The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Filling millions of shoe boxes of toys for poor kids seems like a great idea. Here’s why it’s not.

(Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg News)

Christmas starts the annual season of wrestling with materialism and the conflict between shopping and giving.

During Christmastime, Americans will be looking for ways to help the children in their lives to be generous toward others rather than focusing only on what they’ll be getting under the tree.

Projects such as Operation Christmas Child seem like an ideal way for them to give. This campaign, put on annually by the Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse (run by evangelist Franklin Graham) since 1993, encourages churches and schools to pack crayons and toys and toothbrushes, along with $9 for shipping, into a brightly colored shoebox for a boy or girl in another part of the world. Operation Christmas Child has delivered 146 million shoeboxes to kids worldwide, giving donors a tangible way to give to a child in another country.

Call me a Grinch, but I won’t be filling a box this year.

Why this kind of helping hurts

Although Samaritan’s Purse does many good, long-term projects through its humanitarian aid efforts, I believe this kind of giving is a bad idea, similar to the Tom’s shoe company’s “buy one, give one” model or food giveaways to deal with chronic hunger.

Except in response to emergencies, this form of charity suppresses local markets, creates feelings of dependency, and does not address systemic problems or empower local leadership.

Tom’s shoes, used clothing distributions and even parts of the U.N. World Food Programme have been collectively termed “bad-vocacy” or “bad advocacy.” By bringing in resources from outside an economy, without supporting trade, industry and investment in the local context, certain forms of charitable giving miss out on a chance to help by changing the community to address its problems long-term.

Of course, to say that a program doesn’t solve all the problems in the world doesn’t necessarily mean the program is bad. Doesn’t Operation Christmas Child bless children with gifts they wouldn’t otherwise receive? The recipients feel loved — their faces “light up” when they receive their boxes — and children in a wealthier country learn to be generous. What’s the problem with that?

First, consider the effect in the local context. Because each box is filled by individual donors, there inevitably will be inequitable loot among the kids opening them. This is guaranteed to create conflict via jealousy between those who receive the “best” goods and those who don’t.

Moreover, it leaves those selling gifts and other products in their own country undercut by the freebies showing up. It’s easy to understand that handing out free rice grown in California would make it difficult for local farmers to sell their rice. I imagine that some of these poor parents who can’t afford a toothbrush, doll or pencil for their children actually make their living by weaving among traffic or at a tiny market stall selling toothbrushes, dolls or pencils.

Second, imagine how parents feel watching their children open these boxes. Of course, the kids are happy. My kids would be happy, too, if wealthy people in my community gave them iPads and $100 tennis shoes — things they wouldn’t get from me. Sure, my children would feel loved, but by a wealthy benefactor somewhere else, instead of by me, their father.

Finally, children certainly learn a lesson through these giveaway programs, but it’s the wrong one. They learn that the problem of poverty is primarily a problem of “stuff.” One person told me that by criticizing Operation Christmas Child, I was being “astonishingly cynical” about a program that does good by teaching our children to be generous.

She defended her view by saying, “I have found that the connections that are formed by doing things like this can be used to foster further participation in missions and outreach in all ages.” She can say to shoebox givers, “Remember those kids you gave presents to? They also need …”

But that’s just it: Through these kind of temporary giveaways, we’re teaching our children, and ourselves, that the real problems of poor countries center around lack of resources and ongoing need. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The real problem of poverty is a problem of access and opportunity, not stuff. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen called poverty the problem of lacking autonomy and freedom. Giving stuff to the poor each Christmas contributes to what Jayakumar Christian calls the “god complexes of the nonpoor.”

Certainly, in some cases stuff is needed for opportunities and autonomy (Tom’s shoes to go to school, for example), but while the handout is the fastest way to solve the problem right now, it’s a never-ending “solution” that does nothing to expose the underlying conditions behind the need.

We need to stop responding emotionally to these issues and consider policy and programs that do something. Why waste our money and time on Operation Christmas Child when there is real work that can be done?

How to actually help

It is important to recognize that addressing poverty and inequality is never simple. Every organization and form of assistance can lead to unintended consequences for people on both sides of a relationship. Yet, we know a lot about what tends to work better and where our time is best spent. Americans can do the most good when they give to organizations that do development work in specific places and respond to the need that will bring long-term change. (One cell phone for a farmer can do more to change a child’s life than 100 boxes full of little toys.)

Organizations like World Vision and Heifer International provide the opportunity for donors to “buy” a goat or beehive or rabbit and “send” it to a local community. Local community groups use the donated money to buy the animal locally and decide who will receive it. I love teaching my kids about giving when our family sponsors bunny rabbits and bees through Heifer International. They totally get it, and we don’t have to send cheap plastic toys halfway around the world.

Recent research has shown that child sponsorship is relatively more effective at producing positive, long-term results for poor children. And as with OCC, Christians can have their children get involved. Kids may help choose a sponsoree from the photos that many well-run organizations will send. Families can correspond with their sponsored child and bring the kids in their church into the process.

But can’t we do all of these? Do we need to stop doing Operation Christmas Child if we are also supporting other causes?

The Bible instructs Christians not only to be generous, but also to be smart. For anyone who values effective charity and wants to see their generosity make the biggest impact, sending shoeboxes of little gifts is just not smart. (I haven’t even mentioned the carbon footprint necessary for shipping these things — sometimes back to the places where they were made.)

Climate change aside, if we could take the energy, enthusiasm and goodwill that goes into Operation Christmas Child and channel it into the other programs that Samaritan’s Purse, and a hundred other organizations, do to make long-term change , we’d be doing a much better thing.

The shoebox campaign works because of its emotional appeal. We imagine a little African child, opening his Christmas box and finding the items we lovingly packed in there. We imagine the recipient having the Christmas our children have, with him feels loved and cared for in the name of Jesus.

In fact, his family does love and care for him. And after the shoebox is opened, he returns to a life of hunger and lack of opportunity. His Christmas is not just like our child’s middle-class American holiday, no matter what’s in his box.

We need to educate ourselves about how to give and serve in ways that bring dignity and long term results. Books like “Toxic Charity” by Robert Lupton or “When Helping Hurts” by Fikkert and Corbett provide a wealth of practical insights for anyone seeking to serve well.

We need to release the emotional appeals of these Christmas campaigns and focus on the work of the local non-governmental organizations trying to lobby their government to enforce land tenure rights for the local farmers, build accessible educational institutions, and reform legal systems, all the while sharing the hope that is in Christ.

Now that’s a gift worth giving.

Brian Howell is professor of anthropology at Wheaton College. He is the author of “Short Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience” (IVPAcademic, 2012).

Correction: An earlier version of this piece included a previous price for the shoeboxes. They cost $9.