A Day Without Annoyance

4 Apr

I’ve been conducting a very non-random, not-even-the-least-little-bit clinical trial over the past week. I’ve been skyping my aid-worker friends. Actual aid-workers. People in the trenches (although in some cases those trenches are cubicles), churning out the proposals and spreadsheets and reports, meeting with community leaders, leading assessments, working out supply-chains, running distributions… in short, people actually getting it done. People whose day job is about taking a very close up and personal look what works and what doesn’t, what is effective and what isn’t.

Want to know the result of my non-R non-C T?

Not one of them – not one – had even the faintest clue what “A Day Without Shoes” is.

* * *

I keep having the same conversation with my marketing and media colleagues.

I’m like, “why do we always have to market this way?” And they’re like, “Okay, so what do you want us to market?” And I’m like, Well, why don’t we tell people the truth about what we do? Why don’t we tell them that we sometimes fail? Or tell them how complicated things really are? Why don’t we just be really transparent?” And they’re like, “We’ve done the research. Complexity and failure don’t sell. And anyway, people don’t want to hear that. If we told them the unvarnished truth, they’d ditch us – not so much because we’ve failed, but because they just don’t really want to deal. People have, like, a 10-second attention span and if we can’t tell the story in that length of time, they’re tuning us out.” And I’m like, “Seriously? That’s L A M E.” And they’re like, “so, what do you even want, anyway?”

What do I want? Good question. Thanks for asking.


* * *

I want people to support humanitarian aid and development, not because of a tax break or because doing so will increase brand visibility or enable market penetration… but because helping other people is the right thing to do.

I want to those ordinary citizen donors out there who care to know the whole story – I know they’re out there – to have the chance to hear it. To see the complete picture, imperfections and all. Why? Because I believe that they would still support what we’re trying to do.

I want there to be someone, somewhere in the Donor – NGO relationship to be wholly and unequivocally on the side of those we claim we’re trying to help – “the poor”, “our beneficiaries”… I have yet to meet a donor or organization up to this task.

I want to not have to run interference on ideas for bad aid hatched in the name of a “win-win” for some high-profile corporate “partner.” This has been a part of every single aid job I’ve had in the past 20 years, save the very first one.

I want more professionals in this field and fewer amateurs who think they know better.

I want journalists to criticize us for the right reasons.

I want “aid” and “help” and “do something” and a million variations on those themes to stop being used as brands. Because using aid as a brand erases its’ actual meaning and value (and makes the actual aid workers among us feel like hos).

I want aid to not be marketed. Once we resort to pandering to the emotional (or tax-break) needs of someone in order to persuade them to support what we we’re doing, we’ve already prostituted our own cause.

I want to spend more of my day on tasks that will contribute towards making an actual difference in an impoverished community somewhere, and less on tasks that simply service the machine.

I want my fellow citizens to act brighter than they currently do. Going a day without shoes is a logically bankrupt distraction which creates the illusion of “caring” and “doing something” while simultaneously accomplishing precisely zero except to further entrench a dangerous misperception about what will “help” “the poor” .. oh, and it also doesn’t hurt the bottom line of a for-profit company whose entire schtick is the cultivated appearance of social consciousness.

Call me a dreamer. I’m pretty certain I’m not the only one.

I want A Day Without Annoyance.

35 Responses to “A Day Without Annoyance”

  1. curtiskj 4 April, 2011 at 10:09 pm #

    I would argue that most Americans donate based on causes they believe in, not the marketing materials. With the US government being clear that many of us are on our own, we don’t expect others to take care of us and see it as our duty to try and help others. Whether that is done well is another story of course. If you want a true ‘Day without Dumbassery’, then it is incumbent upon us to try and educate the public on the best uses of their giving, but in the end where they give will always be up to them.

  2. brittanygoesglobal 4 April, 2011 at 10:21 pm #

    I’m going to have to disagree with you on your commentary on Days Without Shoes. Whether you are aware of it or not, people are either directly or indirectly influenced by your actions, be it good or bad.
    I’m about to head into the Peace Corps, so you could call me one of those immature young people who wants to ‘save the world’ without fully knowing the realities. To be fair, I’m not expecting to go into the Peace Corps to save the world, or create significant change within my country or community for the next two years. I don’t envision myself emerging from Paraguay as a national hero, or ‘getting my community out of poverty,’ whatever such an obscure concept means.
    Recently I was reading a Peace Corps blog and this volunteer was explaining about how she saw something real change right in front of her. One day she went over to her neighbor’s house to hang out, drink tereré, and chill with the man of the house, his brother, and his 11 year old daughter. The man was talking to his brother about how he was about to buy a house literally across the street for his 11 year old daughter, so that she could live next to him for the rest of her life. Because Paraguay is such a machismo culture, this is expected. And the brother turned to him and said ‘Well what if your daughter didn’t want to live next to you her whole life? What if she wanted to travel the world like Angelic here?’ Angelic, the Peace Corps Volunteer, proceeded to write that just because she was THERE for that particular conversation, she may have changed that girl’s life forever. Just by showing someone that there is an alternative creates change.
    This is why I think having ‘A Day Without Shoes’ is important. Not because ‘Tom’s Shoes’ gets brand recognition- not because those who do it get to prance around with their noses in the air because they’re ‘recognizing poverty’- it’s about the ones that have never been aware of it before, and now ARE. And maybe it will rest in their subconscious, and maybe because of it, they will be the ones in the field ‘getting it done.’

    • SakPase 6 April, 2011 at 7:30 am #

      I’m not sure what the Day without Shoes/Dignity has to do with your Peace Corps story.

      There are many different ways to see poverty. Some of them contribute to better understanding and facilitate meaningful action to help people find solutions to the problems they face, and others perpetuate harmful ideas that can harm people and the sector at large. ‘Awareness raising’ isn’t always a positive thing in and of itself.

  3. Emily 5 April, 2011 at 3:56 am #

    You are a dreamerand you’re not the only one.

    Guess it’s just a really-out-there-doing-stuff thing, but I’ve never heard of no-shoe-day either & it sounds like a bit of a wank.

    I like the naivity that suggests that marketing has no role in who people donate to & that just by being there you can change a person’s life. If only it were true.

    I look forward to that day that our mistakes can be admitted properly – what better way to learn? I’ve watched the same stupid programs rolled out time and time again because donors are asking for it – despite full knowledge that it has not, is not and will not work.

    But if we can’t even share our feelings about the ‘industry’ on a blog, then we’ve obviously got an incredibly long way to go. With, or without shoes.

  4. Katherine 5 April, 2011 at 4:12 am #

    While I heartily agree with you on the futility of FB “awareness raising” and stupid commercial events like “A Day without Shoes”, you are becoming so self righteous it’s making me lose interest in following your blog. The world is changing, and the aid sector might do better work (and get more support) if you focused more on how to direct and educate all the ignorant but well meaning people, rather than slamming them and making yourselves out to be some special kind of club that no-one else can join unless they have 15 years of aid work dirt under their fingernails. There are a lot of people doing great work in the world, with awareness, sensitivity and results, without being professional aid workers.

    • lu 6 April, 2011 at 8:38 pm #

      i may not agree with every word written here, but i certainly appreciate the honesty involved in writing it.

      i tend to think it is only considered self righteous because it is talking about something (aid, development, humanitarian response) that we have been led to believe we are entitled to have a say in, a hand in, or a valid opinion about.

      yet, other professions and fields are not subject to this label of ‘self righteous’ for similar criticism of amateurs. forgive the simple analogy, but we don’t all claim to have an opinion that should matter on how accountants, surgeons, or engineers do their work because we collectively recognise them as professionals.

      aid workers and non-profit professionals continue to get the head-cocked, tongue clicking ‘awwwww’ condescending response when you say what you do. and then when you say that the system is broken, needs fixing, and the professionals should be listened to, you are now no longer an ally, but someone who is too cynical or self righteous or burnt out. but maybe your experience and profession have taught you something that others don’t know?

      sorry for rant, obviously hit a nerve!

      • Katherine 7 April, 2011 at 6:50 am #

        In fact, I am a non-profit professional myself, and am very aware of the assumptions that are made by people who have never worked in the social impact area. However, I also had a previous life in the private sector, so I understand that (1) those assumptions are usually based on ignorance rather than stupidity, and (2) people can, and are usually willing to, learn. So rather than negating those people, I try to engage and educate them (and hopefully access their resources and influence!).
        I would also add (3) that many skills are highly transferable. So while people may not be aid professionals, they may still have professional skills that are valuable and relevant to aid / development work, and the sector does itself a disservice by rejecting their potential contribution because they don’t have the technical / field knowledge of the “old hands”. Why should aid be a special sector that you have to be in from birth, when in so many areas people make successful transitions and enrich their new profession with the skills they have brought across, combined with the willingness to learn what they don’t know?

      • J. 7 April, 2011 at 8:25 am #

        Katherine – I have never written that for-profit colleagues who made the jump to the NGO world were stupid. Ignorant? Almost always. Truly willing to learn? In my experience, highly variable.

        You say that you are “very aware of the assumptions that are made by people who have never worked in the social impact area”, yet your point #3 makes it seem clear that you continue to make those assumptions yourself. In this case, namely, that this field is so uncomplicated and easy that just anyone can come in and figure it out (see the great series “For My Corporates” over at Shotgun Shack). That’s a wrong assumption, plain and simple. I have yet to meet a for-profit exec who can do what I do. Yet they all come in, convinced helping the poor is basic, that the real problems are that none of us know how to use Powerpoint or read a financial statement, and that what we really need are more “innovative approaches to high-value corporate partnerships.”

        You may not care for the way that I say what I say. But I challenge you to spend time – really spend time – in the field under the tutelage of your own aid-worker colleagues, yourself willing to learn – really willing to learn. Then come back and tell me if you still think I’m wrong.

    • Patrick 7 April, 2011 at 2:11 pm #

      Agreed. The tone of this blog sometimes reminds me of the way punk kids reacted when Nirvana broke in 1991 – by being elitist, snotty, and judgmental of anyone who didn’t have their punk rock cred card. The vast majority of people haven’t spent years in the aid trenches – They are as ignorant about your experiences as you are about theirs. The fact that so many people participate in bad aid should be an inspiration to aid workers to reach out to those people, find common ground with them, and get them to start supporting better aid. Instead, you are acting like the snobby record store clerk mocking someone for buying Kenny G instead of Albert Ayers. Maybe you should start with the assumptions that the people who are excited about the Day without Dignity also have dignity and good intentions, and deserve the opportunity to be educated about how to better support the causes they believe in. Instead, you are acting like a record snob, saying “Darfur? Pshah, I liked Darfur before it got trendy. Now it’s all about the Ivory Coast.”

      • J. 7 April, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

        I dunno Patrick, maybe you could start by not making assumptions about my assumptions.

        I am happy enough to accept that good intentions might be a given, but I certainly do not accept them as an excuse for ill-conceived aid schemes. I am willing to explain to those who will listen (as I have done repeatedly on this blog over the past 4+ years), but I feel zero obligation cheer-lead pseudo-aid events like “A Day Without Shoes” (I actually liked “A Day Without Dignity”).

        Humanitarian aid is not a new field. There are well-developed bodies of both theory and practice. We know very well what works and what doesn’t. Yet despite all of this, many – maybe I’m wrong, but you appear to be one – seem to think that I need to be coddling those who are “just trying” and who “mean well.”

        I’ve seen Kenny G perform live.

      • Patrick 14 April, 2011 at 1:41 pm #

        Point made. But I do think it’s important to temper cynicism, and while it’s not your job to convince the well-intentioned and misguided, it’s an important part of development – showing the people who want to help and want to donate why their way of helping isn’t going to work, and better ways they can help.

      • J. 14 April, 2011 at 5:35 pm #

        Patrick – I appreciate your engagement. Honestly. But I am going to push back just a bit more:

        Is it important to temper cynicism? Is it really? Because to me your comment sounds like something my mom would say – which is to say that it sounds “true”, but as I look at it closely I become less convinced that I agree. I think it is important to have cynicism, especially in a field like humanitarian relief and development which (at least as we currently know it) is so very caught up in perpetuating the happy propoganda.

        And is explaining what we do really an important part of development work? I agree that it’s in our best interests to educate the public, but is it really our job?

      • Patrick 14 April, 2011 at 6:21 pm #

        I meant development in the sense of fund raising and donor education. And I still think too much cynicism is unhealthy. Skepticism, on the other hand, is common sense.

  5. Jon 5 April, 2011 at 6:03 am #

    Just a quick question: what is it exactly that makes aid so different and special that it should/could not be subjected to the same marketing dumbassery, distortion, and oversimplification as EVERY SINGLE OTHER THING in modern society?

    I would say maybe the fact that so many aid orgs are dependent on charitable donations is the real problem, but even working for the government you’d still be handing out flag-branded sacks of Midwestern feed corn (“A Gift From the American People!”).

    Maybe aid workers can just continue doing their best to do a good job under the idiotic constraints imposed by marketing and public relations, like every other person in every other industry does? It’s not like the general public has even the slightest clue about the difficulty and complexity and potential for failure faced by social workers, soldiers, doctors, prosecutors, public defenders, or even government bureaucrats. Or do you think those people’s jobs are not made harder by stupid obstacles imposed largely because of public ignorance about what their work actually entails/requires?

    • Jon 5 April, 2011 at 6:33 am #

      (By the way, I support the ‘Day Without Dignity’ — I just don’t think ‘dignity of aid recipients’ is necessarily synonymous with ‘a full and accurate accounting of the complexities of aid work in marketing materials.’ Or is there some reason dignity can’t be portrayed in a short and simplistic sound bite in the same way that helplessness is now?)

  6. Abigail 6 April, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    Yes. Yes. Yes.

    The only good thing gateway activism like TOMS can do is catch the attention of the public so they can actually do some good with NGOs.
    If all the public does is One Day Without Shoes and other faux humanitarianism, that’s just pathetic. And typical.

    Thank you for blogging this! We all need to remember that buying a pair of shoes, bracelet, or dvd will not actually help anyone.

  7. melissa 8 April, 2011 at 5:57 am #

    I understand the argument that you would prefer aid to be given by informed donors without ulterior motives. I can only imagine the frustration of working in your field yet having to deal with such corporate issues. I understand the “dumbassery” in aid campaigns where 1 million t-shirts are sent to a single African village. Giving aid is and has been experiencing a certain surge because it’s become quite fashionable. I continue to understand that this frustrates the real purpose of aid. Aside from not wearing shoes, and sending 1 million t-shirts, well-run aid organizations are doing what they have to do to try and get things done. They have to create ad campaigns that harp on people’s emotions. They can’t advertise their failures (although I also don’t think they should be too well-hidden). This is just the reality of where aid comes from. It comes from an uniformed market who does nothing to inform themselves. I’m a 22 year old college student taking a course on the politics of development and I am now quite aware of how complicated and intricate your work is, and that it isn’t always successful and isn’t always effective. This is no way sways how passionately I feel about giving aid, but for the rest of my life, I’ll always do the research first, and I’ll know me not wearing shoes to my office for a day is doing more for me than it is for anyone in need. It is a respectable dream to wish that people knew the reality of aid organizations and the whole process, but in order for these organizations to get any of the work they want to do, done, they need the money, that’s unfortunately just the way it is. Questionable marketing and motives aside, it is important to remember it isn’t about the donor or the organization, it is about getting help to those who need it. That’s the bottom line.

  8. Katherine 8 April, 2011 at 9:32 am #

    J, I have and I do.

    And if you read my comments carefully you will see that I am not saying that a private sector professional, or even a non-profit professional, can walk in and just know how to take on complex aid / development work. What I am saying is that there are many skills that are transferable between sectors, and people are capable of learning what they don’t know (whether through study, or on the ground experience, or probably a combination of both). I’m sure if you decided the corporate world is really where you wanted to be, you are quite capable of becoming effective there – transferring some skills and learning others. I would certainly not assume that you knew nothing and would only make stupid, ill-informed suggestions and have to learn everything from scratch.

    There is a very wide spectrum – with Corporate Powerpoint Saviours and Shoes for a Day idiots at one end, long term professional aid / development workers at the other, and everyone else somewhere in between. And it seems to me that the aid / development sector may be losing out on some great people (as workers or as advocates) by not recognising that.

    • Happy Aid Worker 13 April, 2011 at 8:18 am #

      I have often felt that aid workers feel that it is only they who can do this work, but let’s face it… if they were so good at it, they would have ended hunger by now, no? I know a good number of aid workers who could definitely benefit from some private sector skills, very basic things such as keeping a budget and managing & developing their staff. I think when they start getting that they need to start engaging more strongly with different skills and different actors, then a much larger impact will be evident.

      • J. 13 April, 2011 at 9:27 am #

        @Happy Aid Worker – not to quibble, but I think it is quite dangerous to assume that aid workers would have ended world hunger by now if only they really knew what they were doing. Overselling what NGOs and aid workers and “Aid” in general can accomplish (see many, many previous posts which get at this) is one huge part of what leads to disillusionment among aid workers and to inexperienced for-profit peeps thinking they can just waltz in show us all how it’s done.

        Sure, there are many for-profit sector skills that some relief and development practioners would benefit from being better at, and you name a few of the right ones (while also assuming that those skills are largely lacking in the aid sector?). But let’s remeber that the causes of poverty and hunger… are systemic and structural. Aid chips away at the stone. But Aid will not “end hunger”, no matter how many for-profit types you bring in to show us how to manage our budgets.

  9. evan 13 April, 2011 at 8:30 am #

    I really like your blog. It’s really hard but true. Thanks for putting yourself out there. Here’s to working toward less dumbassery

  10. William 25 April, 2011 at 7:55 am #

    At my university there are many people who participated in TOMs’ “Day Without Shoes”, or multiple other organizational attempts to do something with such grandeur and such flash that it HAS to create change. However, I don’t understand how that is possible. I ask, “why don’t you have shoes on?”, and they say, “Because people all over the world don’t have shoes”. I talk with them about how on earth will any change come from this? They say awareness. I don’t see much awareness being raised, except within the movement. However, this is less “awareness” and more a reminder. Another organization on campus did something recently that I couldn’t find much sense in doing. They decided that they were going to walk near 30 miles to a nearby city in order to do construction projects and build relations between the two communities. I asked a girl who was asking if I wanted to volunteer, “What good could come from this walk. Why would you not drive to the town, which would give you more time to do actual construction and much more energy to accomplish your work?” She really didn’t have an answer. I don’t understand. It is like when I was younger, and didn’t want to finish my food my mother would say, “There are starving kids all over the world”, and I would respond, “Well they were never going to have this food anyway.” Doing something in the US doesn’t create some unnatural, magical change in a country 1000’s of miles away. It is a waste of time and energy that ultimately serves to boost your pride and increase your self-image.

    • amabilis2011 13 October, 2011 at 4:05 am #

      If only some of them just help us a little bit, even if the reason for doing so is not that transparent. I have decided to give my life to a group of poor people in the Selva of Peru. I have their trust, they know my intentions are good, but how do I even ask for help? Where should I knock for donations? Our project is ambitious but it is needed and will help these people to gain human dignity, something which they have lost down the line with terrorism (shining path). We hope to build schools, educate young and mature, hopefully to eradicate poverty, once and for all. I am building a web page missionperu.info and even this is hard to do. We do not give up. By the time I return on the field in February 2011 I pray that I have enough money to begin construction which I will pass on to the people to be administered for the people and by the people.

  11. meganrstreng@gmail.com 13 October, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    It is sad that you have to make people care through marketing. But, it seems difficult to do it any other way. It is impossible to open people’s eyes to the issues.

    Tom’s is lucky because they have the money to spend on marketing. Although it may be hard to make sure an actual person is getting helped, at the project is raising awareness.

    Medical Teams International is trying to save the lives of 1 million women and children and can do it for $2.35 a person. (Sorry marketing plug.) But this campaign makes sure 97 percent of donations go to the programs. http://www.medicalteams.org/one.

    • Alanna 17 October, 2011 at 8:40 am #

      Clearly you don’t actually READ this blog. The % that goes to donations is a terrible way to measure effectiveness. Among other things – I say this based on a decade+ of experience – there is no way you get to 3% overhead without playing some serious games with the way you use and value gifts-in-kind. (aka #SWEDOW)

    • J. 20 October, 2011 at 9:39 am #

      Megan –

      I completely agree with Alanna. I would be more than a little interested to see the math on “saving a life” for $3.25 per person. And while this is but one person’s opinion, it seems to me that anyone/any org. who makes the claim of only 3% overhead is somewhere between misunderstanding the real world and intentional manipulation of the numbers.


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