Water buffalo: Worst possible Christmas present?

A friend got a water buffalo for Christmas from her dad. She won’t actually take delivery of the animal. The Web page says that it will be given to a family in Asia. If you read the fine print on the page, however, it turns out that there is no actual buffalo and no actual family and you won’t get a photo of your family and your buffalo. The money simply gets dumped into the common fund at the charity. We are trying to decide if this is the crummiest possible Christmas present.

[Would it actually be effective to give every poor family in Asia a water buffalo? Wouldn’t that simply result in overgrazing? It shouldn’t be that hard to breed water buffalo, so you’d think after thousands of years they would have the optimum number without Western intervention.]

January 19 update: Things got a little out of hand with this posting, including the purchase of a real water buffalo for a real family. See this 57MB Quicktime movie for the full story. All credit to Robert Thompson.

25 thoughts on “Water buffalo: Worst possible Christmas present?

  1. I’m an American living in China with my wife. I live in a small, mountainous town in Yunnan (southeastern province).

    The only reason this is a crummy present is because (as you mention above) they don’t actually give anyone a water buffalo. I would puruse the links in your post now, but all outbound internet from China is currently disrupted due to the earthquake in Taiwan. (Your page and Gmail are the only two exceptions to date. 🙂

    After reading your blog I drove out to the fields and I asked local farmers (who are poor and the lowest class in China) whether a water buffalo would be a good gift or not. They said a water buffalo would be “zui hao de liwu”, or “the best gift” without hesitation.

    When I asked why they gave a few reasons. Water buffalo are used to turn the soil in the fields. As adults, they can be sold for up to 4,000 RMB, or about $500 USD. 4,000 RMB is more than an average farmer makes here in a year in Yunnan, by about double (less the tobacco farmers, they make a little more.) Lastly, though their meat is not as good as the “hong niu”, or “red buffalos” here in China, water buffalo can be used as a food source for a very long time.

    As a Christmas present to someone in the US, yeah, maybe a gift card from B&H would have been a better choice. But if this charity actually bought water buffalos for the poor in China (and other parts of Asia) it seems like a good idea.

    I took a few pictures today and I’ll will post later after the internet cables get hooked up under the Pacific.

  2. This


    speaks volumes about Heifer International. Their attempts this fall to cash in on Grameen Bank’s Nobel Peace Prize were nauseating. Heifer had the chutzpah to put our press releases claiming that they were a pioneer in microfinance and by implication associating themselves with Grameen. Compare this


    Note the relative compensation of the two CEO’s. Heifer has helped seven million families since 1944; GFUSA has helped seven million since 1997. The seven million helped by GFUSA are a tiny fraction of those impacted worldwide by Grameen’s activities. It’s true that Grameen’s administrative expenses are high, but that problem seems inherent to microfinance.

  3. Bob: Thanks for the education! Imagine how tough it would have been to get this boots-on-the-ground information before the Internet. How much longer are you going to stay there in China? If I sent you some cash, do you think that you could find a water buffalo and give it away to a worthy family, then take pictures of them with said buffalo (might be best to get a young buffalo so that we can see him/her growing up)?

  4. I think they’re a little different but I remember reading an article about how Yak is about to become the trendy new exotic meat. Apparently, it’s lean, high in omega-3 fatty acids (yak eat grass mostly) and yak are supposed to be very docile and gentle on sensitive rangeland (padded hooves)
    It is kind of a wonder how a water buffalo could be worth $500; it can’t cost that much to raise one.

  5. We’ll be here for about six more months (we’re just waiting for the final immigration papers to come back to the US.)

    I asked my wife’s extended family (who are farmers) about purchasing a water buffalo. This is what I learned:

    – Small buffalo sell between 1,000 – 2,000 RMB and are more difficult to buy because the “mai niu de” (or buffalo salespeople) would rather keep them and sell them for 4,000 or 5,000 when they’re adults.

    – An adult female buffalo is a better choice as a gift because as an adult it is strong enough to work immediately, and it can produce offspring creating more wealth for the family in the future.

    – Small buffalo cannot work for about two years. While I’m sure a family would be grateful for any gift, this would be one that would give back after about two years.

    If you want to buy a water buffalo for a family in need here in Yunnan, China, we could easily help you. I could make a video and take pictures of the process for you.


  6. Care Australia run a similar campaign which we contributed to this year:


    Our family have made contributions to similar organizations for the past couple of years at Christmas.

    We weren’t really sure whether we were literally buying a cow (or a well, or a water purification plant…) with the money we sent and, in fact, the slightly tongue in cheek nature of the campaign (“Nothing says I Love You like a piglet”) led me to assume it was most likely a clever marketing hook.

    To us though, this wasn’t really the point. The notion of Christmas as a time of reflection, “goodwill toward men”, seems to have been swamped by an orgy of consumption at this time of year. We were looking for a way to redress this somewhat.

    It certainly would be more satisfying if we could follow through our contribution to the actual purchase of an item and see the effect it had on the community, but I’m sure this would add significant cost to the whole process and diminish the value of the actual contribution.

    When I mention this Christmas idea to people I’m often surprised at how enthusiastically people respond but a common cop out is “Yeah, but how much money really gets there”. Care Australia claim that “around 90 per cent of our total income from the Australian public and all other sources has been spent on work in the field”. I guess it’s a matter of striking a balance between overheads and keeping people motivated to contribute. Personally I’d rather rather place some trust in the organisation I choose that the money will be well spent and maximize the impact of my contribution.

  7. If you want to give a water buffalo, you can give one to “Pakistani survivors of the 2005 Kashmiri earthquake lost not only homes but their prized farm animals.” The buffalo, $450, would be shared by 3 families.


    Harvest of Hope has many other gift options, like $1500 for clean water for an entire North Korean village:


  8. I sent my brother Bob $100 to get him started buying the water buffalo. If you want to join in, write to him via his contact link at his website: jazzviolin.com. He’s a talented musician that happens to know how to take photos and video. Can’t wait to see the results. Because of the recent earthquake in Taiwan, the internet tubes were disrupted and his e-mail, skype, and web updates have been spotty. Should be a couple more weeks until they fix the internets.

  9. […] I’ve long been a fan of Heifer International and suggested it to others as a charity, but I never read the small print. Philip Greenspun and Michael Stillwell did and both noticed their marketing is fairly misleading — you’re not really buying a water buffalo or a cow, but simply contributing to a general fund that someday may result in animals getting to families. It’s not entirely dishonest but it sure feels like something different than what their site describes when you give money. […]

  10. There’s a tension between low overhead and tying individual donations to individual gifts. If Heifer tracked each animal from source to the field, how much would that paperwork increase their overhead and take away from their work? I agree though that their marketing is misleading.

    Besides, socks and underwear are the crummiest possible Christmas present.

  11. Bob’s “4 Generations” movie is on his blog: http://www.jazzviolin.com/china

    His internet connection in China is very slow because of the recent earthquake. It took him hours to upload the movie to a reliable server each time he created a newer version. In contrast, I downloaded the ~50mb movies (qt & flv) in just a minute or two over consumer grade cable internet. I helped tweak his sites recently, re-upload, embed the flash movie…

  12. God Bless you all for the wonderful thing that you did. My wife is from Quiaoxin China, also from a poor farming family. I know personally from being in China several times of the exact impact that a gift like this makes. Many people do not see….. being on the outside looking in exactly how life is lived in these areas. You would think that you stepped back in time as to see the way that life is lived and how every day things that we take for granted like wash machines and telephone are still way out of most of these peoples financial means. I was very taken back by the wonderful job that Bob and family had done with their short film. It brought me back to China for the several minutes that it played.
    And it reminded me of just how lucky that I am. Again god job to all involved in making this happen.

    Mike. V

  13. This seems to misunderstand what Heifer does. Heifer doesn’t just provide an animal to some random family. It works with groups of families, provides education on how to raise the animals in a healthy and environmentally sound way, and arranges then for a calf, piglet, whatever, to be passed along to another family. Of course, this costs a lot more than just conveying an animal to the necessary location. Heifer is one of my favorite charities in part because they do so much to improve the situation surrounding their gifts.
    Yes, contributions to Heifer are to their overall effort.

  14. Yes, what Lynne said.

    My wife and I read the fine print the first time we donated to Heifer Project, back in 1999. What the marketing does is to greatly simplify the process, but that’s not to say that the Heifer Project isn’t doing what it says it’s doing. HP says that if they were just to give Cow, or Trees, or Bees, to a family, it might just stop there, and that they’re more interested in using that gift to help not just that family, but the surrounding community, for years to come.

    If the money you give, while thinking “here’s a Cow for China,” goes instead to giving a South American family a goat and a Bangladeshi family some chickens, because that’s where help is currently most needed, does that really make you feel ripped off and dissatisfied?

    Based on what I’ve read, the Heifer Project is a great organization.

  15. I am convinced that if we operated, person-to-person, like Robert Thompson did, more things would get done faster and cheaper. I’m inspired. My problem with charitable organizations is the bureaucracy. It seems to me that they eat up most of the donations. You know someone with a need, do it direct if you can. Take responsibility for your community.

  16. what a wonderful reminder of the importance – and effeciency – of the few to get large tasks done. While I do support some of the larger organizations providing child support, the recent disasters stateside have brought to the forefront the flexibilty and direct response small groups who decide to go ahead can provide. BTW after the fiasco of some of the books Oprah has backed and their lack of credibility, I don’t know that she is the mark of authenticity I would ‘bank’on.

  17. Robert’s video is incredible and reading this exchange between the two of you has been unreal. Thank you both so much for making and sharing this story.

    If you are reading this Robert… I’m love to know more on your thoughts. Would you do it again?

  18. I’ve actually heard from several different sources that water buffalo are considered to be one of the animals in the world you particularly don’t want to tick off.

  19. It was a hopeful film. Have they gone back to see if they still have the Buffalo. I keep wondering if the bank didn’t come and take it away in payment for the money they owe them for the wife’s burial. Would just like to know that it actually worked out as hoped. My distrustful nature I guess.

    Glad I read about Heifer International before I gave them any of my money. I don’t have a lot and would hate to think I wasted it on such a slick scheme. I do think that they owe you the truth upfront. I do want to know if the money I give is not actually being used for what I thought I gave it. No matter how well they think they spend it for me otherwise (since they probably feel they know better how to spend it than I do), if they are not spending the money exactly as advertised then it is fraud and wrong.

  20. I only recently saw the video on Youtube but it was heart warming and inspiring.

    I lived for several years in the Philippines and I saw the benefits of some organizations like the Pearl S. Buck foundation. I actually got to meet some of the little kids on the receiving end of these charitable programs and helped them write their letters to their sponsors so I know that some money does get to the kids and the programs do work, to some extent.

    I think the fact that there was such a personal involvement makes this story special. If it was just some big foundation driving around dumping cows off randomly it would have lost something.

    I’m rambling now…

  21. I was googling “give a water buffalo” and found your weblog. Very enlighting! The water buffalo movie was awesome. Since then, have you heard of any organizations that actually buy the gift and give it to a real family? I too would like to give a gift and actually see pictures or something showing that the gift exists and where it goes!

  22. I also am somewhat suspicious of organisations which use donated funds for overheads. Some overheads are to be expected. My wife and I are getting involved in the purchase and donation of water buffaloes to Vietnamese farmers. The animal is loaned to the family for a period of 2 years. The first calf is taken and donated to another family and the animal is then owned outright by the family. They must sign a simple contract which spells out these terms and requires that that the family not sell or kill the animal. This situation will only work because my wife is Vietnamese and her 2 sisters do all the ground work in country.We also get recomendations from the local people’s committees and monks. We still have to work out a way to ensure that veterinary care is availabe as well as access to breeding bulls. Since we are doing this ourselves we know that 100% of our money goes to the purchase of animals. Taking the first calf will, I hope, help to perpetuate the program. In the future I hope that others will contribute to this effort.

  23. There are many comments above that indicate a lack of awareness of what it takes to actually maintain an organization, and the unwillingness to do a bit of simple research. All charitable organization based in the U.S. are required to file IRS forms and provide annual reports, and a quick glance at Heifer’s latest annual report shows that they are among the lowest percentage-wise in the use of donations for management and general operating expenses (6.4% in 2008). They use another 16 cents out of every dollar on fund-raising activity. Overall, they use 77.5 cents of every dollar raised for program activities: education, animals, and general development in international locations. That compares favorably to other organizations that do similar international work. But it is Heifer’s “Passing on the Gift” ceremony that sets it apart, a unique way to multiply the benefit one family receives while at the same time fostering a sense if community. I think that it is also important to know that Heifer utilizes a local employment philosophy in the developing countries where they work, thus providing jobs for nationals, contributing in that way to the local economy, and building job skills and local self-reliance. Their operating philosophy embraces an egalitarian atmosphere in the workplace (in their headquarters, which by the way is a LEED certified building) and in the field.
    It is true that Grameen’s overhead is lower, but that has to do with the organizational model and type of activities they engage in. Heifer and Grameen are both worthwhile organizations, but comparing them is like comparing water buffalo to rabbits: while they both provide a service to humanity, that service is distinctly different. Also, part of the reason that Grameen has reached so may people in a short time is because it was one of the few organizations in Bangladesh doing this type of work, and it had a unique model for reaching people, a captive audience, and after a few years of struggling it had the government on its side.

Comments are closed.