Monday, 14 February 2011

The other problem with t-shirts: high-profile, cheap GIK perpetuate stereotypes

I'm not wading into the World Vision 100k t-shirts debate because there are plenty of people who are, more effectively than I could, arguing for what I believe to be the correct side of the debate (see Texas in Africa and Good Intentions are Not Enough for summaries and great responses). So, this is a post about GIK in general and t-shirts in particular, not an argument for either side of this debate.

Part of the reason this debate came about is that World Vision uses the donation of t-shirts by the NFL as part of their marketing strategy. They're not alone. Many ngos and aid organisations use donations from highly visible groups to raise their profile. It makes sense. They get stuff (SWEDOW or not) and they get the media and public to pay attention to them for a bit. If this is the major marketing tool, however, you end up with Oprah building a US$40mill school in South Africa.

A little bit of context: Oprah visited South Africa and was so touched by something (possibly the plight of the poor people she spotted from her chauffeur-driven car) that she decided to build a school: The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. The marketing (and the nature of her choice of contribution) suggested that:
a) she was providing opportunities to girls from the poorest communities who had no opportunities (many of her pupils come from top government primary schools, black ≠ poor) ,
b) she was creating an alternative to the public secondary education system, which wouldn't exist otherwise (South Africa's public education systems has plenty of problems but there are many excellent private schools, most of which offer scholarship opportunities, and some great public schools (often with strong alumni funding), plus some excellent models of not-for-profit private education in disadvantaged communities), and
c) she was solving a good proportion of South Africa's problems all in one go (SA has many problems but school enrollment is generally high, across gender groups and up to grade 12).

Of course, for those girls attending the school, the benefits are significant but the point is that this is probably not the best use of US$40mill - if Oprah felt that these girls needed greater opportunities to get top-quality education, setting up scholarships to the already-existing excellent schools, investing in teacher-support and training mechanisms or providing learning opportunities at some of the better government schools with great, committed teachers but limited equipment or enrichment opportunities, might, for example, have been an option.

Using the high-profile donation of t-shirts to market your organisation creates the impression that
a) developing world people have no t-shirts  (and I challenge anyone to show me a single, objective needs assessment that says the people in this area need more t-shirts!) and without these t-shirts, poor people will not be okay, and
b) these are the only t-shirts in the whole world that can fill the gap, and
c) these t-shirts will have a major impact on the lives of the people who get them (CNN video linked to below calls them "life-changing").

The stereotype of starving African children with flies on their faces has not proved helpful to development on the continent. Creating the impression that no-one in the developing world has clothes (ooh, look at all the poor naked Zambians!?!) is unlikely to help the developed world get past the idea that developing world people are primitive, destitute and dependent. Which in turn perpetuates the idea that aid is a useless black hole of money that will never do any good. Also, it probably has a negative impact on tourism and potentially (depending on how bright the investors are) foreign direct investment in the sophisticated industries of these countries, countries that desperately need the jobs industry and tourism create. Headlines like "helping clothe countries in need" are also condescending, unhelpful and a little exploitative.

If you're going to give t-shirts to poor people, then fine, whatever - African political parties do it all the time to buy support, but you go right ahead. But let's not pretend it is good aid and let's not justify their use through a marketing opportunity that perpetuates damaging stereotypes.

No comments:

Post a Comment