7 Worst International Aid Ideas

The following is a post by Richard Stupart, originally published on Matador Network, and reposted here with permission.   You can view the original post here >>

I think it’s a great discussion of the importance of thinking through consequences, even remote ones, when working toward improving lives and conditions around the world.  We should all keep trying, keep thinking, keep learning and keep striving to do better.

Like my energy drink or the kids starve. Image via Africa is a country

Maybe their hearts were in the right place. Maybe not. Either way, these are solid contenders for the title of “worst attempts at helping others since colonialism.”

1. One million t-shirts for Africa

Aid circles employ the cynical acronym SWEDOW (stuff we don’t want) to describe initiatives like Jason Sadler’s 1 Million T-Shirts project. Sadler had admittedly never been to Africa, and had never worked in an aid or development environment before. But he cared a great deal, and came up with the idea to send a million free shirts to Africa in order to help the people there.

Like some sort of lightning rod for the combined venom of the humanitarian aid world, Jason found himself pilloried across the web in a matter of weeks. Everyone from armchair bloggers to senior economists spat fire on his dream until it eventually ground to a halt. In July 2010, Jason threw in the towel and abandoned his scheme. And somewhere in Africa, an economy sighed in relief.

Why was the idea so bad? Continue reading

Research vs. Journalism

In this thought-provoking presentation at TEDxBoulder, Leslie Dodson, a researcher and journalist discusses the shared traits and objectives of researchers and journalists and how they inherently clash, and she challenges us to be more discerning in how we represent other people in any field.


I really enjoyed her point about researchers and journalists and I hadn’t thought about that before.  They both seek out information in the form of data, observations, interviews, and photographic evidence.  And they both collect, compile and present that information.  Both seek to tell a story through collected data, but the journalist needs that information to be personal and to sate the appetites of readers and viewers consuming a story, sometimes as entertainment, sometimes as an appeal for support.  The researchers want anonymity, to remove the personal and keep it objective.  As a researcher and a journalist, Dodson must compartmentalize each and make sure she doesn’t corrupt the research while keeping the journalistic storytelling interesting.

As designers, we also have both tasks.  Research must be objective in order to inform us accurately, so that we can then work to create solutions that succeed.  But we also need to tell a compelling story in pitching our designs to clients, funders, and even back to the people and communities we researched.  There is a challenge in not over-simplifying or reducing people or whole populations to caricatures or cartoons and taking away their power by taking away their complexity.  We do have to generalize based on samples of populations and collections of personal stories, and in selling, creating characters is often a useful tool.  But we must remember to be careful riding that line, so that we continue to help the people and communities we serve, not undermine them by representing them in over-simplified ways.

In addition, Dodson points to the popularity of oversimplification in NGO communication materials, especially graphic representation, catchy names and slogans.  As iconic as the shape of the continent has become, it might even feel like just one country with one people and a few major issues we can tackle quite simply if we all just pitch in a few bucks.  But Africa is a continent with over 50 countries, over 2,000 languages, and a whole spectrum of issues, from disaster to prosperity.  Oversimplification is misleading, and may work against the needs of the people on that continent.

The tough part is that we see examples where simplification helps donors feel like there is hope in a manageable situation succeed.  So the question remains for each designer to continue asking themselves through every stage of their work, whether applied to Africa, development around the world or to any community we’re trying to serve: “in this case, does simplification help or hurt the cause?”

The Rugged Altruists

In a recent New York TImes article by David Brooks, “The Rugged Altruists“, he describes a few examples of aid workers abroad and the values they share—the willingness to go to new and unfamiliar places, to listen and to serve, and humility.

Many Americans go to the developing world to serve others. A smaller percentage actually end up being useful. Those that do have often climbed a moral ladder. They start out with certain virtues but then develop more tenacious ones.

The examples are inspiring as well as sobering.

Read the full article here >

Interestingly, his article relates to another one I read yesterday—Dan Pallotta’s new post on the Harvard Business Review, entitled “Sacrifice is Overrated“.  Pallotta is the author of Uncharitable, in which he argues that the non-profit industry is crippled by the rules that govern it, preventing organizations from doing the scale of good they could if they were as free as businesses to do so. I heard him speak earlier this year and am a big fan of his arguments.  I think they’re right on target in a reassessment of the “non-profit” sector which is eternally starving for support and hindered by law and public opinion from making the kinds of strides and impact that bring success and praise to businesses.

In this blog post, he talks—as he does in his book—about the dangers of a whole society believing that it is right for those who do good to sacrifice financially to do so.  Specifically, he reacts to a colleague’s enthusiastic embrace of Warren Buffet and others who have publicly embraced financial sacrifice for the greater good.  While he doesn’t take issue with their merits, he argues for the need for us as a society to give up our deeply entrenched and harmful views that mixing social impact and profit is immoral, and that financial sacrifice is the only meaningful sacrifice we recognize.

To deny the masses of suffering human beings the talents of people who could greatly help them — and to deny it because of a blanket opposition to paying valuable people the significant money they might be worth to do it — is to put our fantasies of the selfless society we wish we lived in ahead of the life and death situations of those who suffer. Do we really think it is of some comfort to the mother whose child just died of starvation to know that at least no one made much money in the failed effort to save her son?

Thomas Merton’s abbey at Gethsemane sells cheese, and in the 160 years since it was founded it has grown from 44 monks to precisely 65. We have an inadequate supply of saints. If it is saints that the suffering masses of the world have to wait on, we are sentencing them to death.

Read the full post >

In a third coincidence related to another piece of content in yesterday’s news-browsing, as I was looking back for the tweet that sent me to Brooks’ article yesterday, I came across a few negative reactions to the piece.  One of which came from Dayo Olopade, whom I had just seen in a CNN article and video, and which I was just about to post here.  Her tweet said this:

Olopade is a Nigerian-American journalist and author of forthcoming book The Bright Continent, about how “advanced economies can learn a thing or two from Africa’s innovative spirit.”  Her tweet speaks to the intense dynamics that exist in the field of development—those we all need to understand and work with so that we’re genuinely helping, bridging gaps, enabling people and serving the purpose, not just treating it superficially.

I can see how Olopade could be frustrated, and I don’t know about Brooks, but he may have only had time or access to talk with aid workers.  In any case, reading those two opposing views brings up a lesson we learn time and time again: there’s always another side.  As designers, development workers or in any other field, and whether or not we can satisfy it in the end, we’re better off considering that other side, listening to it and doing whatever we can to address it from the start.

(tipped to this article by @acumenfund)