Friday, November 2, 2012

Operation Christmas Child: Inefficient, But Good.

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Christmas is coming up in a few months, and churches are starting to promote Operation Christmas Child- in which you put together a shoebox of toys, and it gets shipped off to some kid somewhere in the world. I have participated before, and I'm totally going to make a box this year. It's fun.

But, as always, I have a few questions...

We'll start with the basics:

What is Operation Christmas Child?

Operation Christmas Child is a program run by Samaritan's Purse, in which members of American churches pick out toys (and other useful items- school supplies, hygiene items, etc) and pack them into shoeboxes, which are then sent to children all over the world. Merry Christmas!

What is Samaritan's Purse?

Samaritan's Purse is a Christian organization whose goal is to help poor people all over the world- with food, medical care, disaster relief, etc- and to share the gospel.

Personally, I really like Samaritan's Purse. I've donated money to them many times. They respond to huge headline-news disasters like earthquakes, they work with refugees, they help communities with agriculture, education, etc in order to become self-sufficient.

How do they decide which kids to give the boxes to?

Don't have an answer for this one. I assume it's the kids in the communities where Samaritan's Purse is already working.

What is the process to get the box from me to the kid? 

So, you put together your box and your $7 donation (to cover the shipping), and take it to church if your church is participating, or one of the drop-off locations, during the week of November 12-19. (November 11 and 18 are Sundays, btw.)

Next, according to this page, all the boxes are inspected by volunteers at processing centers. I assume this is so that if you put stupid things in your box instead of fun things, you won't ruin some kid's Christmas. Then they're shipped off to various countries, and distributed to kids there, along with a gospel presentation and a little booklet about Jesus.

Isn't this kind of dumb? So, we're gathering boxes of cheap toys, which were probably made in China, and sending them off to different parts of the world- that seems really inefficient.

Indeed. But the appeal is the personal connection you have with the kid who receives your box. I'm buying these toys and packing them into this box myself, and the decisions I make on what to buy are going to have a real impact on a kid somewhere in the world. Isn't that cool?

Wouldn't it be more helpful to buy toys for the kids locally? Then the kids would be happy, and we're helping the economy of the area where they live.

Yep, that probably would be more helpful. If you have $x to work with, it would be much better to spend it locally in the area you're trying to help, instead of buying a bunch of stuff in the US and shipping it over there. Right?

But I suspect that you're not going to motivate people by just asking them for money. Buying all these toys and packing them into a box is much more involved then just swiping your credit card, and I really think people are more likely to plunk down the 20 bucks (or whatever it adds up to) if they get to pick out all the toys themselves. (Plus, this way children can get involved too- they can help their parents buy the stuff and pack the boxes, even if they don't have any of their own money to give.)

Is that a bad thing? That American Christians are far more likely to help others if it's "fun" for us, rather than inquiring about the best way to help and then trusting and implementing whatever answer we're given?

Is it a bad thing? In some sense, yes, it shows that we're out-of-touch with the needs of the world. But since that's the way it is, Samaritan's Purse is making the best of it. And perhaps Operation Christmas Child can be sort of a "gateway drug"- maybe if you participate in this, you'll be more likely to donate to Samaritan's Purse (or another organization) in the future. And that donation will NOT be going towards something "inefficient". I trust that Samaritan's Purse puts a lot of work into understanding the culture and needs of the people they help.

In fact, if you're so concerned about the inefficiency of Operation Christmas Child, I challenge you to donate $20 to Samaritan's Purse, to use "where most needed", instead.

What I'm putting in my box:

I chose to make a box for a girl, 5-9 years old.  Here's what's in it:

  • Coloring book, made in USA.
  • Crayons, made in USA.
  • T-shirt, made in Guatemala.
  • Disney princess toy, made in China.
  • Snowman stuffed animal, made in China.
  • Lego car kit, components made in Denmark, Hungary, Mexico, Austria, Czech Republic. (Someone explain to me how this could possibly be a good business model.)
  • Hot Wheels car, made in Malaysia.
  • 6 pairs of socks, made in China.
All this stuff cost me $25 at Target. (Though if you're cheap, you could go to the dollar store instead or whatever.) I was also required to include $7 for shipping- so the total was $32. If you pay the $7 online, you get to print out a label with a bar code, and later they'll email you and say what country your box got sent to. I think that's pretty sweet, so I did that.

Here's the final product. Some kid is gonna be so freakin' happy.

In summary, yeah this is pretty fun. Though it's not the most efficient way to give gifts to kids on the other side of the world, it's still a good thing. Just like I said about fair trade and, these things are imperfect programs which are not the magical answer to poverty or whatever. Certainly Operation Christmas Child has its weaknesses, but it's a far better idea than just sitting on my couch and blogging about the world's problems.

And let me just tell you, some little girl is going to have an awesome Christmas.


  1. I agree. I just organized a shoebox packing party at our church. Better than doing nothing but yes, I have questions about the overall effectiveness of these things. I feel a little bit divided about SP. Sometimes waiting for THE BEST approach to poverty reduction results in us being inactive altogether. You're right...some little girl WILL have an awesome Christmas when she gets your box.
    I appreciate your balanced perspective.

  2. Thanks- yeah, it's better than doing nothing. I think we should question and try to find the most effective way to address the world's problems, but in the meantime, do what we can with the opportunities we know about now.