” can be in developing countries’ markets.
One sweater cannot be the problem. Ten thousand sweater might be less insignificant. Ten thousand sweaters plus ten thousand T-shirts and ten thousand trousers–which is the average load of a 7-meter container–could be a problem. One thousand containers like this one are a big problem. Do you understand why?
Clothes are given by Europeans and Americans but sold in Africa. They are cheap, so cheap that local producers cannot compete. So, internal demand is nearly totally satisfied with imported goods. Local textile industry suffers, no new jobs are created, and investments are simply pointless. Why should one invest in textile production when charitable containers pour tons of sewn goods in Africa’s ports every day?
This is why we chose to begin with this story: to offer an example of how even the smallest act we are sure will be beneficial to someone can, in fact, cause problems in the context where it will eventually arrive.
It’s helpful for us to have clear in mind that any “aid” should stem from beneficiaries’ requests, who are the only ones who can ensure continuity to a project. Jacqueline, on her part, learned a lot from the blue sweater: since that experience she has developed a wonderful initiative.
Dario Landi and Pierpaolo Di Carlo
“The blue sweater” is the title of Jacqueline Novogratz’s 2009 book.