Tag Archives: africa

Annual NGO ranking shows that the “white savior” status quo remains intact

This post originally appeared on Africa Is a Country, and is re-printed here with permission.

Teju Cole wrote that a white saviour is someone who, “supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening”.

Continue reading Annual NGO ranking shows that the “white savior” status quo remains intact

The music of Ebola: Beyond Band Aid

Media hype around the Band Aid 30 single has died down, but we keep hearing it playing everywhere…

The video begins with two workers in hazmat suits lifting an Ebola-stricken woman from her home. End scene, fade in to the smiling faces of One Direction, Seal, Bono, Sinead O-Connor, Paloma Faith, Rita Ora and several other celebrities crooning, “Where a kiss of love can kill you / and there’s death in every tear… A song of hope where there’s no hope tonight.”

The Band Aid 30 single, “Do they know it’s Christmas?”, originally written in 1984 to raise money to fight famine in Ethiopia, has already drawn much criticism from the people it tries to help, with headlines like these:

Africans, aid workers and pundits have offered plenty of deserved critique for the new song and video, but a Sierra Leonean friend once told me that anyone who has experienced Africa in a positive way has a responsibility to challenge harmful perceptions of the continent, such as those perpetuated by this new song. As I was living in Sierra Leone around this time last year, I’m following my friend’s advice and offering a short critique of the song’s tendency to reinforce negative, needy stereotypes of Africa. More importantly, I want to share some positive examples of what African artists are already doing about Ebola.

There’s no doubt Ebola is a tragedy, but only a few countries in Africa are affected by it, out of 54 incredibly diverse nations. Projects like this one that portray Africa, the continent, as being diseased and poverty-stricken harm its global image. When I lived in the beautiful, fertile, and resource-rich country of Sierra Leone, my experience was mostly positive—it is not a place that needs patronising pity. The perception that Africa, the whole continent, needs help and is unable to help itself hinders investment and tourism, and inspires more “White Saviour” projects…

…such as this one. The song is yet another example of a neo-colonial campaign that draws lines on who is the saviour and who needs saving, fulfilling Westerners’ desires and meeting their need to feel good about themselves. Raising awareness in such a way does little, aside from fulfilling the ill-informed longings of the involved Westerners.

In Sierra Leone, it’s an understatement to say music is an important part of the culture. Rather, it’s integral to the lifestyle, blaring from a radio, speaker or cell phone near you at all hours of the day. One of my neighbours in Freetown was a fairly successful reggae artist. I met him while I was walking home from work—he was standing along the roadside singing, with his friend playing the guitar. He asked me to record him with my phone and put it on YouTube. He felt as though making music was the best way to make a mark on the world, especially with the new tool of the Internet. We’re living in an age where Africans can finally show us their views directly and broadcast them across the web.

Over the past several months, African artists, including my Sierra Leonean friend, have represented their culture and made their mark by creating and re-mixing several songs about Ebola, many of which have been hits. Ebola music is on the radio non-stop in affected countries. The songs range from hip-hop to reggae to gospel; the lyrics can be informative or uplifting. Many artists have also posted their songs on the web.

The efforts of these artists should not be undercut, but “Do they know it’s Christmas” has done just that.

For perhaps the first time, the pet projects of white saviours can also be immediately posted on the Internet, projecting the image of Westerners as the solution to African problems into the worlds of Africans. Whereas before, we could get away with keeping patronising projects inside our privileged sphere, they no longer remain within our walls—Africans are listening, too. Their work can be insulted on their own turf.

The West African artists who’ve been singing and rapping about Ebola for months deserve recognition, not the perpetuation of negative stereotypes and the promotion of outsiders as liberators. You might have heard Africa Stop Ebola by legendary African artists Tiken Jah Fakoly, Amadou and Mariam, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare and others (which raises money for Doctors without Borders), but that’s just the beginning of African artists’ efforts.

Check out some of the catchiest songs about Ebola by local artists—some were produced independently, while others were made with development groups.

For more, check out this crowd-sourced database of song lyrics of 23 songs that “shout out Ebola,” all by African rappers and in five different languages. Let’s let African artists speak for their own countries.

Featured image is Liberian musician Black Diamond. Photo from Photos Liberia.

Last Week Today: Dubious sexuality

Dubious sexuality

Not wearing pants is frowned upon in most places, but cartoon characters are usually excused. Not so in Poland. A Polish council has just banned Winnie the Pooh from being the mascot of a local playground. Why? Pooh’s a hermaphrodite, and his (its?) “dubious sexuality” and “inappropriate dress” are unsuitable for children. Obviously.

If you’ve got Winnie the Pooh in your #SWEDOW, made sure you send it elsewhere…

The week in global news

Following an attack on a foreign NGO’s compound in Kabul, a South African pastor, his two teenaged children and an Afghan employee were killed.

For the second time in two weeks, a white policeman who killed an unarmed black man in the U.S. will not be charged.

In better news, online donations made on #GivingTuesday totaled over $26,000,000.

The week on the blog

52 break-up lines for aid workers

That pesky aid worker still bothering you? Hoping to leave your romance in the field? Need help explaining why you want out? Use one of our 52 break-up lines for aid workers.

Volunteering abroad with children: Some recommendations

In the sequel to her post from last week, Ruth Taylor outlines some best practices for organisations that have foreign volunteers and gives advice for potential volunteers looking for a placement.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The week in globaldev

Recreating the wheel in development

Don’t forget the peopleware.

Public school teaching should be more like Peace Corps.

Is your aid job getting you down?

Coming full-circle on voluntourism

Audio The latest Tiny Spark podcast features Dayo Olopade, talking about the potential she sees for Africa.

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

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

Featured image from DeviantArt.

What really happens to your donated clothing?

This post originally appeared on Shannon Whitehead’s blog and ONE.org and is re-printed here with permission.

By Shannon Whitehead

How often do you drop off clothes at your local charity shop?

If you’re anything like the rest of the country, Goodwill and Salvation Army are the perfect resources for discarding the stuff that you don’t need.

The pair of jeans that don’t fit you anymore? Donate. The sweater with the small hole in the armpit? Donate. The dress that’s been pushed to the back of your closet? Donate. Most of us see these donation centers as a way to throw out what we don’t want without actually throwing it out.

In fact, we believe we’re doing the world a service by giving our old clothes to those living somewhere in need.

In reality, what we’ve come to believe isn’t that simple. I’d go so far to say it’s fundamentally flawed. Here’s why:

  • About 4.7 billion pounds of clothing are donated by Americans each year. Some of that ends up in landfills, some of it is recycled into rags and insulation, and some of it ends up in the markets of sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Whether it’s Goodwill, Salvation Army, Savers or another charity shop, employees at all of these stores are sorting through the hundreds of bags of discarded clothing that comes in every day. Sifting through mostly worn, old and faded garments, only about 10 percent of the clothing donated is good enough to be resold in the retail store.
  • So what happens to the other 90 percent? The charity shop sells the garments by weight or by the bin to textile recyclers. The clothing is shipped to a recycling plant where employees sort the garments by “grade” and fiber. As shirts, dresses, pants and jackets come off a conveyor belt, an employee must make a snap decision as to where that piece of clothing will end up next.
  • The clothing deemed “re-sellable” is shipped in containers by the tons to countries such as Ghana, Angola, Cameroon, Congo, Tanzania and Rwanda. One hundred pound bales are then sold to sellers in these countries at a profit for the recycling plant. One bale costs around the same amount as feeding a family of five for a month in a country such as Cameroon.
  • The bales are not allowed to be opened until the purchase is final. So, the seller is relying completely on the employee who made a snap decision in the recycling center. If a recycler missed a hole in a shirt or a broken zipper on a pair of pants, the seller ends up paying for the mistake. The quality of the clothing is only as good as the recycling plant’s sorting method.
  • So, the plant must be pretty strict then, right? Actually, it’s a toss up. While there are responsible recyclers, there are just as many that are lenient and careless. In fact, there is no auditing system or accountability control should an entirely damaged bale show up in Africa. Because the seller needs to make the money back to buy his or her next bale, one bad purchase can result in bankruptcy.
  • The global trade of second-hand clothing is a multi-billion dollar industry for developed countries. With our clothing waste being sent overseas by the tons, there’s little chance of African countries, as a whole, developing their own textile trade. In the last 10 years, local industries, such as garment-making and tailoring, have collapsed, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers unemployed.

People will argue that the second-hand clothing industry in Africa is booming. And, on the surface, it is – over one-third of sub-Saharan Africans wear second-hand. The reality, though, is that for as long as the second-hand clothing industry thrives, Africa’s economy is unlikely to improve.

According to Professor Garth Frazer from the University of Toronto, no country has ever achieved a sustainable per-capita national income (at a level associated with a developing economy) without also achieving a clothing-manufacturing workforce that employs at least 1 percent of the population.

Over the years, certain African nations have attempted to ban or restrict the influx of Western clothing imports. In an effort to give existing industries a chance and to maintain traditional culture, countries such as South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria have tried to implement regulation. While it’s done some good for those countries, it hasn’t provided a solution.

Simply put, as long as we, the consumer, continue to buy and discard at our current rate, there will be a market for our wasted fashion. And we will likely continue to believe that once it’s out of our closet it’s out of our hands.

The facts in this post can be attributed to the research of Lucy Siegle, author of “To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?”, an op-ed by Tansy Hoskins and various other sources.

Shannon Whitehead is the founder of Factory45, an accelerator program that gives designers and makers the resources to start sustainable businesses in the USA. Shannon got her start in 2010 when she co-founded {r}evolution apparel, a sustainable clothing company for female travelers and minimalists. Applications for the Factory45 2015 program will open in February.

Featured image is a roadside market selling second-hand clothes in Chipata, Zambia. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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.

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

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

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!)

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)

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’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.

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.