The New Black

IRIN, the UN news wire, put out a piece called “Humanitarian work – it’s the new black” today. It starts off with this joke:

At an open-air concert somewhere, Bono is called to the stage to speak to the crowd.

At first, he says nothing, only claps his hands every few seconds. After about five claps, he says to the audience: “Every time I clap, a child in Africa dies.”

An audience member yells back: “Well stop sodding clapping then!”

Pretty funny stuff, eh?

But the rest of the piece, much to my dismay, doesn’t really attempt to answer any questions concerning celebrity endorsement of humanitarian causes. This is the bottom line, according to the author:

The bottom line, however, is that whatever their motives, big names do get publicity for the charities and causes they champion. Many people in the West know about the impacts of HIV in Africa because of Bono, they know about the crisis in Darfur because of George Clooney and Mia Farrow, and they know about orphans in Malawi because of Madonna.

I emphasized the verb “know”, because that is my main qualm with celebrity activism. What do people actually know about these issues? Very little. Raising awareness is great, but when complicated issues are boiled down too far, it creates a lot of misinformation, misunderstanding, which, ultimately does not serve the cause. And unless the “knowing” is accompanied by the “doing”, what’s the real value?

The other issue, that my prof Rony Brauman had raised, is that the crises or issues that are chosen by celebrities to be covered do not necessarily reflect the highest level of need. For instance, not a lot of celebrity activists are standing up for the distribution of rehydration salts which help children with diarrhea survive (2 million children per year die of diarrhea – that’s 6,000 children every day – if I were a huge cynic, I would point out that that represents a sh*t load more victims than the Darfur conflict.)

Mainstream media already does a pretty poor job of coverage – so many issues that are crucial in terms of human security (diarrhea), or regional security (the ongoing conflict in Somalia) for example, are sometimes brought up but never given the kind of attention that other “pet” issues have received. When you add another layer that determines coverage worthiness (is someone beautiful talking about this in large public gatherings?), then the reasons for which a crisis is covered in the media become increasingly less objective.

That being said, we should definitely differentiate between Jessica Simpson’s trip to Kenya and the real commitments made by the likes of Bono. Clearly, the two operate at very different levels of engagement, and their actions have different motives and consequences. Still though, to come back to the IRIN piece, how much more do people really know thanks to celebrity endorsements?

Give a Man a Line, Not a Fish (but what kind of line should you give him then?)

Fishing boats in Kokrobite, Ghana

It sometimes seems like the mantra “give a man a line, not a fish” summarizes the approach taken to development by most practitioners who wish to move away from hand outs and towards breeding sustainability. It makes perfect sense, right? If you give him the fish, he will eat now and be hungry tomorrow, and you’ll have to give him another, whereas if you give him a line, he’s going to start fishing for himself, and you can move to the next guy who needs help.

This trip to Ghana, I actually saw this motto written on some buildings, and it just kept popping up (both in my head, and in real life) – but thinking about it, I started to become slightly uncomfortable with it. Of course, it would be naive to say that this “line and fish” proverb is actually used as a strategy, but, for the sake of the argument, let’s extrapolate a bit. The whole idea behind this concept is that you want the beneficiary of your help to no longer have to extend his or her hand out for assistance, and that, instead, he or she will become self-reliant and empowered by this new found freedom.

While this is a laudable goal in theory, in practice, it seems to fall short all too often. When you give someone a “line” (could be a tractor to plow the earth, a sewing machine or oven to become more efficient, etc.), it’s not necessarily the “line” that he needs, or would have chosen freely. It’s not necessarily the most sustainable tool either – for instance, the sewing machine example : while the person you are giving it to may be ecstatic at the thought of having her own, the problem is that there 100 other people like you giving 100 other people like her a sewing machine. Which means that there will be insane competition between small scale sewers – and, unfortunately, if you haven’t given her (and the others) an effective marketing and sales strategy, you pretty much wasted your sewing machine.

This article discusses the preponderance of cooks in Monrovia – and the effects on the local economy:

NGO skills-training programmes that typically focus on skills such as soap-making, hair braiding, baking, tailoring and pastry-making have turned out far more people than there is demand for, the report found.

“The majority of [skills training] projects lack direct links to current or emerging market demand,” the report says. “Hairdressing, cosmetology, baking, tailoring, soap-making and tie-dye are offered in location after location.”

I’ve seen this in Buduburam – there are dozens of training programs for women that offer the aforementioned activities. The goal is to empower these women – the means to this end is to help them learn a trade that will enable them to generate income and sustain themselves. But when every one of your neighbors is getting the same “line”, you’re going to end up going after the same fish, right? The training skills programs don’t work together – in fact, they compete. In Buduburam, the Chrissetta Institute is where you want to be – they have the best reputation. Women of Glory churns out the most graduates, and is highly visible. It almost seems like the real point of these training programs is to empower the people who run them, rather than the people who benefit from them.

I made the mistake of sponsoring one lady’s training as a pastry chef – there are absolutely no jobs for her, and the women who already do this don’t want anyone to help them (because they can’t really scale up their activities, if they work with someone else, it will only marginally increase their productivity, while requiring them to share the profits).

So, yes, let’s give a “line”, and help people shift from dependency and inactivity to freedom and enterprise. But if we’re going to go down that road, we have to be ready to do more than just give the “line” – we also have to help them gain market access, help them develop a PLAN for the short term and the long term, give them the tools necessary to repair the “line” if it breaks or needs mending…. The “line” is just not enough, and while I admire and respect people who manage to break their own cycle of poverty with a simple “line”, if we want to create real, profound and lasting change, we have to do more than hand out these “lines”.

The word “holistic” always sounds a bit naive – so let’s say that we need to have multi-dimensional approaches to human development. The tools that we use in our own societies need to be made available – equalizing access to marketing and organizational resources, for example, is one of the ways in which this can be done. The “line”, in and of itself, can sometimes cause more harm than good, as people will harness all their hopes on it, even though the benefits it yields are marginal.

This video shows a group of village fishermen in Ghana – I watched them for over 2 hours, as they were manually reeling in their net. Involved in the process were not just the fishermen, but their pregnant wives, children… Essentially, the entire village participates in this.

(I realize that there is a white woman’s butt in this video – she was just passed out on the beach during the whole process – right after I shot this, I did in fact wake her up…. )

Point is, these people spend HOURS every day reeling in this net – and their catch is hardly worth the effort. It’s common knowledge that West African coastal waters are overfished, and commercial trawling has made the problem worse. So in this net, they had a lot of garbage, seaweed, plastic bags, and some small fish, that they share amongst themselves. Now, this is the main economic activity in this village – and the benefits they reap are measly. I kept thinking that they would save so much time and energy if only they had a machine to reel in their net – this would allow them to engage in other activities, and make the enterprise worthwhile.

I’m not saying that development practitioners should jump in and give them a motor powered reel – in fact, it’s obviously up to this community to define the need and search for the solution. I’m not even sure that NGOs (local or international) operate in this village – the point is, the “line” these people are using is clearly not to their advantage, and a big difference could be made if the process was modernized, streamlined…

There is a real opportunity for progress here, and it’s not that complicated. I too often read about or see instances where development falls just short of actually helping – and this applies to both endogenous and exogenous initiatives. The skills training programs that are being replicated all over the Buduburam refugee settlement are an example of the inappropriate “lines”.

The lack of investment in “un-sexy” dimensions of development (a motor reel, the elaboration of a marketing strategy) also handicap the overall impact of initiatives who end up failing to completely address the problem they are trying to solve. In fact, these incomplete solutions can exacerbate the issue, by making it seem like things are progressing. But appearances can be deceptive, as the hundreds of women in their skills training center’s uniform have made me realize.

The Missing Middle

Here is an interesting – and (probably) controversial – critique of microfinance by Christoph Niemann, in The New Yorker. Excerpts:

“The vast majority [of micro businesses] have only one paid employee: the owner. As the economist Jonathan Morduch has put it, microfinance “rarely generates new jobs for others.”

This matters, because businesses that can generate jobs for others are the best hope of any country trying to put a serious dent in its poverty rate. Sustained economic growth requires companies that can make big investments—building a factory, say—and that can exploit the economies of scale that make workers more productive and, ultimately, richer. Microfinance evangelists sometimes make it sound as if, in an ideal world, everyone would own his own business.

“All people are entrepreneurs,” Muhammad Yunus has said. But in any successful economy most people aren’t entrepreneurs—they make a living by working for someone else. Just fourteen per cent of Americans, for instance, are running (or trying to run) their own business. That percentage is much higher in developing countries—in Peru, it’s almost forty per cent. That’s not because Peruvians are more entrepreneurial. It’s because they don’t have other options.”[…]

“Both socially and economically, microloans do a lot of good, working what Boudreaux and Cowen call “Micromagic.” But the overselling of their promise has made us neglect the enterprises that could be real engines of macromagic. The cult of the entrepreneur that the microfinance boom has helped foster is understandably appealing. But thinking that everyone is, and should be, an entrepreneur leads us to underrate the virtues of larger businesses and of the income that a steady job can provide. To be sure, for some people the best route out of poverty will be a bank loan. But for most it’s going to be something much simpler: a regular paycheck.”

I find this view to be very interesting – I tend to agree with the author that microcredit shouldn’t be construed as a way for developing countries to lift themselves out of poverty. So much needs to be done in terms of building infrastructure, improving the delivery and quality of basic public goods (education, health care, etc.), and creating the conditions necessary for genuine economic development, on a micro and macro level.

Interestingly, however, is that I think this is widely recognized, even by microcredit organizations, such as In their FAQ, one of the questions is “Is microfinance the solution to poverty?”, and this is their answer: ” No. Microfinance is but one strategy battling an immense problem”. They give examples of other channels for fighting poverty in the developing world: grants, investment in infrastructure, employment programs, non-financial services and legal and institutional reforms. The New Yorker article then highlights what I believe is the more interesting point here – that these other channels mentioned above aren’t as “cool”, or “chic” – Excerpt:

“Supplying the missing middle will require backers who want to invest in companies rather than just lend to them. There’s been some progress on this front of late; three weeks ago,, the Soros Economic Development Fund, and the Omidyar Network announced that they are setting up a firm in India that will invest only in small-to-medium businesses. But there have yet to be celebrities speaking up for the missing middle.”

I’m not particularly keen celebrity advocacy, as I think it that the message they convey tends to oversimplify complex realities, and generally take away from the seriousness of the issues they support – but that is an entirely different subject. The point is that the other avenues for development that makes note of aren’t really “sexy”, and don’t yet attract a lot of donor money…

It would be interesting to see private individuals get really excited about contributing to institutional reform in developing nations, although I think we are a long, long way from there. The Google/Soros/Omidyar initiative in India sort of falls in that paradigm – I am looking forward to seeing more private sector involvement in large scale poverty reduction schemes. Maybe that will help solve the “missing middle” problem.

They Come in the Name of Helping – part 2

If you have read my previous post concerning the movie by Peter Brock “They Come in the Name of Helping”, then you might be interested in reading his response:


I am excited to see that my film provoked such a response from someone as devoted to development as yourself. Interestingly enough I completely agree with all of the critical points you have made. To be frank, the film was not so much intended for veteran development types like yourself, but rather for concerned yet inexperienced western students. But still, your charge of oversimplification is a valid one.

While making this film (and even now) I laid awake in my bed at night wondering if there was a better way to express the need for respect without such generalizations. As you can probably tell, the film is more about human interactions than development. I was seeking to capture the in a convincing way the reality that development deals with real people’s lives, and furthermore that those ‘people’ are not merely passive sufferers waiting to be saved by the west (think ‘SAVE DARFUR’). I wanted to capture some articulate young Africans expressing their critical opinions as a (perhaps overstated) warning against the type of objectification of the poor that is so common in the west. I wanted to make a counterpoint to the countless images of emaciated African children that appear as advertising for major NGO’s such as World Vision, Save the Children, or CARE. I wanted to shatter this objectified conception of the poor African because I see it as extremely harmful and detrimental to the very cause of development.

My intention was to make the viewer wary of simple solutions. I wanted to complicate the picture of development that is given by the internet ads reading “Click here to save a child!”. I wanted to make people reflect on why the help others and the way that they do it. I wanted to show African’s who were not hesitant to DEMAND respect from those coming to help them, not to deter them from coming, but to make sure that they come in the spirit of sincerity and cooperation. Hopefully you saw that the main message of the film was that we need a respectful dialogue.

Also, if you listen closely, you’ll see that I never said that we shouldn’t help people that we don’t fully understand. I simply said that we have to recognize that it is inherently harder to help people and communities which are foreign to us. There a tons of ways to help people abroad, but the path towards each of these solutions begins by recognizing the limitations of our own ‘expertise’. Perhaps I was too harsh in my iteration of this point, but I feel strongly that the battle against the mentality of the savior (a re-incarnation of the colonizer) is extremely important.

You are quite correct that there are huge differences between humanitarian and development work, but the point about respectful interaction still remains. You are also right to point out the diversity of the NGO world. However, I think that you’ll find that the smaller more grassroots NGO’s that you refer to posses the commitment to sincere and respectful interaction that my film tries to articulate. There are many aspects of development work that are simply beyond the scope of the film. My film is not about ‘development’ (which is a pretty ambiguous and loaded term in itself), rather, as I stated above, it is about human interactions in the context of development. The reality is that most of the particulars about development and development NGO’s are beyond the scope of the film. It is really about people. I make no claim to treat the subject of ‘development’ in its entirety. To do so would be just plain silly. I tried to identify one small but important aspect of development (the need for respectful and sincere interactions) that I felt transcended specific contexts.

I hope that my comments have helped you understand the intentions behind the film. I greatly appreciate the attention you devoted to the film. The development community would be better off if more people had the type of experiences and convictions that you do.

In Peace,

Peter Brock “

I wholeheartedly agree with this: I wanted to make a counterpoint to the countless images of emaciated African children that appear as advertising for major NGO’s such as World Vision, Save the Children, or CARE. I wanted to shatter this objectified conception of the poor African because I see it as extremely harmful and detrimental to the very cause of development.”

Seriously – is this necessary?

I’m curious to hear if others agree or disagree with this – feel free to leave comments and/or email me!