In which yet another “aid expert” gives advice that’s not really very helpful…

10 Dec

Yes, I do realize that not just anyone can write a bestselling book and then get invited to promote said book on Oprah.

But you’ll forgive me for being more than a little blasé at the sight another journalist-cum-aid expert giving advice to NGOs about… fundraising.

In this article written for Outside magazine, our old buddy, a familiar name in the aid twitterverse and familiar face on the aid-related speaking engagement circuit, Nicholas Kristof shares a few pearls of what has the look and feel of sage advice for NGOs. Let’s take a look at some of those:

“So for God’s sake, let’s learn how we can connect people to important causes and galvanize a robust public reaction.”

That sounds lovely, but on second read I have absolutely no idea what that means. But it could be a line from a modern remake of Dr. Zhivago: “The cause needs you..”

“Hundreds of thousands of American students and church and temple members joined the Save Darfur movement, protesting, fasting, or otherwise supporting a people halfway around the world who mostly didn’t look like them, who belonged to a different religion, and whom they’d never heard of a few years earlier. For me, it was a reminder that emotional connections are possible even with the most remote suffering.”

Oh, well, hallelujah. Hundreds of thousands of Americans protested and fasted…

Yes, you can make a difference in Dafur (and also release lots of toxins) by simply fasting. Now if we could somehow link hot yoga or cross-country motorcycling to the Iraqi refugee crisis, I’d be all up in that.

(Other bloggers do the rant-about-badvocacy thing far better than I… WrongingRights, AidWatch, Texas in Africa, or Good Intentions… – care to take a crack at Kristof, here?)

Half the Sky became a New York Times bestseller and went through seven printings before it was three weeks old. Young people particularly seem to want to move from reading about problems to addressing them, so we started a Web site for them, We’re also developing an online video game and television documentary to bring new people to the cause.”

In case you missed it, here’s the key message:

– Step 1: Buy my book

– Step 2: Donate to my movement online

Call me a naysayer… but a video game? Seriously?

“Many of you readers travel to developing countries, and you’re the ideal marketers for humanitarian causes. But if you’re trekking in the Himalayas, come back not with stories of impoverished villages but rather ones about a particular 12-year-old girl who, if she received just $10 a month, could stay in school. Come back with photos of her—or, better, video that you put on a blog or Web site. Make people feel lucky that they have the opportunity to assist her, so that they’ll find helping her every bit as refreshing as, say, drinking a Pepsi.”

Yes, by all means, plaster the face of some poor child up on your blog. Better still, give her name and location, so that any random person with internet access can track her down… for whatever purpose.

As well, please do just create the impression that people can help her directly. There simply aren’t enough start-up charities these days. What we really need are more amateurs mucking about in the field of humanitarian aid.

And forget Pepsi. Make it as refreshing as drinking a “Fat Tire” and I’m in…

Don’t even get me started…

19 Responses to “In which yet another “aid expert” gives advice that’s not really very helpful…”

  1. Texas in Africa 10 December, 2009 at 9:36 pm #

    Bravo, bravo. Remember a couple of months ago when he had a contest asking for suggestions of people who were doing things to help women around the world? The grand prize was his book. Not money to help those people who are doing good things to help women, but a self-serving book.

    • J. 10 December, 2009 at 11:04 pm #

      Thank you for this comment. And forgive me for neglecting to include you as one of those who rants about badvocacy so much better than I. Adding your link to the post above… now

  2. Adam Hooper 11 December, 2009 at 7:21 am #

    Sure he may be promoting his own book… but isn’t he giving valuable fundraising advice based on personal experience?

    An NGO has income and expenses like any other organization. If one can increase income at no extra cost and without compromising values (because a personal story, just like demotivating statistics, can be written honestly or misleadingly), why not do it? And shouldn’t communications officers at established NGOs get to read an opinion and make their own decisions, too?

    He didn’t use “voiceless” in this one. Surely that counts for something….

    • J. 11 December, 2009 at 9:54 am #

      So, three things:

      1) To your first question, I would answer “no, and no” He isn’t giving valuable fundraising advice. He’s telling NGOs to do precisely the things that earned them poor press in the past: lead or allow donors (by whom I mean individuals, not corporations or bilateral donors) to believe that they are supporting a specific “poor” individual, when in fact they’re not. And on the basis of what personal experience? His experience “traipsing around Africa” for 10 years, writing about atrocity and poverty, but never personally on the front lines of having to actually do something? Sorry, I don’t buy the personal experience bit.

      2) I actually don’t so much mind the fact that he’s written a book, that he promotes it (who wouldn’t?) or that it has become a best-seller. What I do mind is the suggestion that there is some direct connection between buying/reading his book and the world becoming a better place necessarily. I’d disagree that “for Gods sake we need to connect people to causes.” In my opinion “causes” are a dime a dozen. What’s needed is better thinking about how all those causes can actually, you know, do something. That link is far from clear, and Kristof doesn’t even come close to addressing it. Put a picture of a poor girl from another country who needs $10/month for school on your blog??? Dude….

      3) You’re right. He didn’t use the word “voiceless”… I’ll give him that.

  3. Ben 15 December, 2009 at 12:16 pm #

    I wouldn’t mind some advice on ways of raising money for the developing world from the rich world which are not sensationalist, silly, crass, exploitative, pandering to the lowest common denominator or ethno-centric.

    But in the absence of that, here’s the Xmas appeal: “Fatima, looking much older than her meagre 12 years, chokes back the tears as she recalls the fateful day the “bad men” came […fill in here…] For the price of triple decaf soy latte you can bring a smile back to Fatima’s face. Send her the gift of knowledge. Buy The Book that everyone is talking about. Heartwarming blockbuster “Double The Royalties” will turn her tears of pain to joy”.

    • J. 15 December, 2009 at 12:36 pm #

      There you go, raising the million-dollar question. Easy enough to rant on about what someone is doing or trying to do that I happen to disagree with. Far more difficult to propose viable alternatives.

      Nicely written Xmas appeal! Oh, wait… you were be facetious…

  4. Lisa Vives 17 December, 2009 at 3:54 pm #

    One more thing about those Darfur protestors. This was not a million people who by great coincidence decided to do something about some far away place, but it was a well-orchestrated movement launched by a well-funded primarily religious leadership with its own agenda that took the story to its followers and revved up the campaign.

    Motivated by Darfur but strangely unmoved by the environmental contamination of the Niger delta, the toxic dumping by western countries in Abidjan, the drought in Kenya, the anti-gay legislation in Uganda, homelessness and under-housing in South Africa, poverty in Angola (the most expensive capital Luanda in the world), etc etc etc. Perhaps because these other places have no strategic interests – no Islamic government that might give shelter to the Al Shabaab, that might be anti-Israel, that might be an obstacle in regional politics.

    Sell the book, give away the movie (The Reporter) and plough the profits back into organizations on the ground that are fighting for justice.

    • J. 17 December, 2009 at 4:25 pm #

      Interesting. For whatever combination of reasons, “Save Darfur” seems to have simply become it’s own brand.

      If the orgs referenced in the Outside article are indicative, the profits from Kristof’s book presumably go to Plan and Mercy Corps..?

  5. Sterling 18 December, 2009 at 9:25 am #

    the video game thing seems to be a popular choice these days. i have a friend who’s working on one to raise political awareness and get youth involved. it also seems a bit like those apps on facebook where you get to farm or maintain an aquarium.

    i guess the difference is between people playing a game in an alternate reality where their altruistic dreams are achieved, and people donating to causes and traveling and probably not improving anything. at least with the video game they may learn something before taking action?

    • J. 18 December, 2009 at 10:01 am #

      Let’s hope, eh?

  6. Martha Cook 25 December, 2009 at 12:21 pm #

    I would like to think that Nikolas Kristof has his heart in the right place. I’m halfway through Half the Sky and am having a hard time finishing it because I got the point already. It is disappointing though that he doesn’t offer guidance on effective giving. Peter Singer does a fairly good job of it in The Life You Can Save, although the end result is that I have no easy answer.

    The problem is that it is complicated. And complicated turns people off. So did Nick Kristoff not address the complicated question of appropriate giving because he knew it would turn people off, or did he leave it out because he’s naive?

    I’ve been doing my own search of worthy charities. I’ve challenged myself to giving 5%. The biggest headache has not been the change in spending habits but the angst associated with who to give that 5% to. I still have no idea. Any advice welcome.
    PS I did a lot of community awareness raising about Darfur and I’m not associated with any religion. It just seemed the right thing to do when faced with a tragedy.

    • J. 26 December, 2009 at 2:23 pm #

      Hey Martha,

      Thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment. For the record, I do not presume to judge the man Nicholas Kristof or his motives. As I’ve written in previous posts, we all have multiple, sometimes conflicting motives. Nor do I think he’s naive. What I do think is that despite his own presentation/writing style which suggests otherwise, in fact he does not see the entire picture. Observing and researching and having more knowledge than the average person about the horrible situations of the world is still very far removed from the ability to envision and suggest feasible solutions. He does the former well, the latter not at all.

      For advice on selecting charties worthy of your 5%, I’d recommend that you visit Saundra over at “Good Intentions are Not Enough” and also Alanna over at “Blood and Milk” (the links are in my blogroll – “Blogs I’ll Admit that I Read”).

  7. Martha Cook 27 December, 2009 at 9:28 pm #

    OK. I’ll buy that Kristoff does not have the knowledge nor the ability to envision and suggest feasible solutions. I get that this is very irritating to those who do know how to effect change in a complex situation. But he does serve a purpose that is very obvious to me as I avoid the rush at the mall and the impatient teens in line at Starbucks … he has galvanized a group of people who did not previously have any idea what was going on at a large scale in the rest of the world. I’m not trying to be argumentative. I’m a bit of a Pollyanna and I don’t care who knows it!

  8. Annette 3 January, 2010 at 8:01 pm #

    Good points, I think I will definitely subscribe!🙂. I’ll go and read some more!


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