Afrika Can Haz T-Shirtz?

(or How New Media can Value-Add to the Aid Industry)

I Tweet.

It feels a bit like a dirty confession. “Hi, my name’s @morealtitude, and I have a Twitter problem”.

It took me a while. I’ve had a Twitter account for a few years, but it wasn’t until the Haiti earthquake when I started connecting with other aid-worker types that I started to see the value of being connected to other dynamic thinkers who have things to say on how aid should best be used to support people in difficult circumstances. And there are some great people out there who are far more concise and articulate than I am about themes central to delivering life-saving and live-changing assistance internationally. You can find their blogs on the right-hand column of mine, and I whole-heartedly recommend them.

I logged on yesterday (Wednesday) morning to see a conversation underway about a campaign called #1millionshirts. The comes from a dynamic pair of entrepreneurs called Jason and Evan, who have decided, after talking with a couple of charities, that it would be a good idea to collect a million second-hand t-shirts and a million dollars, and send them to Africa where, according to the 1 Million Shirts website, there are people who “have nothing to wear”.

To give the response that followed a context, it came on the back of a campaign that took hold in the United States called “50,000 Shoes” and which held the lofty ideal of sending reams of 2nd-hand shoes to earthquake survivors in Port-au-Prince, who had evidently had all their shoes flattened and needed them replaced more urgently than they needed, say, medical care, or clean drinking water. There were a whole load of similar shoe-oriented drives like “Soles4Souls” which basically did the same thing.

“50,000 Shoes” and its derivatives were horrible, horrible ideas. And they got roundly slammed. A lot.

I don’t really want to go into the ins and outs of the 1 Million T-Shirts debate. In brief, there are all sorts of places on the African continent with various and diverse needs and capacities, and providing free t-shirts is unlikely to have a particularly beneficial impact on either. Not to mention the fact that in the name of human dignity, it’s a generally accepted standard that NGOs do not send 2nd-hand clothes overseas. Our beneficiaries and their pride are worth more than that. The debate has been by parts entertaining, interesting and thought-provoking. However there have been more than a dozen blog posts on the topic over the last twenty-four hours or so, and they capture the issues far more eloquently and fairly than I probably would (and admittedly, occasionally, more snarkily).

For those who want to get the gist of what’s been happening up till now, the usual suspects have been commentating articulately, and Saundra has provided an awesome overview here . I particularly recommend Siena’s post here which is moderate, thoughtful and extremely on-the-money. You can also see Jason’s responses here and here , and have a giggle at some of the more snarky ‘hatorade’ here, here and here (imho, humour is a great tool for critique).

To be fair to Jason, he’s definitely copped it a bit. The idea of sending a million second-hand t-shirts to Africa may be well intentioned, but it’s certainly not well informed, and if this inspiration really is the brainchild of the two NGOs he lists on the website, they’ve done him a disservice. It’s worth noting, however, that the tirade of criticism that the idea has generated has come from a core group of aid and development practitioners who between them probably have more than two centuries of professional aid experience. In other words, people who know what they’re talking about.

For me, the issue isn’t really about the t-shirts. Un-required and poorly-targeted aid driven by donor interests is a common paradigm. This particular idea will either happen, or it won’t happen, and it’s not up to me. In his latest video upload, Jason implies he wants to listen to what the critics have to say, and there’s a teleconference set up for tomorrow (Friday) between himself and a whole bunch of the online community to discuss some of the issues- which is a great step. The general feel from the community to date is ‘it’s great that you have vision and energy; let’s try and work that energy into a more appropriate form of intervention’.

(Admittedly this message has periodically been veiled behind a thin mask of sarcasm. Sarcasm, it’s important to understand, born of many years of seeing bad development assistance, and watching people in developing countries suffer as a consequence. Born, equally, of people making the same mistakes that have been made for decades, and for which there is ample literature covering- not least of which in some of the above-mentioned websites.)

At any rate, I’m interested to see what comes out of the discussions. Hopefully, not t-shirts.

But really it’s the social media aspect of this whole thing that has me fascinated. Take a look at this process:

1. A guy gets an idea of how to help people. He’s well networked, so he uses that social media leverage he has to raise awareness and resources.

2. Folks monitoring those networks get wind of a new proposal for development asssitance, and channel it down into their own aid-and-development networks

3. Experienced aid workers with a professional and personal interest in providing good-quality overseas assistance analyze and critique the new idea

4. The donor is provided with feedback (snarky and otherwise) on the appropriateness of the idea, including lessons learned from past ideas and responses, and practical suggestions for what could be done better next time

All within about 24 hours.

What an awesome paradigm.

There’s nothing new about mobilizing social networks for fundraising for a good cause. Back when I was at university, The Hunger Site (click to provide a grain of rice, or whatever) had already gone viral, and that was more than a decade ago. But the rest of the process, that, right there, is effectively my job description (or a chunk of it). Assess and analyse relief program ideas, and work to improve them. Only instead of one mind looking from one perspective, the 1 Million T-shirts idea had more than a dozen of them, from a dozen different perspectives and heaps and heaps of pertinent experience (not to mention some extremely eloquent and, at times, highly entertaining writers).

1 Million T-Shirts is a privileged program intervention! Talk about accountability. Talk about transparency. Imagine if every aid and development proposal was treated with this sort of intensity. How much BETTER would we be doing our jobs?

There’s a fantastic post here that discusses this potential. In it, Chris summarizes the issues neatly (how I wish I could be as succint as these guys):

“Real-time input, from “the field” has just become an actor in “aid/charity/development.” Voices from places which otherwise would never be represented spoke. People in “the place” (“Africa”) where the “aid” was going got to weigh in. Experts who had not met each other were able to share experience, synthesize and create new literature on giving, aid, and development theory.”

Getting communities and beneficiaries themselves involved in discussing the ideas- yes, even before the interventions are implemented- or even agreed to. Sound far-fetched? Not in a world where cell-phones are increasingly finding their way into the pockets of farmers and villagers across the developing world. Maybe if Jason had suggested “1 Million Cell Phones” he would have received a warmer reception: let’s get our communities plugged into the new world of instant communications so they can have a real-time voice into the way in which we run our programs.

This process requires all sorts of courage. Really, what it comes down to is a relinquishing of control. From the perspective of the ideas generator, it means letting your concept get torn to shreds in an open and visible forum of learning- and in real time. Jason’s certainly learned this the hard way- and as the slightly hurt nature of his video posts suggests, there’s usually a part of your personality caught up in the desire to help, which can take a real bruising when that desire is critiqued. But this is such an important lesson for donors to learn. It simply cannot be about what donors want. It has to be what the people on the ground actually need. Saundra’s website says it all: “Good Intentions are Not Enough“. Ever.

Which is where the challenge comes in for people like myself, sitting in an NGO. Sure, I’ve now got nearly a decade of experience in this line of work. Which sounds wierd to say, come to think of it. I’m not quite sure when all that happened. None the less, for all my training, experience and education, I’m simply not a famer in Uganda, or a day labourer in Senegal, or a carpenter in rural Pakistan, or a seamstress in Vietnam. I can make educated guesses based on what has and has not worked in the past and what other more intelligent and experienced people than I tell me. But at the end of the day, I (and my organization) need to have the courage to put our ideas to the test in a far more transparent fashion, and give the people we’re ostensibly helping the opportunity to feed into those ideas.

NGO workers will tell me that we do that already. Of course we do. We consult extensively before we design a project. We carry out lengthy sessions of participatory rural appraisal with a wide range of key stakeholders among our target communities. Door to door random samples. Differentiated for age cohorts and gender groups, taking into account the opinions of the elderly and the chronically ill. We carry out participative monitoring, install complex accountability mechanisms, and run detailed post-project evaluations to critically quantatively and qualitatively analyse the impact of our work as compared to a control group so that we can accurately measure what it was we achieved, and how we can achieve that better next time.

Sure. And Gordon Brown knows how to control his temper.

The fact is, most of the decisions that get made are based off relatively shallow field analysis and limited opportunities for direct intervention by communities into the program management cycle. The fact that my number one tool (and the number one tool of my colleagues up and down the chain) is a laptop should tell you that this is a closed, elitist process. PRA and many of these other tools for engaging communities in the development process date back to the 1970s, and are focused on largely illiterate societies. They are still potentially powerful tools when applied correctly, don’t get me wrong. But in reality, our communities are increasingly becoming functionaly literate (albeit gradually and with caveats)- and, far more pertinent to this discussion, technologically savvy and connected. The cell-phone tower and kiosk selling call-credit is now as much a part of the African rural landscape as the image of a colourfully-clad woman carrying a baby in a sling on her back.

I hope that more donors do what Jason has done- namely, push their idea out into the public forum of new media and allow real-time critique to feed back into it. I hope Jason can take that criticism with a note of grace, and be willing to change his thinking and his plans, and use that inertia and passion he has to do something that will benefit, and not harm. I hope that donors can seperate their ideas (good or otherwise) from their sense of self-worth and be willing to take a bit of flak from folks who do know what they’re talking about, accept it, and move on to better things. And I hope that NGOs can start tackling the challenge of social networking seriously, and start giving a real opportunity to a broader range of stakeholders to provide real-time critical feedback on their decision-making processes and interventions in the name of greater transparency, flexibility, accountability and quality.

What it simmers down to is working as best we can to improve the lives of people who don’t have the freedoms we do. We need to take ourselves out of the equation and lay it all down to this end. If that means taking risks with our ideas, and, dare I say it, our sacred cows, so be it.

BINGOs, I hope you’re listening to me.

3 comments on “Afrika Can Haz T-Shirtz?

  1. Pingback: Vloggers, Accountability, Donor Education and The¬†Uncultured¬†Project « WanderLust

  2. Pingback: Dear Jas- er- I mean- World Vision « WanderLust

  3. Pingback: A Day Without Dignity: The Power to Shoes « WanderLust

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