Tag Archives: Communications

Addendum: The Three NGOs We Need

Addendum to the May 27 posting.

This blog adds detail to my post-WHS argument for three new INGOs, which should not be confused for either a general call for more INGOs or a lack of recognition that such NGOs may exist, though on a much smaller scale than necessary.

  1. Fundraising without Borders.

The mission of this FWB is to build the fundraising capacity of NGOs in the global south in order to safeguard their independence.  One target, the home markets. Many ‘poor’ crisis-affected nations hold wealth and cadres of wealthy citizens and a burgeoning middle class that could easily sustain local organizations and finance national humanitarian crisis response. (Combined, Africa’s very wealthy elite have a combined net worth over $660 billion).  Note that FWB does not provide a short-term fix. It must develop a long-range vision of nurturing a culture of local support to NGO activity, building national and global fundraising support services, ensuring robust finance mechanisms, etc. FWB will mechanize the implicit call of One Humanity, Shared responsibility to replace the ‘white man’s burden’ with an everyman’s compassion.

Second target, and perhaps initially of greater financial import, my neighbors. FWB would enable NGOs in the global south to fundraise directly in the markets of the global north. Following Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines Red Cross advertised for donations in the UK media. The shock to fundraising departments might have been visible on British seismographs. Buying some advertising space, though, marks a crude beginning. Fundraising in Western markets constitutes a science, full stop.  On behalf of southern NGOs and based in each of the ‘fat’ markets, FWB would host highly developed skills and resources in terms of multimedia donation architecture (from an SMS to processing a check), media buying, messaging, financial management, database management and so forth.  The idea would be to take distinct advantage of being a non-Western NGO in the Western market – allowing donors to ‘bypass the middleman’, avoid expensive INGO costs like hotels and expat salaries, and to donate directly to those best situated to know the context and ‘solve’ local problems.

  1. Image Rescue Committee (IRC-II).

To raise money, Western NGOs deploy a range of techniques to ensure their prominence in media coverage of disaster response, displacing and disempowering local actors/efforts in the process.  The humanitarian sector’s distortion of the narrative impoverishes the global south, unsurprisingly reinforcing a picture of dysfunctional and/or primitive local societies being rescued by the international do-gooders.  And while the humanitarian sector has paid lip service to the enormous efforts of local actors, it has strenuously averted actually changing their dominant narrative. We should not wait for the Western humanitarian media machine to significantly improve the integrity of its messaging. Rather, this media bias needs to be challenged by the mainstreaming of alternative discourses. Enter, stage left, IRC-II.

The task is simple and rather straightforward. IRC-II should deploy teams on Crisis Day 1, delivering interviews, film footage and clever soundbites that profile (exclusively!) local actors and efforts.  One can imagine special reports that highlight the expertise and effort of local actors, complete with economic calculations of the value of the local effort – stats to rival those of the international community. Or maybe a TV montage of local authorities complaining that the Western intervention seems overly preoccupied with finding comfortable hotel space? Famous photographers documenting the goings on of the aid community at the local swim club or beachside restaurant?

Naturally, IRC-II would employ all of the same media tricks as the major INGOs, such as transporting journalists and film crews to their projects, lobbying news outlets for choice positioning, commissioning advocacy reports, or rolling in the celebrities, Hollywood megastars able to show their deep concern while strolling through an IDP camp in the logo-festooned shirt of a local NGO.  Put differently, the goal of IRC is to use international media to broadcast the truth in such a way as to crack the narrative divide.

  1. No-Mercy Corps.

Five decades of development work have yielded organizations specializing in empowerment against a wide array of oppressive and anti-democratic structures.  From the empowerment of labor against industry to the empowerment of women against the patriarchy and from empowerment of farm laborers against farm owners to the empowerment of people against despotic leaders, there is no shortage of NGO-led effort against the powerful.  Critically, nobody in this spectrum of work looks in the institutional mirror.  So there remains one glaring gap – empowerment of local communities against the Western NGOs and UN agencies.

Too often, the grand, noble aid agency remains largely untouchable to the marginalized, desperately grateful communities. No wonder the WHS consultations found that only 27% of aid recipients felt their needs were being met. Time to end the sector’s free pass and create No-Mercy Corps, to work locally on how people affected by crisis can better control the crisis response. Looked at functionally, the purpose of NMC would be to counter the powerless of people affected by crisis against one of the most powerful determinants of their lives by creating multiple points of accountability.

The problem is not a new one. Yet the good-intentioned though relatively ineffective ‘solutions’ have always sought to change the sector from within, to (grudgingly) bequeath some illusion of participation, as exemplified by its decades-slow and miserly (voluntary) bequeathing of downward accountability.  Control and power, of course, need to be taken. (The Core Humanitarian Standard? A first sectoral step in the right direction, but we should be wary when the foxes approve new controls on the henhouse.). Specific to each context, NMC’s aim is to build multi-pronged, independent/external control upon the humanitarian response.

  • Setting up and funding aid ombudsman or watchdog functions, either as organizations within the community or as part of local government capacity.
  • Enacting local legislation or standard technical agreements that incorporate Sphere standards and the guiding principles, or require greater foreign NGO transparency in terms of decision-making, performance and reporting (and ensuring translation/dissemination).
  • Creating and funding local organizations that are able to work with aid recipients to assess aid performance and rectify problems.
  • Ensuring local consultation, both individually and across communities, such as has been done through surveying by Ground Truth.
  • Training local media, community leaders and existing CBOs in the assessment of aid efforts, with attention for example to the humanitarian principles.
  • Monitoring and advocacy (in the West) on the work actually being done, aiming to change the behavior of the INGOs, such as reports delivered to donors and media in INGO home societies or lobbying INGO trustees/boards to improve performance.

Operation Fear, redux

Who remembers Willie Horton? You could make an argument that without Willie Horton, George Bush the senior would not have been elected president, and hence his son would not have risen to power, and so no US attack of Iraq, and so on . . .

Horton

The successful centerpiece of a Bush campaign ad attacking Michael Dukakis (the Democratic candidate), Willie Horton embodied a wild, violent and very black criminality that scared the bejesus out of mainstream (i.e., White) American voters. A first, highly mediatized use of racial fears to win an election? I don’t know. But compare this to what is being termed the “opening salvoes in Operation Fear.” The latter day attack: David Cameron employing fear of migrants to spur opposition to Britain leaving the EU, threatening that France might no longer honor the agreement by which the UK operates its border controls on French territory (which is a key reason the squalid camp lies in France, not the south coast of the UK).

The politics of fear is but one aspect of the situation: the degree to which the fear of migrants, foreigners and refugees has eroded the ideals and principles behind safe refuge and the right to seek asylum. More importantly, the degree to which it has muted many of the voices one might expect to champion these very ideals, giving them loud voice in the public sphere (rather than a reticence in defense of institutional public image).

But the more insidious problem can be found in the mechanics underlying these tactics. Willie Horton was a violent, deranged killer. As an individual, he earned our fear. The secret of the ad’s success, though, traded on his face, an archetype of the guy hiding under your childhood bed. I wonder what it would have felt like to African-Americans, not simply to be feared on account of their skin, but to be feared so pervasively and effortlessly that it makes for a useful instrument.

What does it mean to the people in Calais (or those who are not, but might as well be), if they can so easily be used to evoke fears of invasion, of a swarming terror? Cameron’s underlying logic involves trading on the dehumanized foreigner, a meme for the modern bogeyman, usefully deployed to frighten not children but British voters into good behaviour. And so, the call to the humanitarian and human rights community is not simply to defend law and policies or to deliver assistance, but to counter (the principle of) humanity under attack and the equally powerful banalization of the attack. That is where it starts. That is where it always starts.

The Old Switcheroo

It is difficult to issue a thoughtful mea culpa message and still manage to undermine your credibility. WHO just pulled off that rare double. In short, they posted their message and then replaced it with another, toned-down version. As if the world wouldn’t notice! Sarah Boseley’s blog captures the changes.

The contents should be well-received, in either version. Admitting that it has learned lessons of humility, fragility and (ironically) the need for clear communication – hard to disagree. And it is not the fact of the old switcheroo that bothers me; nor even the innocence in believing that one could slip this by without being caught. No, what I find so depressing is that in all the lessons forced onto the organization by its Ebola response, perhaps the most important has been missed.

I cannot be certain why WHO has toned-down its message, or felt so compelled to do so that it pulled the switcheroo. Somewhere, though, it seems likely that the problem was having rankled some feathers. Some people didn’t like the message, and they weren’t little people. So it had to unrankle them.

And that is the problem. That is precisely what was missing in WHO’s failure to sound the alarm, loudly and early, on this outbreak – the willingness to take the heat for making a call that would have been unpopular with those in power. Humility, fragility, capacity, solidarity… all worthy lessons. But if WHO is to become a force for global epidemic response, it must learn the lesson of rankling feathers. Take a lesson from MSF: It must learn to piss people off.

“Pound of Cure” Politics

Who hasn’t heard this one: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The old adage presents a truism well relevant to the world of international aid. Ebola comes quickly to mind as the latest in a long list of lessons not learned. To wit, at what point – March? May? – would a fairly modest ten million or so have staved off the need for the $1.3B intervention that has been launched to date?

But the proverbial equation generates a false comparison. The “pound of cure” logic dissimulates. That tail of the proverb represents the cost of an intervention at a later stage – the bill for the fix (i.e., action after the problem has materialized). The mistake is to confuse the cost of the fix with the value of the damage. Pound of cure thinking hides ten, twenty or maybe thousands of pounds of loss – 11,000 orphans, schools shuttered, crops unsown or harvests unharvested, businesses bankrupted, national economic growth about-faced. And over 9600 people who are no longer people.

Let’s not be too hard on the proverb. Let’s be hard on ourselves. In the deeply politicized world of international aid and emergency response, the availability of the proverbial ounce of prevention turns out to be part mirage, hence a solid track record of paying for pounds of cure. This study of the 2011 famine in Somalia seems clear enough: Famine early warning systems clearly identified the risk of famine in South Central Somalia in 2010–2011 but timely action to prevent the onset of famine was not taken.

It too often proves more difficult from a political perspective to prevent a problem from arising than to deal later with the consequences of the problem itself. That is because mobilizing preventative action often proves trickier than launching a curative response. Humans seem hardwired to contend with the urgent at the expense of the important. In proverbial terms, that is also because frogs don’t hop out of water brought slowly to boil. And because screeching wheels get the grease before those that merely squeak. Tired yet? How about this? In the aid world, few will pay the early bird to catch the worm.

Enough of the proverbs. Let’s try fairytales. Is it even fair to balance a pound of cure against one sole ounce of prevention? What does the story of the Boy who cried “Wolf!” tell us? If not a boy, then what about the Western NGO? We belong to a business that depends on the production of a veritable smorgasbord of impending disasters; of persistent, strident calls for action (read: squeaky wheels in search of grease). That makes for a fast drip of public alarm, elbow-steered lobbying, and celebrity-endorsed impending doom. Act now! (Or: Send cash!). How many cures – how many actual crises – have actually been averted? Perhaps this is not just a tale of a Boy. Perhaps this is also the work of Chicken Little.

If we flip this around: the emergency aid business is of necessity an industry of alarm. Is there today a cacophony of alarm and media hype that deadens the ear? Have we reached the point where it is actually more efficient and more financially prudent for key donor governments and international institutions to wait and pay for the cure?

And what about the lessons of those fairytales? Cries of “Wolf!” or “The sky is falling” became quite pertinent in the Ebola crisis, where MSF’s early alarm was derided or dismissed in some quarters as yet another NGO fundraising ploy. The NGO cried out that Ebola was real and nobody listened. Real it was. A ton of cure that could have been averted by an ounce of prevention? Seems so. And maybe also a ton of cure that was necessitated by the perception of too many false ounces?

 

Cyber Warfare: Think about who might be next

International cyber warfare did not begin with somebody stealing the launch codes to the nuclear arsenal on a U.S. Navy Triton submarine. It did not begin with a cabal of MIT geeksquad eco-terrorists shutting down oil production in the Arctic Circle. No, those are Hollywood story lines. In the end, international cyber warfare began with the revelation that Angelina Jolie is a “spoiled brat.” It began, funnily enough, with Hollywood itself; with a powerful movie studio pulling the release of its $42 million movie, shamed by outings of internal secrets, hurt by stolen scripts, threatened with violence. So much for The Interview.

Have you followed this story (e.g., here, here or here)? Did you feel a bit catty early on, as I did, a little too elated to see Tinseltown’s top brass squirm as their personal emails became Gawker headlines? Be careful. Here’s a test. Aside from a Hollywood studio about to poke fun at the oddball ruler of a pariah country, can you think of another Western entity, or body of entities, who might occasionally humiliate the leaders of relatively powerless countries? Who might ritually indulge in the arrogance of airing someone else’s dirty underwear? Who might just irritate some nation enough, or threaten enough reputational damage, that the allure of socking one of these self-appointed voices of global conscience in the gut might appear both justified and quite delicious?

On the surface, the Sony saga has some appeal to those of us who root for the underdog: marginalized basketcase government jumps corporate behemoth and beats them into surrender. There is glory in that. And power. We NGOs in particular should understand the apparatus at play. The North Korean government (allegedly) has rode the vehicle of celebrity to guarantee viral coverage for its story, in the process shaming the would-be shamers. I can think of a few other governments who might be interested in that kind of power, and instead of a second rate comedy being canned it might be a documentary about rape in Darfur, or a report on the deliberate destruction of health facilities in Syria.

Let’s face it, in terms of our cyber security large Western NGOs have erected far less of a fortress than a company like Sony Pictures. We are exposed. Crucially, we are easily more vulnerable than the movie biz to blackmail when public perception and trust are at stake. It wasn’t pretty, but those Sony emails certainly didn’t say anything we didn’t already think about Scott Rudin, Amy Pascal or that entire industry. The public is titillated, not abhorred, by their sneering. In contrast, what do aid execs write when nobody is looking? I’m guessing that donors contributing a million a year would not appreciate email musings refering to them as, say, egomaniacal , dandruffy pains in the ass. Not to mention direct orders to strengthen the facade that the agency is working through local partners, or the truth about bloated HQ staff travel budgets and long-running projects with little impact.

Keep it Simple, Stupid

Poor George Clooney.  He’s such a busy guy.  What with making blockbusters, Nespresso ads and all those mystery women, it’s a wonder the actor has had time to throw himself into the quagmire of Sudan.

South Sudan isn’t doing too well these days.  Arguably, the mess is George’s fault. If we hadn’t all suffered the delusion of Sudan’s bright future, we might have been busier dealing with its complex faults.  That’s what Daniel Howden insinuates.  He takes Clooney (among others) to task now that the South Sudan house of statehood has collapsed faster than Anthony Weiner’s political career.  Howden writes that “actors were highly effective at communicating a narrative about the new country that borrowed from a simple script.” That narrative (i.e., all problems were caused by the Wicked Witch of the North) was, unfortunately, “part truth, part wilful misunderstanding” and “deeply flawed”.

Let’s give George some credit. He is not a phoney when it comes to playing savior.  He didn’t just show up at a fundraising dinner, or make one self-aggrandizing visit.  The man has invested something of himself.  He even got arrested for the cause.  But there are limits to that credit.

Howden is right to call out the overly simplistic narrative, but let’s not blame actors for the superficial script.  As I’ve blogged (e.g. cleansing conflict from the ‘perfect storm’ of factors causing famine in Somalia in 2011), the entire international community – politicians, aid NGO agencies, UN officials – seems dependent upon simple scripts.  The only time we embrace complexity is in explaining our failures.  (Of course, academics ply a healthy trade in the complexity of places like Sudan, but who really listens to academics besides other academics?).

You can’t sell complexity.  No funding, no donations, and no political support.  It’s even a hard sell within an agency.  Try getting MSF to add some nuance to its analysis of Syria!  And maybe that’s not such a bad thing, given the need for action rather than endless deliberation. Complexity is a cousin of perfection – it can be an enemy of the good.

As for Clooney and the celebrification of the aid business, maybe I’ve been wrong in the past. Maybe it’s wrong to begrudge him the attention he and other celebrities get.  Sure, NGOs across the spectrum have sold out to the celebrity culture in the hope of increasing attention to our causes. But maybe celebrities really do make more effective champions than we activists.  Maybe humans are hardwired to follow the opinions of celebrities. See this article.   Apparently, it has to do with something so academic sounding as the anthropology of prestige.

How about that! Evolution has left us biologically inclined to follow the political analysis of celebs, not to mention their fashion tastes, recipes and personal grooming tips. Can somebody please get Miley Cyrus to say something about CAR?

Altered States

Ever heard of Piltdown man?  He would have stood four feet tall and was the talk of the scientific town 100 years ago.  If you are an evolutionary biologist, you probably know exactly who I am talking about; otherwise, you’ve no idea.  That is, unless you are a creationist Christian who believes the Bible is a literal interpretation of the word of God; hence unless you are somebody who believes that mankind dates back only several thousands of years that that the stunning paleo-biological history of humans is false.  If you believe that, if you deny Darwin, Australopithecus and the concept of evolution itself, then the Piltdown man is, well, he is your man.

The story is fairly simple:  a seminal scientific discovery turned out to be a hoax. If you read creationist literature, that example is trafficked over and over and over again to dismiss the entire body of evidence called the fossil record and the credibility of scientific thinking.  To the believer in Adam and his rib, that one hoax is enough to negate every bone in the ground, every trilobite’s age, every Lucy.

It may be an indication of my mental state, but I choked up with pride when MSF launched its bombshell press release that there had been a devastating chemical weapon attack in Syria, with 3600 treated and 355 killed.  I could well imagine the risks of going public with such témoignage, and could well imagine the difficult discussions and calculations that went into the message.  I could not imagine, of course, that that I’d misconstrued the press release so badly.

MSF’s témoignage is why I joined MSF.  It stems from the idea that an humanitarian response to crisis cannot limit itself the delivery of assistance, but must also take into account the protection and dignity of people;  and is rooted in that special relationship between medical carer and patient, where seeing the wounds of violence prompts a responsibility to act.  The doctor does not treat a child for rape and keep his/her mouth zipped.

Témoignage is further refined in MSF, an organization that must make sage use of what it knows.  Illness, wounds, and voices will tell you a great deal about the bad things some people are doing to others.  So there are times where we engage in advocacy about what we see, what our medical data reveals, in the hopes that exposure and pressure can play a role in stopping the crimes, or pushing others to stop them.  The foundation of all this activity is the word témoignage itself, its implication that we have – directly – seen something through our medical work and our presence amidst people in danger.  Bearing witness is the closest English.

I have had to defend the use of our voice to angry authorities many times. Very often they believe we are being naïve, being used, being fed messages that we then transmit. Me to Sudanese security guy: “We know that village was burned down because our mobile clinic team, including two expats, went there while it was still smouldering.” His response: surprise (“You went there?” – “Yes”) then quiet. Acting as a spokesperson for what others have said happened is not the same thing as bearing witness to it ourselves.

Yesterday evening, along the shores of Lake Kivu, I was catching up on my inbox and realized that MSF had not treated anyone for chemical weapon attack, nor had MSF seen the results of the attack.  I was confused, furious; calling up the press release to read it again.  In fact, I had missed its clear declaration: the report of the chemical weapon attack came from doctors whom we support with supplies, not from MSF.

I guess a first lesson is how the brain simplifies: I had missed sentences worth of disclaimer. Rather predictably (intentionally?), this distinction also seems to have been lost on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who swiftly stoked the USG’s neocon reaction to events in Syria with the credibility of MSF (no chance of another WMD moment embarrassment, we have MSF’s word!).  Such distinctions and disclaimers are hard to maintain, and don’t live on very long in the media, where speculation that, e.g., there “could be as many as 200,000 refugees” quickly hardens into fact.

There is nothing easy or formulaic about the development of, in particular, public messaging around témoignage (which can, of course, remain at the diplomatic level). I hate to find myself as the defender of orthodoxy, that we do not talk about it if we haven’t seen it, even (or especially!) when the news is so shocking, so aching to be released from our lungs. Such orthodoxy clashes with a world, and even an MSF, that are evolving.  For example, we are increasingly working through partners, and will have built relationships of trust – of faith – with doctors such as these brave Syrians, struggling heroically to care for the wounded in such a brutal war.

They are not MSF, and yet they are not strangers.  On the other hand, we know that this is a highly polarized war, that operating via partners involves compromise (see e.g., this post), and we certainly understand the massive investment on both sides of this conflict in the war for global hearts and minds, with propaganda at the fore. As an organization, can we afford to believe them? Me, I do not think we can afford staking so much of value on such imperfect calculations.  But as humans, can we afford not to believe? I don’t know.  I am uncomfortable with the path of conservatism, and fear it harbors dogmatism.  In the end, though, I prefer “you have to see it to believe it”, because credibility is like being pregnant, you either have it or you don’t, and in the hands of our enemies, one misplaced bone wipes out a veritable record of truth.

The Ugly Marriage of Moral Responsibility and National Security

Brouhaha.  The evil of trading “schools for soldiers”.  That was Oxfam’s Max Lawson, firing  a bow shot in what became a full day barrage of Downing Street and DFID.  World Vision chirped in, as did Christian Aid and Save (though hard to tell which side they were on) and even small fish NGOs who usually keep their mouths shut.  Seems that NGOs in the UK have found their bite now that Andrew Mitchell is no longer reminding them of whose hand does the feeding.

The cause.  David Cameron’s statement that he would be “very open” to using some of DFID’s aid budget to fund Ministry of Defence projects.

The problem. Once again, and in a loud public voice the UK’s highest authority (OK, realistically DC is probably closer to sixth in terms of influence, after the Queen, Kate Middleton, Boris, Becks and Cara Delevingne, who is poised to change the shape of the British eyebrow) okayed the idea of development money sliding from DFID to fund MOD stabilization projects that deliver on the UK’s national security interests.  Loud and clear for the Taleban and al Shabab:  aid is for national security. Loud and clear for the communities where we work, planting that unhelpful chestnut of distrust as to NGO motivations.

What he didn’t say.  He didn’t say he wanted to buy weapons with aid money, or anything close to it (transcript here).  The level of hyperbole in Lawson’s “hospitals and not helicopter gunships” quip makes for great radio.  It also makes for a big fat lob pass to all those ready critics of aid, defenders of Tory policy, and friends of Dave (not to mention again aid agencies apparently trying to curry favour by defending the government).  Dismiss the point by making the lot of us look like self-serving nags or wrong on our facts.  Even MSF over-reacted, publishing a rather straightforward statement under the screechy tag of the aid budget being “hijacked”.

What NGOs didn’t say.  Our disclaimer: As a member of the aid community I hereby pledge that we aid agencies are motivated solely by the desire to defend the principle of independent aid.  We stamp our collective feet and in a piercing falsetto reject any accusation of there being even a soupçon of self-interest in this sudden vocality. It is pure coincidence that this involves funding for our future programs going to our good friends at MOD.

What nobody said.  Aid agencies are dead right to be critical of this public marriage of aid and national security interests / defence.  We need to complain about this more forcefully.  But in the real world  — Why wouldn’t governments prioritize political interests and military objectives (e.g., winning hearts and minds in hostile territory) over the moral pursuit of foreign aid and development?  NGOs, on the other hand, might be expected to conduct themselves differently.  And yet the much-decried “blurring of the lines” (between aid and military) is not simply the work of governments/armies.

NGOs have accepted funding from governments to work in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, where those very governments have been a belligerent party in the war.  Like a Pakistani NGO taking money from al Qaeda to run a clinic in Sussex.  Doesn’t look good.  Afghanistan also provides a textbook example of NGOs, even while not accepting funds directly from warring parties, simply and without sufficient questioning setting up their aid programs on only one side of war, delivering aid to areas within Western military or Afghan government control.  This lopsided aid effort effectively supports the NATO/US/Karzai plan.  It aims to build the legitimacy of the Afghan government and popular gratitude to the Western invaders.  Bottom line:  it doesn’t look like aid to the guys with the guns on the other side of the fence.

What I previously said. Can you imagine the Daily Mail headlines if it were reporting on this same story elsewhere?  What if Robert Mugabe decided to use its own HIV and education budget to fund Ministry of Defence projects?  What if President Goodluck Jonathan decided to reassign a DFID grant to Nigeria’s military peacekeeping activities in Mali?  Whether or not there is a perfectly acceptable legality to the UK government’s manoeuvring, corruption is the word we’d use if the Tories were African.

What I think. Aid and defence mix well in a political analysis, poorly in a humanitarian one.  And we can probably conclude that the hard-boiled world of political opportunism seems like a right stench compared to the perfumed corridors of aid.  Then again, so does the whiff of NGO opportunism.

The Narrative Divide

Check out this trenchant writing from Kenyan author/journo Binyavanga Wainaina on the perception bias infecting western media (and here’s another take on that topic).   He rather hilariously bull’s-eyes a spear in the gut of Western journalism, their spouses and their tennis partners, we do-gooders at the big aid agencies.

Coincidentally, his rant covers some of the same territory as my recent post on Chinese model of “charity”.  Glad to see he doesn’t get sucked into a romanticization of Chinese exploitation.  Rather, his point seems simpler:  many Africans would prefer to get screwed by Chinese businesses than patronized or sanctimonyized by the proverbial whites in shining armor of Big Aid.

Wainaina rages and we humanitarians seem high on the hit list.  That can’t be good.   It is easier to counter the pampered elites of the Western intellectual critocracy than someone born and raised in one of the nations we’ve been so diligently saving these past forty years.

Moreover, his view of aid seems reinforced in many of the 199 comments on his piece.  Here’s Cornhil on June 4:  “You would have thought that after the disaster that is and was the post-earthquake agency bonanza in Haiti, a little humility would be appropriate from the Aid Industry, but apparently not.”

Damningly, even some who take umbrage with his “stereotyped” or “sneering” diatribe remark that he is of course spot on about the aid workers of this world, almost as if it were to be taken as a given.  Ouch!  Defending the West but leaving the aid industry out in the cold.  Where’s the love?  Where’s the understanding?  Where’s our money going to come from?

(A digression: “In 1991, Africa ceased to exist. The world was safe, and the winners could now concentrate on being caring, speaking in aid language bullet points.”  That’s an almost perfect summation of the intermingling of politics and aid — the establishment of governance through the imposition of a world welfare state.].

Wainaina is at his sharpest showing our collective Western understanding of Africa to be based upon the most preposterously stereotyped terms.  Hold that thought and flash back to the fit of humanitarian arm flapping at Kony 2012’s volcanic success.  As I blogged, the criticism of Invisible Children’s vanity video went pretty viral itself.  In that outburst of backlash I failed to grasp the significance and weight of Ugandan voices criticising a Western organization in the Western media.  What gives?  Weren’t Ugandans supposed to be invisible?

Recently, I heard digital media expert Paul Conneally challenge us humanitarians to avoid becoming an analogue enterprise in a digital age (see his speech here).  The entire humanitarian arena is abuzz with the potential of digital technology to improve its work.  From SMS health messages to patients (“Please remember to take your ARVs now”) to real-time satellite mapping of epidemics to a fundraising blitz of mobile phone chuggers, we are fast imagining a new golden age.  But Conneally’s core message wasn’t about technological advances of NGOs  – a reform in how we do our work – but in the transformation driven by the digital empowerment of the beggar/victim/beneficiary/target population.

People who will want to talk about our work are going to have access not only to information, but to the means of producing it.  They will have access not only to our opinions, but to our opinion platforms.  In other words, the helpless victims of Africa, like the Ugandans who outed Kony 2012’s disdain for accuracy in depicting the reality of Uganda today, are going to take away our western monopoly over the narratives defining their societies.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, white ears and eyes will consume the stories of brown people as told by brown people themselves, not white visitors to brown places.  In the process, these browns may have something to say about all those starving baby fundraising appeals.  They may even have something to say about all the appeals, letters, articles and interviews from the agencies whose guidelines prohibit the use of starving baby images and so sleep well in the self-evidence of their enlightenment, beneficence and narrative integrity.

New Kids on the Block

Most madmen love the idea of fame so Joseph Kony’s wet dream just came true. He’s trending. He’s gone viral. He’s bigger than Victoria Beckham, Tiger Woods and Newt Gingrich all together. He’s still nuts, of course, but his madness has become the social media equivalent of a cuddly polar bear cub eating an ice cream cone.

Have you seen the stir caused by the success (over 50,000,000 views!) of Invisible Children’s video; of their campaign to stop butcher extraordinaire Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army? Check out Michael Wilkerson’s blistering critique, and then the critique of the critique (in the comments). The blogosphere is choked with aid agency pundits like me getting steamed by the sheer ego of Invisible Children.  Even the Ugandans are pissed off.  Although Obama jumped on the bandwagon.

Ok, they’re an easy target. A problematic approach to facts (oops, you mean Kony isn’t even in Uganda), a seemingly unprecedented exploitation of sentimentality (ugh, not his own oh-so-cute son again), ego so far beyond borders it becomes the ether of the message itself, a healthy dose of white-man-to-the-rescue-ism, and a “solution” that solves little . . . the critique is all spot on. Then again, what’s so new about any of that in the world of charity fundraising? Just look at some of the appeals launched around the Somalia crisis, Darfur, or, perhaps in the near future, the Sahel. Invisible Children isn’t that different. They’ve just raised the game.

So why, really, are we aid insiders so bothered? It’s the big green monster. Is there another charity whose message has captivated so many so fast? About six months ago, my niece “Lisa” in Chicago excitedly asked me to contribute to Invisible Children.  At the time, I’d never heard of it. I poked around. I can’t say I was taken by the cause, but I couldn’t help feeling envious of IC’s having so effectively reached Lisa, usually more interested in dance and boys. These young upstarts at IC are the next big thing. And we aren’t.

Why? Well, for one, they have a simple message that people grasp. For another, good looks. More importantly, Invisible Children has discovered what the entertainment industry figured out a decade ago. It’s not about us old timers. It’s not people who read the Philip Roth or contribute conscientiously to their pension fund. It’s about the under 25s, maybe even the under 15s. It’s about the kids. That’s why there are a couple dozen TV shows about teenage vampires. That’s why we have Jedward.

The aid industry has just been Biebered. IC’s hundreds of thousands of donor / activist – they were invisible to us.  Kids. That’s the target and that’s the message. If you think the aid world depends on gray haired HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals, aka rich folk), wait and see what IC does with its pubescent legions.

My advice to the aid industry? First, get over it. Then, get on the boat. Invisible Children has more than an audience, more than loyal donors. They’ve built a repository of faithusiasm that will make change happen. As a colleague of mine lamented, too bad we can’t do for tuberculosis or Eastern Congo what they’ve done for Kony. Invisible Children might well deserve our scorn, but we’d be smarter to take notes. They are schooling us in comms, mobilization and fundraising. While we try to exploit social media to improve return on investment, IC turned social media into operations itself.

They don’t have any shame, and they don’t have doubts.  They don’t have any hang ups about dreaming.  When was the last time any of us from inside the aid cartel conveyed a dream? Oh, and because I can’t resist, what’s one more thing IC doesn’t have? A sense of irony. With image after image of saluting school kids in uniform, they’ve built a business model on the commitment to cause and enlistment of children in the service of one man’s vision. When they finally get him, I bet even a madman like Kony will appreciate that.