I’d burn the bras but for the toxic fumes

Perhaps it’s time I let my inner militant feminist out and burn some bras. I could collect used bras from all of my friends fed up with the claustrophobic tyranny of polyester and plastic and set them alight in Dupont Circle. We could solicit passers-by to support our floppy freedom and turn over the proceeds to some organization promoting real freedom, like the Polaris Project. To make our demands clear, we could call it, “Free the Girls.”

Imagine my disappointment when I learned there’s already an organization called “Free the Girls”. They, too, are collecting used bras, but instead of simply burning the bras, they’re sending the used bras overseas in order to free—get this—not boobies, but actual girls.

Yes, Free the Girls is another organization sending SWEDOW (Stuff We Don’t Want) to in order to save poor people from their poverty. But unlike some other SWEDOW initiatives, like yoga mats for Haiti, Free the Girls isn’t simply sending secondhand bras over to help fill out the free t-shirts others sent. Instead, Free the Girls intends that female human trafficking survivors will rejuvenate the used bras and sell them for a profit thereby generating income and uplifting the spirits of a nation.

Floppy freedom.

Even Bono and his moobs would celebrate.

Someone cynical might ask, “Aren’t there already used bras in Africa? Why collect used bras from Americans and then ship them overseas?” Even Free the Girls notes on Twitter that there is already a market for secondhand bras in Mozambique where they operate. In that case, instead of flooding the market with more used bras from America, and since Free the Girls clearly has an interest in supporting local entrepreneurs, why not raise money to buy used bras locally and create some miracle growth for local businesses while empowering women with economic opportunity?

But then again, it is Africa, I can think of no place better to send pink cheetah print Victoria’s Secret B-cups.

Indeed, for too long we’ve thrown this ridiculous “money” at the problem of “poverty” and “we” know now that more than “aid dollars” are needed. Such as the aforementioned pink cheetah print bras.

Here is how Free the Girls puts it, minus the scare quotes:

For too long in the West we have appeased our consciences with throwing money at people who live in poverty. The result is that very little has been accomplished in the places where most of the aid has gone. But for those of us who live and work on the front lines of global poverty, we know that more than aid dollars are needed.

What’s strange is that recently I threw money at a large aid organization and instead of literally throwing money at some starving Somalis, they set up a feeding station. Weird, I know. I was hoping my Andrew Jackson would end up one amongst a wad and hit some kid square in the face. Would have made me feel much better. Appeased my conscience, as it were. Lo.

The fact is that aid dollars turn into diverse job training and livelihood-building programs all over the world. Perhaps bras are a hot commodity in this particular community, but what if it’s cat berets in another? On their site, Free the Girls also says they believe business has an important role to play in ending poverty.

In some states, this would qualify as animal abuse.

A good business diversifies. Even Victoria’s Secret sells more than bras. Aid dollars can buy bras in one place and felt in another. Used bras are just bras (and they make terrible cat-hats.) Money has the magic power of turning into almost anything.

That’s why the effects of conditional cash-transfers are so interesting. For example, in Somalia, “Oxfam is implementing a life-saving cash transfer program that will assist around 66,000 highly vulnerable displaced people to meet their basic food needs, enhance their coping mechanisms, and reduce their vulnerability to future shocks.” Sometimes throwing money out of a plane actually works. Other times… not so much.

This villianization of aid dollars, when ultimately the donated bras are themselves just aid dollars restricted for use in the resale of secondhand bras, only serves to feed the monster that keeps development nerds up at night: the idea that sending money overseas is a waste, that instead we must send things so those corrupt Afghan police/Somali militants/development consultants don’t take a cut (or run off with the whole pot in the case of the development consultant.) But sending a copy of “The Feminine Mystique” or a jar of peanut butter overseas isn’t going to end poverty faster than donating $10 to an organization running women’s empowerment workshops or giving Plumpy’nut to starving babies (and running water and sanitation programs and doing cash transfers and….)

Female survivors of human trafficking need support, but not from my used bras.

Thanks to Jennifer for her post that inspired me and Gordon Ramsey.

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4 thoughts on “I’d burn the bras but for the toxic fumes

  1. Pingback: The stuff we don’t want | Ghana 180

  2. You said, “In that case, instead of flooding the market with more used bras from America, and since Free the Girls clearly has an interest in supporting local entrepreneurs, why not raise money to buy used bras locally and create some miracle growth for local businesses while empowering women with economic opportunity?”

    Perhaps you have never lived in a capital city in Africa. The market is “flooded” every day with containers full of used clothes. I watch an average of 2-3 containers being unloaded every day with used clothes in the market here. If they show up with another container, I very much doubt it will flood the market here in Maputo. There is just too much demand.

  3. Pingback: Weekend Reading | Historically Speaking…

  4. This is apparently a rational, well-thought response to the SWEDOW argument. As such, I don’t trust it, and think it has no place in the hollow tubes of the interwebs.

    It’s not usually the money that’s the issue…interestingly, those same aid organizations that advocate more money for Haiti can’t seem to actually spend the aid money on things people actually need.

    As to “throwing money out of the plane,” I’ve advocated that might actually help more people in certain places than the well-meaning “programs” designed to “help.” Of course, we should probably take it off the pallets, first.

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