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Have you ever thought about the consequences of what you donate to charity? The common presumption is that all charity is “good” charity, and that there will always be someone who can use items that you would otherwise discard, regardless of their condition or original purpose.

But as Charles Kenny explains in his article in Foreign Policy magazine:

Here’s the trouble with dumping stuff we don’t want on people in need: What they need is rarely the stuff we don’t want. And even when they do need that kind of stuff, there are much better ways for them to get it than for a Western NGO to gather donations at a suburban warehouse, ship everything off to Africa or South America, and then try to distribute it to remote areas.

I saw this happen all the time in Guatemala. Western volunteers and tourists would donate bags full of their old American clothes, with the intention of being charitable. My first reaction when seeing indigenous Guatemalans wearing jeans and t-shirts with American logos was that they must be better off than those still wearing traje, their indigenous dress – but I soon came to realize that the exact opposite was true. Traje is expensive – it costs around $100 per piece to make – so for many impoverished Guatemalans, purchasing used Western clothing is much more cost-efficient. But they do this out of necessity, not out of a choice. Think about it this way: what if instead of donating $100 worth of your old, rejected clothes, you donated $100 directly to an indigenous family, allowing them to make their own traje and carry on a crucial cultural tradition?

Mayan women, like these women from San Rafael, are identifiable by the patterns and designs on their traje, which are unique to each community.

Check out this photo essay and related article for examples of different items that the West donates to developing countries, ostensibly with good intentions but in reality undermining local economies and typically doing more to make the donor feel good rather than actually help those in need. There’s even a twitter feed now for “Stuff We Don’t Want” – #SWEDOW – to track these kinds of donations.

Still need some help deciding what to do with your leftover items? Check out this handy flowchart to determine what to send, sell, or trash:


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