Charity gifting: do festive gifts mean misery for animals?

| 13th December 2011
Oxfam Unwrapped
With Animal Aid raising concerns about the welfare of livestock sent abroad at Christmas by groups such as Oxfam and Christian Aid, is it time to take another look at charity giving?

Now more than ever, people are paying attention to prices and searching for smart savings, particularly when it comes to Christmas. According to a 2010 Santander study, the UK spends £16.7billion on Christmas presents alone, just over half of which is spent on our dwindling high streets. Recent estimates by the Office of National Statistics suggest that online sales will grow by an additional 20 per cent this year. While protestors line streets around the world, one thing that you can be sure of is that the vast majority of the money spent this Christmas will do little more than line the polished pockets of the fabled one per cent. But Christmas spending doesn’t have to benefit the likes of Sir Phillip Green. More and more charities are offering festive alternatives, with profits and gifts used to help the disadvantaged, poverty stricken and bereft.

According to the Charities Aid Foundation, Brits give around £10 billion to charity each year and Christmas is seen as an excellent opportunity for charities to raise their profile, gain support and, most importantly, help the needy. Over the last 10 years, giving the gift of goodwill instead of scanning the shops has become increasingly popular. The premise is simple: you donate money to a charity on the recipients’ behalf and in return, the charity sends your loved one a thank you note, sponsorship certificate and sometimes a soft toy.  Almost every charity out there has some form of Christmas gift giving, whether it’s adopting sea turtles or donating livestock to impoverished communities.

Originally set up by Devon Dairy farmers in 1988, Send a Cow was the first charitable organisation to get stuck into the festive gift business. ‘Farmers were being forced to put down cows due to EU milk quotas,’ explains Communications Officer Joanna Whineray. ‘[They] realised the effect a cow can have on communities in Africa and wanted to make a difference.’ According to Joanna since 2004, Send a Cow has directly helped nearly 150,000 people throughout seven countries in sub-Saharan Africa. ‘Beyond this we have the “Pass it On” principle in which every person we give to promises to pass on this gift to others – be it through offspring, seeds, or training, which means on average for every person helped, another 10 go on to benefit,’ she adds. ‘Therefore we have indirectly helped nearly 1.5 million people.’ But cows aren’t the only animals that Send a Cow delivers to poor communities. ‘The number of cows we place is not as high as other livestock because many smallholder farms across Africa are not well placed to house a dairy cow,’ explains Richie Alford, research and development manager at Send a Cow. ‘Most are better off with smaller livestock, like goats.’

For this reason, charity gifts that deal with animals are often referred to as give-a-goat schemes. Oxfam Unwrapped embraced Archie the Goat as their poster-animal in 2009, giving ‘Archie’ his own ‘fun page’ on the Oxfam website that includes videos, games and links to social network sites, such his own Facebook and Twitter pages. But for Animal Aid activist Andrew Tyler, goat giving isn’t so funny. ‘They dress a goat in a red Santa hat, it is a kind of goony “isn’t it fun, we are sending this goat on an aeroplane with your name on it”. It is facile, exploitative and deceptive. If they are saying [these animals] are only a symbol, then they are misleading people because the impression they create is that you are buying a goat or a cow or a chicken and it is going out there with your name on it.’ Not surprisingly, Oxfam see things a bit differently. ‘It’s a pretend goat,’ says Oxfam Unwrapped’s Rick Lay. ‘It has become synonymous with Oxfam Unwrapped. Archie the Goat is easy to talk to supporters about and strikes the right note, all the while addressing a serious problem.’ Since Oxfam Unwrapped started in 2004, it has raised in excess of £60million for over 35 of the world’s poorest counties.
Andrew explains his concerns. ‘It’s cruel to the animals, ineffective for the communities and counterproductive in terms of global greenhouse gas emissions.’ He continues, ‘I do worry about the immense suffering of these animals in different places. The media report that droughts are continuing to kill off huge numbers of pastoralists’ animals with reports of] bloated corpses, giant burial pits. There is also a high death rate in farm settings.’ He pauses for a few moments and then exclaims: ‘What happens to the male goats if they want milk? It is cruel, it doesn’t pay.’ He singles out Christian Aid and their 2007 climate change campaign, which urged supporters to switch off their appliances and make basic stepwise behaviour changes for carbon savings, for particular criticism. ‘If we are talking about serious emissions, carbon dioxide, nitrous-oxide, methane, etc, you would be insane to discount animal farming,’

But once again, Christian Aid see matters in a different light. PR Manager Karen Lobo-Morell says that ‘implying that Christian Aid is making the situation worse by promoting gifts of farm animals is just incorrect. Livestock provide an excellent alternative source of food and income for families struggling to survive the global decline of cash crops.’ Karen adds that ‘for many poor farmers in developing countries livestock are also a source of renewable energy and an essential source of organic fertiliser for their crops.’ According to Rick, Oxfam only gives animals to communities who are experienced with livestock and where giving an animal is the right solution. ‘Much more care and consideration goes into placing these animals,’ he comments. ‘We don’t just turn up in a truck and dump out eight goats: we supply animals, at first, on the small scale to have a real impact rather than a significant change.’ Rick adds that goats - and other animals - are just a small part of Oxfam Unwrapped. Send a Cow adopt a similar approach. ‘We take time to prepare the groups first, typically at least a year, [to work] with the community, the group and the household before the animals arrives, to prepare their farms, build the animal shed, help them decide which animals they can actually manage,’ says Richie Alford. ‘How much land have you got? How much water have you got? How far away is water? How much does it rain? These types of questions help you realise what land and physical efforts [communities] can support.’ None of the charities spoken to are involved in physically sending animals overseas and all were keen to point out that the goats and cows donated are reared in local communities and only given where appropriate.

So where does all this leave us? If you are intent on buying a charity gift, there are plenty of alternatives to sending livestock. Send a Cow, Oxfam Unwrapped and Christian Aid as well as many of others offer a host of other essential non-animal gifts from farming tools to water pumps, education and tree planting. All of these can make a real difference to struggling communities. But with only five per cent of Christmas spending directed to charity according to Santander, too few of us are doing it. At home too, there are some 62,000 social enterprises operating across Britain making a positive difference to communities around the world, all of which would benefit from your contribution.


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