My friend went to Africa and all I got was this idea for a lousy T-shirt

A UN-AU convoy forms up before heading to Siliea in West Darfur in 2008.

Kony 2012 is not an aberration. It is the inevitable next step in a trend among charities and advocacy groups trying to connect distant disasters with donors, voters and policymakers in the west. That is laudable. But a consequence is that it has confused causes and effects, spawning a new breed of campaigner that measures success in terms of hits, letters sent, wristbands sold, T-shirts worn, videos watched, tweets retweeted – and untruths spread. It is a form of charity that seems to have become more about salving consciences than actually helping people.

The defence is that such actions raise awareness. True. They do. And it turns a foreign disaster in a faraway land into one that matters in Congress or Parliament. (Foreigners, of course, don’t vote. People who buy their T-shirts new do.)

But what is the point if the simplistic slogan on a dog bowl or G-string is based on a flawed analysis? The danger is that you build a mass movement that writes letters to MPs, builds pressure for a course of action – but the course of action fails because of its basis in a misleading analysis.

Save Darfur is the example I know best. The movement did an incredible job of mobilising popular support, helped have President Omar al-Bashir indicted at the International Criminal Court and pushed for a failing African Union peacekeeping force to be rehatted in United Nations blue. And you know what? Darfur hasn’t been saved. They were the wrong solutions.

All that awareness. All that goodwill. Wasted.

Sadly this has now become the model. Tweets, wristbands and charity singles rule. Will it raise awareness? Yes. Will it make a difference? No. Does anyone care? No. We’ve all shown the world how much we care. And got a nice new T-shirt.


4 thoughts on “My friend went to Africa and all I got was this idea for a lousy T-shirt

  1. There’s a thing about awareness and that is – it can be measured. Mentions counted, a bit of market research, newsprint spaced added up. If we’re on TV for 10 minutes on prime time then how many people see us? If Oprah tweets us then who reads that etc? These numbers will all be crunched and fed into score cards and spreadsheets.

    They couldn’t have imagined this working quite as well but they will have had targets to hit set against spend. That spend will also have been justified by the fact that this goes out with logos front and centre.

    Just been watching the KONY people on CNN and they kept saying we don’t want money. Even if you believe them they will still get it.

    Most of the above can be set up by people in offices out of harm’s way. They are then followed (tweeted, retweeted etc) by people from their living rooms. Awareness becomes an end in itself. Awareness is cost effective and by its nature, it’s high profile.

    A friend who does incredible work here in Vietnam as regards trafficking wrote recently of the work that MTV Exit does on the same subject. MTV’s work is all about awareness. Meanwhile my friend is not just getting kids out of shoe factories, he’s also working with law makers and the police. Behind the scenes he’s changed the entire attitude to this. The police are now on his side. See his excellent post here:

    But the money will go to MTV and they will spend it. They can then easily point at awareness raising activity carried out and they can crunch the numbers in terms of viewers and engagement but they might struggle on names of people helped.

    The blog post above ends: “The anti-trafficking industry needs to take a long hard look at itself. This addiction to campaigns needs to end. NGOs, charities and governments need to stop talking about ‘programs’ and start talking to people.

    “Yes, it’s dirty work, but the only way to stop trafficking is village by village, and sometimes house by house. Everything else is just fluff.”

    1. very good point Steve. These things are easy to measure. outcomes less so. Awareness has a part to play – but it’s only a part. Let’s measure outcomes. But I suspect then a lot of aid will start to look worthless

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