Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Giving goats to poor people in Africa is not a good idea

19 March, 2013 - 10:49 -- John Burton

Yet another charity is jumping on the ‘Goat Bandwagon’. Age International is using cute little Pygmy Goats to front a campaign calling on grandparents to donate unwanted belongings to high street charity shops.

According to Age International, if we donate old clothes and clutter to Age UK charity shops, some of the money raised could be used, for example, to buy goats for old people in developing countries. The charity says it costs £18 to buy a goat, which will supply an old person with milk, fertiliser and income. 

At the risk of being told off for criticising other charities, I would like to know if Age International has carried out any environmental impact assessments, or any assessments of the social impact of doling out goats to older people overseas.

Perhaps Age International doesn’t know that goats are considered a cause of poverty in many parts of Africa. Perhaps the charity is unaware that almost every wildlife conservationist and every environmentalist believes that the problem in Africa is too many goats, not too few. In fact Age International only has to look at UN statistics published by FAO to see that increasing numbers of livestock in Africa mirrors increasing levels of poverty in Africa.

But then I am more than a little cynical about all these campaigns. Many of them have hidden in the small print something along the lines that ‘the donation will be used for a current priority’. So, despite my concerns, I wonder how many goats will actually be provided to the old people of the developing world.

Transparency in such issues is actually quite difficult. But at WLT we can at least report on how many acres we have helped fund, and in which countries. We can tell donors how many rangers the Trust is supporting and where. We can also give exact figures on how many trees our partners have planted, and more general figures on survival rates, and so on.

But how many of the goat giving charities, including Oxfam and Christian Aid, report on the number of goats, camels, cows etc they have provided, where they are, what sort of conditions they are kept in, and what their impacts are?

Several years ago now, I asked Oxfam some of these questions. But answer came there none. I feel I am often a lone voice in the wilderness, the scapegoat of Holman Hunt’s famous painting.

But perhaps our new Patron, Chris Packham, will take up the cudgels on behalf of what’s left of the natural environment, and persuade the aid charities that promoting goats as a saviour of humanity is not the best idea for the 21st century.

Goats may be cute for fronting fundraising campaigns in the UK, but they are an environmental disaster in many of the poorer parts of the world.


Submitted by Millie on

I personally am a fan of "give a tree" style campaigns, assuming they're well-thought out. The cost to benefit ratio for one tree is much better than for a goat (and other livestock). All it needs is a place to go and some water while its young (it doesn't even have to be clean!).

I know livestock is photogenic and a quick fix, but trees would seem a better use of resources, and would ultimately work to solve other problems like soil erosion, drought, famine, etc.

On a related note, I agree about the small print never disclosing where the money actually goes. It's misleading. I work for a charity, and we can tell you how much money went to what project. Heck, we could probably tell you how much we spend on stationery if you really wanted to know! It doesn't seem right that I can donate money for a family to have a goat in Africa, for example, and the charity won't (or can't) disclose how much money was actually spent providing goats. It seems to be a very basic transparency issue!

I recently came across an interesting talk by TED at (URL shortened using TinyURL) This gives an interesting slant on grassland degradation that may be relevant to this discussion. Its worth a look.

Submitted by John A Burton on

Thanks Millie.
And thanks Andrew for alerting me to the contribution by Savory: lots of very selective evidence. Basically all he seems to be advocating replacing all the natural wildlife with cattle and goats. Former are diverse, latter are highly selective. And it also ignores a lot of other evidence. Not quite sure what his agenda is, but a slight misinterpretation of what he is advocating could be absolutely disastrous. Many people would interpret it as advocating increasing livestock all over the world.
I have also seen plenty of examples which totally contradict his thesis. For example when the sheep were removed from the Estancia in Patagonia, not only did the vegetation recover, but also the Guanaco numbers increased 100 fold.

Submitted by Robert Burton on

I've just read a review of "Feeding Frenzy: The new politics of food" by Paul McMahon. It says he doesn't agree with doom-mongers who think we are destined for mass starvation...there are vast untapped areas of fertile arable land that should be sufficient to feed...over the coming decades. I haven't read the book so can only assume the untapped areas are also known as forests, savannahs etc. And, anyway, what happens beyond the 'coming decades'?

Submitted by Dominic Belfield on

Doesn't this goats thing really serve to illustrate that a lot of what some charities do ( or say they do) is there to make US feel good, and not actually to necessarily DO any good?

In other words, the 'charidee business' - and let's face it, it has very much become a business - is in real danger of working harder to make well-off westerners (and easterners) FEEL good about themselves, than think and act for the real benefit of their supposed beneficiaries. The self indulgence of seeing groovy little goats munching happily on fresh green fodder flanked by beaming third world folke, just aching to thank us for our enormous generosity, is what gets charidee juices flowing - That means cash, and That means success. Except it doesn't.

In response to one of John's earlier blogs, I very much agree that it would be very useful to have much more analysis of NGO performance and effectiveness, and not be afraid to make 'hard choices' about the NGO's who don't shape up.

And that would apply to goats, and perhaps much more positively to trees (right species in the right place).

Submitted by John A Burton on

As ever, Dominic hits the nail firmly on the head. But I suppose I would say that since he and I are largely in agreement! But nonetheless, what we are in agreement about is greater transparency, and greater clarity. He is, in my view absolutely right, that many charities design their projects to make the donor feel good. I would go further than that, because there is also evidence that a lot of foreign aid benefits the donor countries far more than the recipient. I could continue. For instance, what does that oft quoted slogan 'Make poverty history' mean? Bring everyone up to the same aspirational out of poverty standard as the UK? This, if you look at the economics involved, would appear to be a very sick joke.

Hi John,

Have a watch of this

Suggesting that the grazing of huge herds of migrating cattle on arid lands mimics nature and can help reduce desertification.


Sorry, I meant to paste this link

Submitted by John A Burton on

This grazing of vast herds only works in certain conditions (like the Great Plains of the USA or the Serengeti). And generally the biomass of the wild species that can be sustained is greater than the biomass of cows. Elsewhere it tends to be boom and bust cycles.

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