Thursday, May 27, 2010

1 Million Toilets for India

Did you know that there are more cell phones than toilets in India?   My goodness, can you imagine having to share a toilet with 3, 4 or 5 other people?

The people of India are suffering horribly for this lack of toilets.  Sharing toilets with more than one other person is highly unhygienic.   The facilities get dirty quickly and can not be cleaned as often as necessary to keep them free from deadly bacteria.  Obviously, since we in America require one toilet for every two people, if not one for each person, everyone else in the world deserves the same amount of toilets.  It’s a human right.

This is why my dear friend, Tremainz and I have decided to start 1 Million Toilets for India, so that children across India can grow up safe and happy, without the degradation and disease that comes from having to share a toilet with too many people.  We’re going to include everyone on the Indian subcontinent, too.  After all, country, continent, it’s all the same to us.
You Can Help!
Here’s how the project works.  You, rich white people who have never been outside your little bubble world, save for that two-week vacation to a third world country that totally changed your life, you are going to donate money and stacks of toilet tissue to us.  See how simple it is for you to help save the world!

Then we, the people of 1 Million Toilets for India, will solicit donations of old toilets from people in Africa.  We will take your money and buy more toilets from African toilet manufacturers.  Now, we’re helping those starving people in Africa, too!  Next, we’ll have those toilets and tissue packages shipped across the country of Africa to India.  This will help all sorts of local economies by employing drivers.

Once we get to India, we’ll use a group of volunteers sourced from our program staff, the African companies that donated and delivered the toilets, and some lucky donors who win our special contest to go to India and get their life totally changed, again.

What about the Indian toilet manufacturers and installers?  Who cares!  Clearly, if they knew what they were doing, India wouldn’t have this awful toilet shortage.  They must be terrible at making toilets, so we’re going to ignore them.


I hope, dear readers, that you realize what is written above is totally tongue-in-cheek.  Tremainz and I did develop this idea together.  The joke amused us for several days at least.  Spawned by the 1 Million T-Shirts for Africa ridiculousness [I’m not giving it a link, google it], we went off on a sarcastic binge against junk aid.

But this foolishness about junk aid has made me begin to question what I always thought of as decent aid.  I started wondering where to draw the line.  Is any aid really decent or good?

Donations of Infringing Goods

This past week, I attended INTA, the International Trademark Association’s annual meeting.  In the Exhibition Hall, generally full of vendors peddling their oh-so-useful trademark services, was a booth for World Vision. 

World Vision was there to solicit donations.  Donations of infringing goods that would otherwise be destroyed because of their violation of trademark law.  Their display featured a series of pictures of smiling African children and adults wearing Chicago Bears Super Bowl XLI Champion t-shirts and hats.  For those of you who don’t know, the Bears didn’t win that Super Bowl.

I looked at those pictures, at first slightly amused.  It didn’t last too long.  I soon learned where those pictures were taken.  Zambia.  Monze, Zambia.  The Monze, Zambia I called home for two years.
The Local Economy
My first thought was the tailors that sit outside the store fronts in Monze or under an insaka on their family compound in the village.  My second thought was of the people sitting in the dusty, crowded market in downtown Monze, selling salaula (used clothing imported from the West) and new clothing imported from Asia.  All these people lost something when the Bears swept down on Zambia as Champions.
Setting an Example
My third thought came not from my experiences in the Zambian community where these clothes were deposited, but from my training in intellectual property law.   What message does it send when we say, “you must stop counterfeit goods” with our mouths, and with our hands, fill the country with counterfeit goods?

The US government, the Zambian government, most of the other governments in Africa, are trying to teach their citizens the value of trademarks and not to infringe others’ marks.  There are many reasons for this, I’m not going to get into all of them here.  But I will mention the one most important in this instance.

Weak protection of trademarks discourages investment in the country.  It discourages new companies from forming within a country and it discourages foreign companies from entering the local market.  Bad, bad, bad.
Long Term Effects
How can we convince Company X that it should invest in Zambia, that it should open a facility and employ thousands of people and that its company will be protected from imposters when the population is taught that there is nothing wrong with infringing goods?

How can we convince Mr. Banda he should start a new business in Zambia instead of abroad when he’ll be subject to imposters and to having his company’s market overrun by free donations from abroad?  (This later issue is addressed well in Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid.  I highly recommend it.)
Final Thoughts
I remain conflicted on World Vision’s program.  In general, I like World Vision and the organization's work.  But this clothing thing has made me question their other work as well.
I understand the idea that donating something is better than destroying it.  But how about just not making it at all?  Do we really need to have our Super Bowl champions shirts available immediately after the game?  What’s wrong with waiting a day or two? 

As for the infringing goods, how about removing the mark when possible, and recycling the materials when not.  There must be other solutions than drowning developing countries in our excess and illegal goods.


joe said...

Hi - interesting post on several levels. I am wondering how these shirts were infringing copyright. It sounds (and I am no expert, maybe I am totally misunderstanding) that they are more about excess t-shirts produced on the off-chance of the (losing) team winning the game rather than being a rip off of the legitimate product.

You're asking whether the shirts can be reused. There is a growing movement of 'upcycling' and in theory, unused t-shirts would be ideal for reuse. But the reality is that there is little market for this and little appetite by the brands to waste time and money repurposing a product which may well turn out to be inferior to their standard 'new' products. Removing marks has been investigated (albeit on a short project with little funding) but found to be technically difficult. Without a market of people demanding 'upcycled' t-shirts, it isn't worth doing.

As to recycling, as you say, a lot of waste clothing ends up on the streets of Africa. In fact, in the UK, most is still sent to landfill - but it sadly remains the case that there is no widespread working system for actually recycling (ie breaking down the garment and reusing the consistuents) them. A Japanese company works with a couple of small brands on a disguistingly dirty process to reprocessed polyester-cotton mixed fabric (which ultimately involves burning off the cotton with acid to get to the poly), but this is pretty small.

I'm sorry to sound negative - you are right, there should be another solution, but at the moment there is not the will to work out what it should be. It is easier just to throw #swedow at people.

goldenrail said...

Hi Joe, Thanks for reading.

With respect to the Bear's shirts. Those are not infringing trademarks, they are just excess; excess produced in case the Bears won the Super Bowl. Those are the types of garments I would argue just shouldn't be made. We may be used to instant gratification, but that doesn't mean we should always get it.

World Vision was at the INTA meeting because it wants to get donations of infringing goods to distribute in the same way it does the excess goods.

I disagree about the difficulties of recycling because there are always ways in which something can be used as something else. For example, old clothing can always be turned into rags.

In fact, when clothes are donated in the US to our Goodwill-type stores and aren't good enough to sell here, they are sold to third-world country buyers. This is the salaula in Zambia I mentioned in my post.

If the clothing isn't good enough for that, it's turned into rags and resold to a variety of rag dealers. Boxes of rags are sold in hardware stores, to auto shops, etc. And rags are also used by people who use them to make bags and rugs and other rag-products.

At the very least, why can't infringing garments just be turned into rags and sold to this market?

joe said...

thanks for responding to my points.

You are right, there is a rag market, and in fact a lot more is used in industrial purposes than you might expect.

The problem is that there are far too many waste clothing products and jersey t-shirts are not really ideal for rags. The rag market is currently depressed due to the slump in manufacturing and the amount of waste clothing which nobody wants. In all honesty, it is not realistic to even attempt to put the fake t-shirts into this market. I know it sounds like it should be.

To correct you a little - what actually happens with the waste clothing is not really an issue of whether the clothes are good/not good enough to be sold in goodwill stores. Most of the waste clothing collections actually never reach the goodwill stores. They are sorted into wearable and unwearable and then into various types (eg shirts, shoes, pants etc) and then baled to be sold abroad. A very tiny fraction actually reaches the charity/goodwill store - it is a lot easier for them to collect (or more usually employ a subcontractor to collect) the waste clothing and receive a commission per tonne than to go to the expense of putting the clothing in a thrift or charity store.

Unfortunately this is how the system works. If it didn't, we would very quickly become swamped with waste clothing - which arguably would be a good thing as we'd have to work out alternative ways to dispose of it!