As a child, I participated in Operation Christmas Child every year. We would go to Walmart and pick out small baby dolls, crayons, toothpaste, hair bows, matchbox cars, and so on, and pile them all into a shoebox sized box. I loved imagining the smile these gifts would put on the face of a child living across the globe—a child who otherwise would not have access to Christmas. Today, however, my children and I do not participate in Operation Christmas Child.
One reason we do not participate in Operation Christmas Child is perhaps obvious: The ministry was designed as means to evangelize children. While I grew up in an evangelical Christian home, I am no longer religious, and I will not participate in a ministry that uses the offer of material goods to convert underprivileged populations to another religion. I prefer to support ministries that don’t have strings attached—ones that do good because it is the right thing to do.
But this is not my only reason for not supporting Operation Christmas Child—nor the most important. Indeed, I would not participate in Operation Christmas Child even if it were not religious, and it is my contention that evangelical Christian families have ample reasons not participate in Operation Christmas Child either. Why? Put simply, there are a host of problems associated with the Operation Christmas Child model.
One problem is simple: Even as a child, it was clear to me that some shoeboxes contained much better quality gifts than others. Some people spent a great deal of money buying things for even one box; others put in things from around the house, figuring that anything was better than nothing. I knew that some children, when opening their boxes, would receive much better gifts than others. This seemed unfair. (This is an issue acknowledged by those involved in distribution.)
But this is perhaps the least of the problems associated with this model. The Operation Christmas Child model assumes that children in Africa, or East Asia, or South America, want and need the same sorts of gifts American families will pick out—the sorts of gifts I picked out as a child. Due to cultural differences, however, this is often not the case.
A woman working at a Kenya-based nonprofit put it like this:
“Toys don’t play as large of a role in East African culture as it does ours, so there really isn’t any need to send them by the container full, because the actual result is comically anticlimactic: African kids trying to figure out what to do with American toys, and then adult African men trying to teach them what to do with them… Incorrectly! And don’t even get me started on the hair bows and headbands!”
And then there’s the fact that different parts of the world have vastly different climates, but you don’t get to choose where your shoebox will go (nor does Operation Christmas Child sort boxes by contents). The result can be comical. When I was a child we used to put socks in our shoeboxes, and some people include winter items like scarves. In 2015, Judy Wu Dominick, herself a Christian, included this problem in her list of reasons for opposing Operation Christmas Child:
- The shoeboxes often contain inappropriate and unusable items because: a) people in developed nations are allowed to choose items for poor children in unfamiliar cultures and contexts, and b) OCC currently has no method of designating which shoeboxes go to which countries. Boxes are indiscriminately shipped to over 100 very different locales. Craig Greenfield, founder and director of Alongsiders International, who lives and ministers in the slums of Cambodia, says, “So many times I have seen items like socks that are inappropriate for Cambodian weather and the frequent flooding of slum areas, or worthless toys and trinkets.”
- Externally introducing free goods into a community often does unintended harm to fragile developing-world economies by undermining the demand that enables survival and drives growth. Unexamined charitable efforts can end up keeping people in poverty through their very efforts to assuage it. For example, the steady influx of donated second-hand clothing into sub-Saharan Africa has led to the closure of a number of African clothing factories. Craig Greenfield explains that purchasing stationery, notebooks, and pens from the local markets in Cambodia would support the local economy there and be far preferable to shipping items from overseas. [Update, 10/26/18]: Bethany Colvin, a community developer and missionary in Zambia, described in 2017 how very unfortunate unintended consequences were playing out in Zambia with respect to the OCC boxes – namely, that local churches had to come up with $4000 USD to pay for the distribution of 5,000 OCC boxes from a central warehouse.
- It romanticizes the poor in foreign lands while creating a distorted view of what it means to love the poor. Despite the impression left by feel-good videos and exceptional stories, a shoebox of items has little power to impact the quality of life of its recipients. I became more informed about the true impact of giving when I entered into the lives and stories of poor and marginalized people in my own city of Atlanta and saw firsthand how complex, systemic, and intractable poverty can be. It gave me an appreciation for the deep, consistent investment necessary to make a difference both spiritually and physically. Learning to evaluate what my disenfranchised friends in Atlanta needed long-term became my barometer for gauging what things people in similar or more dire circumstances abroad might need. The answer always points back to personal and community development and involves creatively empowering people to become a vital part of the solution to their own hardship. I was no longer satisfied with superficial gestures.
- OCC commingles the message of the Incarnation with American consumerism and materialism, then exports the muddled result. One of the OCC promotional videos for this year opens with the voice of a young boy narrating over a montage of images alternating between white middle-class Americans doing Christmassy things like looking at lights, picking out a tree, enjoying a feast, and opening presents; and black, brown, and Asian children in the developing world looking stereotypically pitiful, collecting bundles of twigs, eating with dirty faces, and walking through rubble. At the end of this montage, we hear, “But for so many children all over the world, the joy of Christmas, the love of God… is something they have never experienced.” This logic is only accurate if we accept the false premise that in order to experience the love of God and the joy of Christmas, one has to experience an American middle-class Christmas. Yet Jesus – who was and is Christmas – is already showing his love and bringing his joy to children around the world in countless ways that don’t involve shoeboxes from America. He knows how. After all, He was poor his entire life, was a refugee in his early years, and was homeless in his final 3 years.
When I first read some of Dominick’s criticisms several years ago I was gobsmacked. I had never stopped to think about how far the $20 I spent filling each of those shoeboxes 20 years ago would go, in many of the recipient countries. Why not give these children’s parents $20 to purchase gifts for them from local shops? Or to pay for school tuition, or for food, or other things they might need more than gifts (our consumerist marriage of gift giving and showing love is not as universal as we may think). As an added benefit, that money would be injected into to the local economy, helping others as well.
Do you know how supporters of Operation Christmas Child defend the ministry against these criticisms? Like this:
The power of OCC is the connection that the giver feels to the child receiving the shoebox. For many families in the West, OCC provides a clear and tangible opportunity to help their children think of others first in the face of Christmas traditions that can be very selfish. OCC creates a connection between people. When someone places an item in a box they know that an individual child will receive that gift. That is a significant difference as opposed to just writing a cheque. Sending money is certainly more efficient, but the power of OCC is the human connection. Often, the human connection is lost when it’s just money changing hands.
If this in fact is the argument—that Operation Christmas Child is primarily about making Western children feel connected to underprivileged children in developing countries—the ministry needs to be upfront about this, and they’re not. Instead, the market the ministry as a way to help poor children in developing country. Besides, whether our children in the West feel a “connection” should not take precedence over actually helping people. After all, what message does that send to our children? That it’s all about them? That charitable giving should be about making them feel good?
It’s not as though Operation Christmas Child is the only way to build a feeling of connection. When I was a child, my family also participated in Heifer International, and I found that just as meaningful—in part because of the discussion of effective altruism that it generated. Those conversations about the most effective ways to help people affected me profoundly—and we still received a catalogue of giving options to look through and choose. There are lots of other charities that offer similar opportunities as well.
Many parents like to engage in charitable giving with their children during the Christmas season. This is an excellent idea! But if this is you, you will have your highest impact on your kids and on the world by sitting down with them to research the impact of various charities. If you choose one that you feel doesn’t give a lot of individual connection, hit the library for books on that country (UNICEF has a great book on children around the world), or volunteer in-person at a local charity.
Your children will be better for it—and so will the children your family helps.
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