Jul 31, 2011 at 10:40 pm Leave a comment

This article originally appeared on PDT’s Building Markets blog on July 21, 2011.

Oh, Michele Bachmann. How could my friends and I resist talking about the latest American history falsehood that came out of your mouth the other day? Much to my chagrin, one of my brilliant friends pointed out that Bachmann and others’ incorrect statements are exactly why many Americans relate to the Republican Party. Republicans don’t talk down to their audience, as those liberal-elites tend to do. They speak to average Americans like one of their own friends – friends who probably do occasionally get the story of Paul Revere backwards.

Call me crazy, but somehow this got me thinking about the stories NGOs tell about themselves and their work, in particular the recent discussion around Global Soap.

Uganda native Derreck Kayongo, the son of a soap maker, founded Global Soap, which sanitizes and reprocesses used hotel soap bars and sends them to impoverished nations with soap shortages.


After reading CNN’s Hero coverage of Kayongo and Global Soap, PDT bossman Scott Gilmore penned an open letter to Kayongo, the gist of which was that by giving out free soap, the organization is undercutting local businesses that produce their own soap. He suggested that a more effective business model is to sell the reprocessed soap in the US, and use the revenues to buy soap from a local producer.

Scott’s letter received a lot of responses, including one from blogger Liora Hess. Her argument was that Global Soap’s story is more compelling than it would be if they followed Scott’s advice: “Sometimes getting our hands dirty…with a simple, if less efficient, process is more compelling and wider reaching than a distanced, if more efficient, process.” She makes a valid point, albeit one that breaks my heart a little.

Perhaps I’ve been immersing myself in the #smartaid Twitter crowd too much, but should the story of a founder or an organization matter as much as that organization’s impact?

If the answer were yes, then I would argue that this line of thinking is one of the biggest problems of aid and charity, for several (fairly well-known) reasons:

  • These types of stories give the impression that the solutions to poverty and development are as simple as buying a shoe or sending soap. As blogger Tales from the Hood argues, these aid projects can help (many also make things worse) but they aren’t going to solve the underlying problems of poverty and disease nor lead to development.
  • In order to show a clear story that illustrates obvious need to the public and donors, NGOs rely on “portraits of despair” of their recipients. You know, the ones of African babies with bloated bellies and flies in their eyes, otherwise known as poverty porn. These images characterize aid recipients as helpless and incapable and contribute to the paternalism of Western aid by allowing us to consider the recipients as lesser than equals. Would you want you and your family pictured that way?
  • Oversimplifying the story often results in bad development policies, leading government officials to support solutions that are easy to package but often not effective.
  • Emphasizing the story leads to consumerism charities, such as TOMS and Project RED because the reasons for supporting a cause shift away from the impact of an organization to the emotional appeal of a trendy brand.
  • And let us not forget Greg Mortenson. When we fall in love with a founder or an organization primarily for their presentation, we forget to think critically about the organization or project. We’re blinded by the story.
Greg Mortenson

Despite all these negatives, I don’t wholeheartedly believe that the general public has to have a juicy story to feel compelled to donate. Can we only comprehend black-and-white stories that are neatly gift-wrapped for our consumption? Is the general public – myself included – seriously incapable of thinking about complex problems and solutions?

To this I give a resounding no! But now it’s up to us.

The aid organizations and the celebrities aren’t going to be the ones who change their marketing. After all, it’s working. We, the consumers and donators, can change this, and I’m making a heartfelt plea for us to do so.

Resist the appeal of the story. Say no to George Clooney’s oversimplification of the Sudan conflict. Stop yourself before you buy that RED Starbucks mug. Donate to organizations whose cause and impact you’ve spent time researching and whose Web site gave you all the information you needed to know to make a well-informed decision. Send money to those organizations whose photos depict Africans working, smiling and living dignified lives, not exploitative photos of them suffering and crying. Tell your friends to do the same. Give feedback to organizations on their promotional strategies – good and bad, so they realize why you are making these decisions. The story sells, but it doesn’t work. Let’s show the aid community that we aren’t fools.

Bauleni Banda, Chikandwe Village, Malawi – two ways to tell a story (photo credit Duncan McNicholl)

Entry filed under: Africa, Human Rights, Humanitarian Aid & Assistance, Society. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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