Tag Archives: africa

Rally in Western Kenya. Photo by Daniel Lombardi.

Don’t create a mood, just tell good stories.

NGOs are often faced with incentives to tell stories on the extreme ends of the emotional spectrum. Some organisations try to make their stories extremely happy and uplifting, to excite their audiences into action. Other times, the pressure is to tell stories that are incredibly bleak and dark, in the hopes of scaring the audience into action. All of this is despite the fact that the best stories have both dark and light shades in them.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an amazing radio journalist for NPR, covering stories across Africa – and one of my heroes. In a quick interview, taken from an episode of the TED Radio Hour Podcast, she argues that the debate about “positive stories versus negatives stories” in Africa is important, but it’s not the only thing that matters. For her, the quality of a story is far more important than its “mood.”

Whether the story is a comedy, a tragedy, or mindlessly happy is second to its quality.

Like Quist-Arcton says, the most important thing is “telling a good tale,” and then – if the story is a good one, whether it’s dark or light – listeners will perk up and get invested in it.

Susan Moeller makes a similar point in her book Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War, and Death. She argues that media coverage of inherently dark subjects need not cause compassion fatigue. Instead, she argues, formulaic and bland journalism is what causes the audience to fatigue.

There are lots of problems with stories focusing solely on the positive or the negative, the first being that needlessly dark or mindlessly happy stories are boring! Stories that lack emotional variation feel flat and bland. Obviously a boring story will not be very effective at moving an audience to action, regardless of which narrative it conforms to. Another major problem with stories that focus only on the positive or negative is that they’re likely to oversimplify and leave out important facts. If a development story only tells the happy and hopeful parts, the audience will probably miss significant elements of the issue that are important.

I am certainly not the first person to discuss this subject; for more info, look no further than WhyDev’s Communications Director Rachel Kurzyp, who wrote about this subject here, saying, “I am concerned with the way NGOs are telling stories on behalf of the poor… I worry that NGOs aren’t doing a good enough job of explaining the complexities of development and poverty.”

There are lots of examples of bad story telling; look no further than Invisible Children’s early videos. But for the sake of being constructive, I would like to point out a few examples of good development storytelling that include a range of positive and negative emotions. These stories are not unnecessarily joyful or depressingly dark. Instead, they have a range of emotions that, combined with other good storytelling techniques, create compelling development communication that is likely to move the audience to action. If you’re a development communicator, I encourage you to follow the lead of these three examples:

Dr. Hawa Abdi: Vital Voices – This quick video is an animated story of Dr. Hawa Abdi’s life in Somalia, narrated by her. There are some dark moments in this story for sure, but the mood changes throughout, and at the end, we are left feeling inspired.

Invisible Children: They Came at Night – I think this is Invisible Children’s best video. (And they have produced a lot.) This twenty-minute film tells the story of a young man trying to escape the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, and how escape is not as simple as it sounds. It’s a powerful drama with emotions ranging from hope to fear to anger, to more fear and back to hope again.

Girl Rising: The Nepal Chapter – Produced in partnership with Room to Read, this short film uses a young girl’s real-life experiences to tell a powerful story about the importance of girls’ education. It’s part of the full Girl Rising film, which tells similar stories about girls around the world, all of them excellent examples of good story telling. As you might expect, the mood varies between depressing to inspiring. But, this film also has a powerful streak of stubborn determination that is sure to leave you ready to fight.

Let me conclude by encouraging you to worry less about creating a particular mood in a story and focus more on telling it well. Whether they’re sad, funny or happy (and the best stories are usually all of the above), quality stories that inspire the audience to action, can really change the world. As storytellers, our role is to honestly do the story justice: tell it well, and with whatever range of emotion exists in reality.

Featured image is from a rally in Western Kenya. Photo by Daniel Lombardi.

Naomi Campbell's Instagram selfie for the #WakeUpCall campaign.

Last Week Today: WhatsApp vs. humanitarian aid

Committed to giving you last week’s globaldev news today

What do NGOs have in common with this woman?

The obsession with the perfectly composed selfie.

This week, celebs are taking selfies for UNICEF’s #WakeUpCall campaign. But are NGOs trying too hard to create the next viral campaign?

The week in news

Protests in Hong Kong are raging on, intensified by police beating of activists. ISIS is nearing a strategic town in Iraq’s Anbar Province. And fighting has erupted over the Libyan city of Benghazi.

Kim Jong Un has evidently reappeared. Don’t worry, there are still plenty of rumours – but now, most of them are about his new cane.

And in this week’s edition of “naked photo scandals,” 100,000 SnapChat pictures have been hacked, including nude pics of teenagers.

The week on the blog

Cognitive dissonance in aid: A job like any other

In our final post on cognitive dissonance, J. reminds us that aid is like any other industry – imperfect.

Why I’m anti anti-poverty

It’s Anti-Poverty Week in Australia, but WhyDev Director Brendan Rigby asks what it actually means to be “anti-poverty” – and whether it’s useful.

Inequality and the struggle for land rights

For Blog Action Day, Alison Rabe reports on one Cambodian community’s struggle with a common problem: protecting local land from multi-national corporations.

The week in globaldev

The feminists you’re really looking for

When Africa is on TV, people go to the bathroom.

You don’t join ISIS to feed your family.

Australia at the top

Ebola: So African, so dark, so black

Why do we even know Malala’s name?

WhatsApp vs. humanitarian aid

Audio In the latest episode of EMERGENCY AIDio, Nuran Higgens talks to Andy Puddicombe about using meditation for a healthy mind and better life. (1:11:19)

Upcoming events

OIC: The Cambodia Project: Launch extravaganza | Melbourne, 12 November

You can also check out our other events and listen to the MissionCreep podcast.

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Featured image is Naomi Campbell’s selfie for the #WakeUpCall campaign. Photo from Instagram.

Adelie penguins in East Antarctica. Photo by Pauline Askin/Reuters

Last Week Today: 29 August 2014

Committed to giving you last week’s globaldev news today

Many people go to grad school after a stint overseas with AVID, Peace Corps or VSO. Others find a job in their country of service. Some move back into their parents’ basement. This one is doing something a little different.

The Bachelor

“What made you want to be part of The Bachelor Australia?: I’ve been living on a remote island (Vanuatu) for 14 months, volunteering in a developing world country, and it really put my personal life on hold. I thought it was time to do something for me”.

That’s one way of handling reverse culture shock

The week in news

In the biggest news story this week, the conflict between Israel and Gaza (apparently now known as the 2014 Israel-Gaza Conflict) is over, with both sides agreeing to an indefinite ceasefire. On the other hand, there is increasingly little doubt that Russia is, in fact, invading Ukraine.

Newsweek caused a major stir this week, with its story on ebola and bushmeat and cover photo of a chimpanzee. Critics have accused the magazine of fear-mongering, racism, factual inaccuracy and stereotyping Africa.

Meanwhile, a leaked UN report on global warming reveals alarming new findings, and details why inaction is immoral.

In other news, Burger King is relocating its headquarters to Canada (presumably to escape U.S. taxes) – and has bought out the country’s signature brand, Tim Hortons, to the disappointment of Canadians everywhere.

The week on the blog

Young humanitarians: Challenging the stereotype of Generation Y

Millenials are always being stereotyped as lazy and self-centered. But plenty of young people are passionate and engaged, and care about global issues. If this sounds like you, and you’re in Melbourne, join us at Expanse on Saturday.

Will the real humanitarians please stand up?

We didn’t like the list of 30 humanitarians that came out last week. Does being a head of state or having a lot of money really make someone a humanitarian? Our Director Brendan Rigby compiled a WhyDev-approved list of humanitarians, people who exemplify compassion, service and humility.

Results for the Top 5 Aid Worker Tunes are in. You won’t believe what they are!

Put in your earbuds for that next humanitarian assistance flight, plug in the iPod speakers for the aid worker house party this weekend, or crank up the volume in your first-world apartment and re-live your “field” days. Our playlist of the Top Aid Worker Tunes is here!

The week in globaldev

The best and most common arguments in favour of bad aid | AidSpeak

An #IceBucketChallenge for development… Could we? Should we? | Politics of Poverty

Cookstoves, rape and the problem with simple solutions | Humanosphere

What’s next for the global disabled people’s movement? | From Poverty to Power

Do ads about girls’ empowerment detract from actual girls’ empowerment? | Wait… What?

Treating Africa like a dirty, diseased place | Monkey Cage

12 tips for getting a job in international development | The Guardian

7 things non-profits can learn from start-ups | Entrepreneur

The real heroes of Liberia’s ebola crisis | BuzzFeed

Upcoming Events

Expanse: The one-day conference to empower young humanitarians | Melbourne, 30 August (Register with the promotion code WD896 for a $5 discount! This ticket also gets you into the Unleashed Festival on Sunday!)

top-gun-cruise

Results for the Top 5 Aid Worker Tunes are in. You won’t believe what they are!

The results are in! 475 votes were cast, despite no incentive being offered and a lack of Ryan Seacrest. What follows is an annotated bibliography of the Top 5 Aid Worker Tunes, starting with #5.

#5  Chop My Money (P-Square)

No surprises this dance floor classic made the Top 5, particularly for those aid workers who have been on assignment in West Africa. Nigerian twin brothers, Peter and Paul Okoye, signed a record deal with Akon’s Konvict Muzik record label in 2011, and Akon himself features on this track. Amassing over 21 million views on YouTube, “chop my money” essentially means “spend my money,” which the Brothers P proclaim again and again that they don’t care. I’m not sure on the origins, but “chopmoney” in Ghana at least refers to money usually given by a husband to his wife for food.

#4  99 Problems (Jay Z)

Like Katy Perry, a dark horse where this list is concerned. Personally, I’m very happy to see it made the Top 5. It is another problem less that Jay Z has to worry about. “If you having list problems I feel bad for you soon. I got 99 problems but WhyDev ain’t one.” Produced by legend Rick Rubin, the title and chorus actually come from an early version by Law & Order’s Ice-T. According to Jay-Z, he is referring to a police dog, and not to a woman.

#3  Circle of Life (The Lion King)

Further embedding stereotypes of the African continent and providing parody material for years to come, “Circle of Life” is a classic late night, drunken aid worker house party anthem. Usually played around midnight or soon after, the song unites the inebriated in a joyous celebration of childhood, white man’s burden and arms raised to the sky. (Do you realise The Lion King  is 20 years old? There are students studying development as undergraduates right now, who did not grow up with the film and its glorious soundtrack).

#2  Imagine (John Lennon)

Imagine if this song didn’t make it into the Top 5? Not so much a party anthem, but rather a war cry for peace, unity and the dissolution of government, religion and statehood, “Imagine” is an aid worker’s wet dream. Lennon stated that the song is “virtually a Communist Manifesto even though I am not particularly a Communist and I do not belong to any movement.” It’s also in Rolling Stone’s top 5 of the greatest 500 songs of all time.

#1  Africa (Toto)

The odds of “Africa” coming in at #1 were about 2 to 1. Although the YouTube video has fewer views than “Chop My Money,” this is the anthem of ex-pat aid workers all around the world. The rest of the world was introduced to it by the animated series Family Guy, in which a flashback shows Peter’s neighbour Joe (cop, eventually wheelchair-bound) meeting his wife Bonnie for the first time. In a strip club. To the music of Toto. As she gives him a lap dance.  The actual music video is far stranger. It features a library, a globe and a spear. Oh, and there is a book he takes from the shelf entitled “Africa.” However, the real kicker is the idea behind the song, which is aptly explained by the drummer, Jeff Porcaro: “… a white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he’s never been there, he can only tell what he’s seen on TV or remembers in the past.” Lead singer, David Paich continues and tell us what we all knew deep down:

“At the beginning of the ’80s, I watched a late night documentary on TV about all the terrible death and suffering of the people in Africa. It both moved and appalled me, and the pictures just wouldn’t leave my head. I tried to imagine how I’d feel about if I was there and what I’d do.”

In addition, I’ve chosen one song from the list of “Other” songs nominated by voters for the inaugural Kenny Loggins Honourable Mention WhyDev Award for Merit. It of course goes to “Danger Zone,” by the award’s namesake. Thanks to the music video and its counterpart Top Gun, Navy recruitment spiked in 1986 when the film was released. Somehow I don’t think Brad Pitt’s World War Z  had the same effect for NGOs and the UN.

The rest of the nominations:

Give a Little Bit (Goo Goo Dolls)
Emma (Emmanual Jal)
Once in a Lifetime (Talking Heads)
Inner Ninja (Classified)
Moonshine (Bruno Mars)
Redemption Song (Bob Marly)
Living Darfur (Mattafix)
Roar (Katy Perry)
Danger Zone (Kenny Loggins)
Disparate Youth (Santigold)
Fix You (Coldplay)
Sleep Now in the Fire (Rage Against the Machine)
Leaving on a Jet Plane (John Denver)
Roam (B52s)
Wavin’ Flag (K’naan feat. David Bisbal)
Taking Care of Business (BTO)
My Heart Will Go On (Celine Deon)
Hall of Fame (The Script)
We Found Love (Rihanna)
Like a Rolling Stone (Bob Dylan)
Leaders of the Free World (Elbow)
I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Whitney Houston)
If I Was President (Wyclef Jean)
On the Floor (Jennifer Lopez)
Last Night on Earth (U2)
Wonderwall (Oasis)

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Last Week Today: 8 August 2014

Don’t have time to scan the web for global news? Want to know about development events and jobs? Sick of having a million emails in your inbox?

Want to know about development events and jobs? Sick of having a million emails in your inbox? – See more at: http://www.whydev.org/8-august-2014-the-week-in-links/#sthash.xI7M0fJI.dpuf
Don’t have time to scan the web for global news?
Don’t have time to scan the web for global news?Want to know about development events and jobs? Sick of having a million emails in your inbox?

We’re here to help.

Today we’re launching Last Week Today – a weekly post that has the best stories, news, events and jobs in global development.

Now you can breathe a sigh of relief. Last Week Today is all you need.

So grab a coffee, sit back, and enjoy the week’s best in global development.

The week in news

Niger is the French word for Nigeria, right?

CNN

CNN’s on-air mistake has reignited discussions about ignorance of developing countries, and brought attention to the network’s past misplacing of Ukraine, and Hong Kong, and London, and…

Washington, D.C., was abuzz this week with President Obama’s parade of autocrats (aka, the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit) which brought over 40 heads of state to the White House.

In the rest of the world: this was a tragic week in parts of China and Nepal, and Afghanistan’s election crisis is worsening. South Sudan is facing a triple threat of violence, famine, and cholera. The ebola outbreak is reportedly spreading, though not as fast as our fears of it.

It’s not making global headlines, but our love affair with coffee may have some seriously damaging environmental consequences.

And in this week’s edition of is-this-for-real, USAID has evidently been sending young Latin Americans to incite rebellion in Cuba, using the cover of HIV-prevention workshops.

The week from the blog

NGOs can learn from YouTube celebrities

Most NGOs these days blog, tweet, use Facebook – but not many of them use video effectively. Our Communications Director Rachel Kurzyp explains how organisations could pick up some tips from (who else?) the celebrities of YouTube.

Starving for awareness

The UN is feeding refugees a starvation diet: 850 calories a day. When Francisco Toro found out about it, he didn’t “like” a post or order a bracelet. Instead, he ate a tiny bowl of sorghum and lentils – and nothing else.

The gendered lens is always a good bet for looking smart to your development friends. Cartoon by Kirsty Newman.
The gendered lens is always a good bet for looking smart to your development friends. Cartoon by Kirsty Newman.

The week in links

Tips for looking smart to development geeks | Kirsty Evidence

New research suggests there are three types of female aid workers. | Women in Aid

Africa’s rising, Africa’s falling…but it’s mostly rising. | The Washington Post

Two theories on why we’re so obsessed with giving away our old stuff | Blood and Milk

Beggars can’t be choosers, but are they really beggars…? | Good Intentions (courtesy of USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information)

Can volunteers really cause harm? | AidSpeak

No doubt about it, 850-calorie-a-day food rations aren’t enough to survive. | 850 Calories

Is Bitcoin the next big thing in financial inclusion? | Development Channel

Are health gains in developing countries really helping the poor? | Brett Keller

New evidence for the impact of education on women’s health | Humanosphere

The week in events

Complex? Nah just a Tuesday | Melbourne

Always on the go? Have a version sent straight to your inbox every Friday.  Just sign up for the Last Week Today newsletter.
Rations

Starving for awareness

By Francisco Toro

Like most right-thinking people, I had decided to devote 1 July to football. After Argentina’s grinding, 1-0 defeat of Switzerland, I was getting ready to enjoy the USA-Belgium match, when a link on Twitter caught my eye. “As food shortages hit 800,000 African refugees,” warned the press release, “UNHCR and WFP issue urgent appeal.”

The story is entirely garish: the kind of too-awful-to-be-true story we’ve all gotten so adept at seeing-and-not-seeing. Due a budget shortfall, UN agencies had to cut food rations for refugees throughout Africa. In some cases, people are getting as much as 60% less to eat. The new rations, The Guardian warned, come to scarcely 850 calories a day.

We’re all supposed to be grown ups, able to read-but-not-read a story like that, right? And yet, this time, I couldn’t. As I tried to concentrate on the USMNT’s valiant-but-doomed stand against the tactically superior Belgians, my mind kept drifting back.

“850 calories. How can you even live on that?”

One day's rations
One day’s rations – 150g sorghum, 30g lentils, 25g oil, 5g salt, 5g sugar

I think most people who go into advocacy have a moment like that, when a story not so different from the ones you’re used to just passing over stays with you, tugs at you, worms its way into your every thought, becomes unignorable. That night, I found myself up at 3am, turning it over on my mind, re-reading the UNHCR story, looking for extra information (of which there wasn’t any).

I guess I’m pretty green on these issues, because I really thought over the next few days I’d start to see this story crop up other places. I mean, this is a famine brewing inside UN facilities, affecting people living under the international community’s protection. Surely the story had legs.

The days went by, and I found myself first confused, then dismayed, and finally shocked to be disabused of this hope. The story about the food crisis inside UNHCR refugee camps was going absolutely nowhere. It came, it blipped, it disappeared into the digital oblivion of a public sphere saturated with football and Hobby Lobby and downed Malaysia Airlines jets.

“These Africans sure picked a lousy weak for the UN to run out of money to feed them,” I mused darkly and tried to move on. But I couldn’t move on. I was stuck.

“How would you like it if you had to live on…” I found myself ranting at my wife. And at that moment, the idea came to me.

By the end of that week, a first draft of 850 Calories was online, and I was frantically trying to figure out how to get people to join me. I bet if people experienced for themselves what it’s like to live for even one day on African refugee rations, they wouldn’t be comfortable to know this is happening to 800,000 people whose only “crime” is fleeing from conflicts that threatened their lives.

So there’s indignation, of course, at the wellspring of the campaign, but there’s also analysis. There’s a reason UNHCR and WFP face the kind of funding gap that’s left them no choice but to drastically cut back on African refugees’ food rations. And it comes back to that complete information gap I saw in the days following their joint appeal. Nobody’s heard this story, so nobody cares to tell this story, so nobody writes this story – with some very few, fantastically brave exceptions.

Refugees in Central Africa are suspended in a vicious cycle of Western disengagement and international neglect, the cost of which is measured in stunted children, anemic mothers, child brides and community breakdown. The Western politicians who ultimately control the purse-strings find it eminently easy to ignore the agencies’ pleas for money, because none of their constituents have ever heard this story, and they’re thus under no pressure whatsoever to act.

This, I think, is why 850 Calories is different from things like One Day without Shoes or the infamous Kony2012 campaign. Those are cases where the fact of Western awareness, of it “being a thing,” didn’t necessarily do anything to solve the problem. Shoelessness is an intractable problem, and Boko Haram is a war machine the West would struggle to face down even if it made military commitments many orders of magnitude larger than what hastagtivism can accomplish.

But the food crisis inside UNHCR’s camps is different. Here’s a situation where, in fact, just making it “a thing” would produce pressure for Western politicians to solve the problem. If people start to take the 850 challenge, post about it, tweet about it, get their friends doing it and get them posting and thinking about it, the problem could go from total invisibility to cultural ubiquity a lot quicker than folks realize. That would create the kind of environment in which politicians have strong reasons to fund the UNHCR-WFP appeal, and the funding is all that’s missing now. After all, the camps are already there, the refugees are already registered, the logistics are already in place, the only thing missing is the money. Well, the money, and the will.

850 Calories is just starting, and I have no idea if it’ll ever have its “viral” moment. Experts tell me that, with its absence of a clearly identifiably bad guy and its focus on a largely unheard-of crisis, it may not.

It may be that we just let refugees in Central Africa starve to death slowly under our “protection.” That’s the crude reality – the least we can do is face it squarely.

I’m just one guy with a keyboard in Montreal. It may be that there isn’t really anything I can do to stop that. But Thomas Friedman’s been boring us to death for years now about how we’re all “hyper-empowered” thanks to the net and, personally, I’d much rather give it a shot and fail than never try at all.

Francisco Toro is a Montreal-based journalist, blogger and activist. He blogs at Boring Development, and you can follow him on Twitter.

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Downton Abbey goes to Africa

Ed Carr and his colleagues recently wrote “a serious history” of celebrities, activism and humanitarianism. It is seriously good. Then, Telegraph reporter Jake Wallis Simons (two-thirds of a great law firm name), wrote a profile piece on Elizabeth McGovern (aka Lady Cora of Downton Abbey). It is perhaps the single greatest piece of journalism about celebrity, humanitarianism and Africa you will ever read. It is already receiving rave reviews from those such as Ed, who calls it,”the most insane, boggling thing I have ever read on celebrity aid in Africa.”

What follows are some highlights (Spoiler alerts). This piece requires and deserves multiple readings.

  • Sierra Leone is “in every conceivable sense a long way from Downton”. And we begin!
  • McGovern was engaged to Sean Penn at the age of 23. She hates Woody Allen.
  • She is in a band, called ‘Sadie and the Hotheads’. Apparently, the band is sponsored by World Vision!?! “World Vision has paid her band £28,000 to fund the recording of their latest album and a UK tour, in return for which they have agreed to promote the charity.” And down the rabbit hole we go!

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  • When the flight stopped en route to Sierra Leone, it refuelled in Dakar, Senegal. McGovern thought they were in Darfur, Sudan. Miss it by that much!
  • Simons claims that “World Vision is the biggest charity you’ve never heard of”. So, by that logic, you’ve probably never heard of ANY charities.
  • McGovern didn’t realise World Vision was a Christian organisation. According to Simons, “charity representatives failed to make their Christianity clear to her”. But, she chose not to pull out because “on balance, it is an organisation that does a lot of good for many people”. (And, paid her band  £28,000. See above).
  • McGovern is suitably impressed with Freetown. ‘”Their food must be so healthy,” says McGovern. “You don’t see all those crap chains and stuff. But I guess that will change as the country gets more modern. It’s like a holiday. I feel a bit guilty.”‘
  • Brad Pitt. They stay in the same hotel as Brad Pitt. McGovern starred alongside Pitt in The Favour (1994). (The film received reviews such as this: “I remember seeing this when first released, and I remember not liking it, but I no longer remember the film at all”). She casually remarks that she slept with Pitt once (on-camera) and that he doesn’t have sex appeal. Are you not entertained?

Brad-Pitt-The-Favor-1994

  • World Vision paid for McGovern’s trip. McGovern was under the impression that World Vision doesn’t spend money on promotion. Wilson, World Vision’s PR representative for the trip corrects her. The trip wasn’t cheap. McGovern was told otherwise when pitched too. Wilson suggests that she shouldn’t say that in interviews and should instead focus on the organisation’s long-term aid.
  • Lets talk about gender and sex: “I get the impression that in Africa people have sex far more freely than we do back home”, says McGovern. Wait for it… “I wonder if World Vision would take on the problem of women wearing the burka?” Wait for it… “And that clitoris thing is awful”. Bingo.
  • Lets talk about World Vision and proselytising: Simons asks the World Vision driver of 10 years if the organisation ever tries to convert people. His response is one for the ages:

“Christianity is our goal,” he says. “In some Muslim areas they are suspicious of us. So we put our effort into setting up clinics, permanent schools, and establish a society. Gradually they see we are good people. Then we pay professional pastors to preach to them. That is our final goal.”

  • McGovern meets the girl she has been sponsoring for 1.5 years. Simons calls McGovern’s sponsorship “no great act of philanthropy”, references the fact that both the girl and McGovern are stuck in a “feedback loop of public relations”. A moment of wisdom.
  • The girl’s parents are told by the World Vision representative Wilson that McGovern is a TV star, so people listen to her.
  • McGovern gives the girl a skipping rope, bubble mixture and a bouncy ball. McGovern and her daughter (did I mention her 15-year old daughter came along?) are given fresh coconuts, matching smocks and two live chickens. Fair trade?
  • Then, suddenly, on the final day, McGovern comes out from her room. Simons describes her as looking white as a sheet. (Is there a pun buried in there somewhere?). McGovern dropped her iPhone in the toilet. It never recovered.

Get a cup of tea. Take some time to reorientate. Sit down. Take a deep breathe. In through your nose…Out through your mouth. Ok. Better? Now for your thoughts.

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We do aid, not English!

Over a few years of involvement in the aid sector in Asia, I became aware that aid workers turn their noses up at ‘English work’. Managers from my Australian government volunteering program encouraged us not to be sucked in to being human dictionaries while on NGO postings. In China, where I was, the USA’s Peace Corps strategy of sending volunteers ‘only’ to teach English was the subject of bristling critique: ‘How linguistically imperialist!’, we thought.

However, our local colleagues at NGOs and so called ‘development-sector’ government agencies often made requests of us native English speakers: to speak English with them, proofread and draft reports, apply for grants, translate the organisation’s website, help with overseas university applications and tutor their friends’ children. This sparked complaints like ‘I feel like I’m here mostly to translate’ and ‘I’m doing proofreading and admin tasks which I don’t see as capacity building’.

It is frustrating to move overseas and find you are expected to provide little but ‘white face time’ or ‘foreigner cache’ in your job. (It’s worth noting native speakers are not all Caucasian, despite the assumption that this is the case in many countries where English is an ideal). But is English language aid underrated?

Discounting ‘English work’ doesn’t happen because aid workers are haughty. These people have professional training in fields like environmental science or public health and believe they were hired to contribute in those areas. Moreover, many native English speakers recognize that they have no professional language teaching experience. Most aid workers are conscientious global citizens, wary of being language imperialists. But these ‘good reasons’ are misconceived, I argue.

Wrong skills

Without teaching training, you are a less-than-ideal candidate to teach, no question. But in the regions I’m talking about, learners seldom get to select from a smorgasbord of English-speaking trained teachers and native English-speaking non-teachers. Even the Peace Corps receive some teacher training and teach in impoverished areas where TESOL staff-members are otherwise in short supply. Moreover, in all Second Language Acquisition (SLA), important learning is done beyond the classroom and after childhood: for instance, between aid workers and their adult colleagues. Psychologist Vygotsky showed peer group learning with ‘more knowledgeable others’ was a productive part of language acquisition, with no teacher needed. Modelling grammatical and pragmatically-appropriate language provides useful input for learners. In short, helping colleagues with their English tasks or even just conversing can be valuable for their language learning and is within any English speaker’s ability.

Imperialism

In many countries, people see access to a native English speaker as a boon. Why not give communities what they think would assist their upward mobility? The contribution to informal, out-of-classroom English learning these native speakers provide is something their colleagues and communities may find even more valuable than the specific aid project, especially as the expense, scarcity and systemic preference given to children’s classes make formal language learning inaccessible to many adolescents and adults who want it.

As Kamwangamalu notes of Africa – and I’ve found this in China, too – ‘stakeholders reject their own indigenous languages […] because they consider them insignificant and of no practical value in the linguistic marketplace’ (Kamwangamalu 2013). In this, local stakeholders are not wrong; English is indisputably of great value in many markets. Many (including me) would say this is evidence of linguistic hegemony and non-native English speakers are complicit in their own linguistic domination by prioritising English, embracing the coloniser’s model of the world. Even so, is it an incoming English speaker’s place to decide to attack hegemony by refusing to help people proofread?

Often, English is the language of power and funding, particularly for international aid, and non-elites may well perceive English as a resource monopolized by elites to preserve their status. For instance, Ghanaians ‘expressed the view that using the vernacular as an instructional medium was a subtle strategy employed by the elite to perpetuate communities’ marginalization from mainstream society’ (Mfum-Mensah 2005, p. 80).

Whether or not we oppose English’s dominance ideologically, it is beneficial to proofread co-workers’ donor reports, make templates for the office and attend events to speak for the organisation or those it assists, in English. The more co-workers are included in these activities, the better. That oft-encountered request to help a friend-of-a-friend with a personal English task should likewise be accepted, because language competencies can function as collective resources. Indeed, many linguists now advocate studying ‘actual linguistic, communicative, semiotic resources’ rather than ‘languages’ (Blommaert, 2010, p. 102). English resources can benefit networks rather than merely individuals. In expanding the networks around English resources, inequality and elitism is reduced.

Both national politics and international development are ‘Fields’ (Bourdieu, 1991). English is both economically and symbolically valuable in these Fields. Native English speakers – especially professionals doing aid volunteering – have an ability to use professional-register English at less expense (a Bourdieuian ‘Habitus’).  So it’s efficient for them to do tasks requiring professional English. Importantly, this is not short term efficiency at the expense of long term efficiency; helping out with English tasks now doesn’t preclude co-workers’ language acquisition in the longer term. Rather, it can play a part in their improvement so the ‘cost’ of professional English for colleagues will decrease over time. English-speaking aid workers, in doing ‘English work’, can improve their hosts’ access to material support and their ability to be heard in international forums.

The benefit of mobility of individuals, of organisations and across community networks is hard to weigh against the detriment of linguistic imperialism, but this weighing up should not be shirked, and nor should the ‘English work’ involved.

This article first appeared on Language on the Move.

 

References

Blommaert, J. (2010). The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and symbolic power. Cambridge, Polity.

Kamwangamalu, N. M. (2013). “Effects of policy on English-medium instruction in Africa.” World Englishes 32(3): 325-337.

Mfum-Mensah, O. (2005). “The impact of colonial and postcolonial Ghanian language policies on vernacular use in two northern Ghanaian communities.” Comparative Education 41(1): 71-85.

africa1

Optimism and its discontents in sub-Saharan Africa

Are you optimistic about your future? Do you think that, in five years, your life will be better than it is now?

If you live in sub-Saharan Africa, your answer is probably a strong “YES,” according to a recent Gallup poll. It is, by far, the most optimistic region in the world. In countries like Burkina Faso, Comoros, and Niger, nearly all citizens are looking forward to a better future.

But the conclusion the polling company draws about why this is stands on trite, stale notions of Africa (as a single entity) being nothing more than a place of unremitting war, poverty, and suffering.

It’s a remarkably uninformed and improper statement from the venerable organization, and it should be changed to reflect the reality: the recent pasts of these countries gives them reason to be optimistic about their futures, too.

The poll looked at respondents’ answers to the Cantril Self-Anchoring Scale, which works like this:

Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you.

On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time? (ladder-present)

On which step do you think you will stand about five years from now? (ladder-future)

In other words, it asks: how is your life now and how do you expect it to be in five years? If the future is rated higher than today, a person is optimistic; lower than today, pessimistic.

The defining characteristic of 14 of the top 15? Geography.optimism - picture 1

Excluding Turkmenistan, they’re all in sub-Saharan Africa.

What’s going on here? Gallup offers two explanations.

First, because the scale is relative, if a person indicates that right now they’re “at the top of their ladder,” by definition they can’t be more optimistic about the future. Unfortunately, there’s not enough free, publicly available data to get a sense for how much this affects the results.

Gallup completely misses the mark in its second explanation:

“Some of the most optimistic countries are those with the lowest current life ratings – reflecting the belief that their current situations are poor and can only get better. Optimism may be more widespread in these countries simply because people cannot imagine that their lives could get any worse.” (emphasis mine)

That claim doesn’t hold up to even the barest scrutiny. It’s destructive and pernicious to view sub-Saharan African countries as little more than places where life can’t get worse.

Three simple anecdotes should help show why:

I suspect Rwandans, Congolese, and Ugandans can pretty easily imagine their lives being worse than they are today.

Getting past simple anecdotes, though, let’s use Gallup’s own publicly available data to see if they’re making a data-driven explanation, or defaulting to lazy tropes:

optimism - picture 2

Above are the mean Cantril scores for almost all of the most optimistic countries (Comoros’ data was tough to find), with the BRICs for comparison. Some of the African countries which just can’t possibly get any worse are, on average, currently more satisfied than India, China, and South Africa.

Do you think Gallup would argue that Indians and Chinese believe their lives couldn’t get any worse?

Let’s take it one step further, and look at the recent past for these countries, using economic growth and maternal mortality as general indicators of improvement:

picture 3

pcture 4

Most of the optimistic countries have seen high economic growth and improvements in health in recent years. In other words: life’s already better than it was, and there’s every reason to think it’s going to be even better in five years. These countries are optimistic because the recent past gives them reason to feel good about the future.

If Greece was growing at 7% annually, it’d be optimistic, too. It’s not, and it isn’t; 38% of Greeks believe their lives will be worse in five years, actually.

To be sure, absolute per capita GDP is incredibly low in many of these countries, and too many mothers will not live to see their children grow up all across the region. We all hope that the future will be better than the present.

But it’s not because “things can’t get worse,” a false statement that leads to readers having an extremely distorted view of sub-Saharan Africa.

This post was originally featured at PolicyMic

toms

Some bad news about TOMS shoes

Just about every twenty-something knows the name. You can spot TOMS shoes on college campuses across the country, often sported by young, socially minded students.

The founding idea, a buy-one-give-one promise, captures the hearts of that young idealistic demographic quite well, satisfying its two greatest cravings simultaneously– one, the desire to feel a part of change (preferably without trying very hard), and two, the desire to, well… look cool. So successful has the company been that it recently sold its two millionth pair, making it at least a 100 million dollar enterprise.

I’ll admit it. I too once donned a pair of grey TOMS cordones every morning, and felt rather smug as I slipped my toes into the little cloth shoe, imaging my improvised counterpart in some distant, developing nation doing the same.

However it has become clear as of late that while the company can certainly craft a stylish shoe, their proficiency in the aid realm is a bit lacking. Actually, to speak frankly, it’s downright detrimental.

The argument against TOMS is threefold.

First, the TOMS model is incredibly inefficient. On the website, TOMS justifies its battle against shoelessness largely from a public health perspective, with their thin cloth shoe sufficing as a barrier between the feet of young children and the many parasites and infections they might incur from the ground below. Perhaps the greatest threat they tolerate by walking barefoot is hookworm, a tiny yet ferocious parasite that is transmitted by walking through the fecal matter of an infected human being.

While TOMS shoes can certainly be considered a solution to this endemic, there are a number of more effective alternatives. A former Peace Corps volunteer and blogger illustrates this point quite well through a hypothetical scenario.

Imagine there is a school of 1,000 students in rural developing anywhere. Hookworm and infections are common among the population, as the students must walk through an area some in the community have begun to use as a latrine. Assuming each pair of shoes is about a $27 value (half the cost of the average buy-one-give-one TOMS shoe), you can give each child a pair for $27,000, a fix that would likely prevent any continued hookworm incidence for the next two years until the shoes inevitably wear out (that’s a generous time frame).

Alternatively, if this money was instead donated to a local public health organization, cement latrine facilities could be built near by for an estimated cost of $2,000. In essence with the same funds ($27,000) one could temporary postpone hookworm incidence for two years in one community, or eradicate them for decades in 13.

Second, the buy-one-give-one model is an archetype for that classic aid mistake of giving fish, rather than training fisherman. While TOMS gives shoes in over 50 countries, their products are made only in Argentina, Ethiopia and China. That means in most the communities they give, their “shoe drops” constitute an economic bomb to any local industry that may have existed prior to the introduction of free international shoes.

That is no scare tactic. This pattern of aid crushing local industry is well documented. One startling example is a 2008 study that found that used clothing donations to Africa were responsible for a 50 percent reduction in employment in that sector between 1981 and 2000 on the continent.

Poverty in Africa is a consequence of a general economic stagnation. Giving of any kind targets the symptom, not the disease. A more effective alternative would be to support local business by selling locally made shoes internationally, rather than bringing free ones into the community. Check out Nisolo Shoes, a company that is doing just that – selling the hand made leather shoes of Peruvian craftsmen and women to the American public.

A third and final complaint, is more of a moral objection, rather a theoretical aid practicum problem. TOMS and its founder Blake Mycoskie, have been accused recently of favoring evangelical groups as giving partners, and even distributing shoes more frequently to Christian children. While the TOMS website says specifically that no preference is given to any particular religion, a number of TOMS giving partners have been found only giving shoes before and after services at local churches.

For example, the missionaries working for one giving partner, Bridge to Rwanda, distributed some 6,000 shoes to a number of students at schools in that nation. They gave to 50 schools within one Anglican diocese, only delivering TOMS to one school outside that Christian network.

So for you committed TOMS supporters, is there any hope remaining for the organization? Any redemption? Maybe a little.

For one, while TOMS is certainly not an effective public health policy as far as bang for your buck, it is likely receiving money from people who might otherwise never donate to charities with more efficient means of combating hookworm and similar illnesses. In a sense, their creativity in marketing and ability to expand the donor base gives them some redemption.

Second, its new sunglasses program steers a bit away from the buy-one-give-one model, and instead promises only that the money from your purchase will go to help administer proper eye care and medical examinations in the developing world. The program seems a bit too new to make any substantive evaluations, but at least on face value it appears to be, if nothing else, a harmless venture.

However, while I am naturally an optimist, I have to admit I can’t see TOMS being anything but bad for the developing world, and how the West perceives it. The organization has White Man’s Burden written all over it.

My advice? Stop buying TOMS shoes. There are far better ways to help the developing world, and a number of shoe companies that can make you look (almost) as cool.

If you miss the feeling of people knowing you care about “the world” as you trod around campus, do what I did… start a blog (and shamelessly self-promote).

Some good places to check if you want more info:

Good Intentions Are Not Enough: aid commentator and leader of an anti-TOMS movement

Tiny Spark: a podcast concerning TOMS

John Favini is an undergraduate student seeking a degree in International Affairs at Lafayette College. His studies focus on Development and the African continent. He was a participant in American University’s Washington Semester Program on Islam and World Affairs, and is currently participating in CIEE’s Language and Culture program in Dakar, Senegal. This was originally posted on John’s blog.