Archive for the ‘development’ Category

Girls in the ‘Third World’: The Discourse

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

One ordinary morning, as I sipped my warm coffee and drowsily listened to reports about all of the various international tragedies that were destroying our planet and people, I received an online message from a friend that directed me to the above website. My friend wanted to know what I thought about the program, as it had recently been touted in the media as a great success.

I opened the website, and was greeted by a video asking me to experience the sensation of buying a girl. No, my friend had not sent me a link to a child prostitution ring, but rather it was a non-profit organization that was in fact trying to ‘save’ these females from being sold into sex slavery. The video suggested that if I did not ‘buy’ these girls, someone else would. As my caffeine began to kick in, and I browsed the website, to be assaulted at every angle by gross generalizations, misinformation and the simplification of a vastly complex issue, I became extremely angry. Since no one was present to listen to my dismay, I decided to send a letter to The Girl Store. Both my letter and their response are posted below.


Dear the Girl Store,

I was recently directed to your website from a friend who had stumbled upon it through ( I understand your intentions are to improve the conditions of females in India, however I find the information on your website promotes ignorance and in the long term will be detrimental to these females. I have reviewed non-profit organizations’ representations of the developing world for my academic work, and have never encountered a website campaign with such a lack of information. Also, my mother’s side of the family came to Canada from Calcutta when she was 15 years old, and I therefore find this personally offensive.

‘”The Indian girl grows up in a society where sons are idolized and daughters are mourned. So if she even makes it out of the womb, 750,000 girls are aborted every year, she is destined to live a life as a lower class citizen. During childhood her brother will get new shoes, clothes and books to learn while she’ll get a broom. Her brother will go off to school, and she’ll stay at home and do chores. In her teenage years, her brother will be well fed and she’ll be left to fend for herself”’.

Referring to an ‘Indian girl’ like they are a homogenous entity is dangerous. You are clearly aware of the vast diversity in Indian females, whether class, ethnicity or regional. North Americans do not have this same understanding. We understand India through ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ or World Vision commercials, where children run around in landfills. You are adhering to these stereotypes and presenting us with an utterly simplistic representation of an ‘Indian girl’.

The vast generalization that sons are idolized and daughters are mourned is unreasonable. Of course this happens in some households, as it does in MANY other societies. My grandmother and her brother, became orphans at a young age in Calcutta. My grandmother was able to stay in school, find a job and eventually bring her children to Canada. Her brother was not able to do the same and endured many hardships in a country that ‘idolizes him’. This may be a unique case, but your gross generalization would lead people to think my family’s situation is non-existent. You are disregarding families that work hard to educate both their daughters and sons, and treat them as equal members of society. Equating the issue of male idolization to an Indian problem that happens in every household is wrong and feeds on stereotypes that many North Americans will happily consume (which is probably why you are relying on it).

‘So if she even makes it out of the womb’…

I understand you are trying to be provocative in order to solicit donations from an ignorant population but you really need to rethink the use of this statistic. 750 000 abortions every year out of a population of more than 1 billion is not all that high. In 2008 in the United States, there were 1.2 million abortions, out of a country with 307 million people. I am not arguing we should disregard the abortion of females. It is your suggestion that this is an Indian problem that is angering. Twisting these statistics to make your donors feel pity on these females will perpetuate an image of Indian society that is misconstrued and extremely simplistic.

I have mapped trends in non-profit organizations, and have noticed that many are trying to escape the ‘make westerners feel pity’ concept. Many non-profits have realized that this sort of marketing strategy results in westerners’ negative perceptions of specific parts of the world and people. In the end, when westerners do not have a well rounded idea about the country and people they are wanting to help, they turn to methods of development that are inadequate and hazardous.

North Americans’, and more generally westerners’, altruistic actions have often failed overseas. While a combination of factors contribute to these failures, a lack of understanding of the society is often one of them. When organizations trying to improve conditions for disadvantaged groups promote ignorance, it is no wonder we are so often unable to address systemic issues that may result in sustainable change.

Are you okay with your campaign saying:

• Females in India are worse off than males (do you not want to speak about class differences, regional differences, historical processes that contributed to this?)

• Indians are not capable of addressing this issue (do you really need North Americans to do this? Are you relying on old ideas of development? What message is having your store in New York sending?)

• It is material items that will bring these girls back to life? (do prostitutes and abused females not need counselling and rehabilitation more than shoes?)

I am not contending that educating these females is not what should be done. My grandmother was able to be successful because as an orphan she was allowed to stay in school. However, it disgusts me that if she was in the same situation today she could have been placed on a website, in a demure tragic pose, and been brought back to life by the purchasing power of a North American. It is the way you are presenting and selling this issue that I find extremely problematic and offensive.

If you do genuinely want to help these females, you should allow their complexities to come through in your advertisements. Each female comes from a different family and background, and she has her own story. If you are attempting to help a specific class of females, please do not equate them to the entire Indian population. Many non-profit organizations do offer sections on their websites that provide donors with background information, links to educational websites and other resources that allow individuals to hopefully get a better understanding of the contextual issues.

While your campaign has been successful in garnering donations I urge you to rethink the simplistic story, ridden with dangerous stereotypes that you are selling to North Americans. You have turned these females into commodities for guilt ridden North Americans. Do not assume your ends justify your means, the males who picked up some of these females as prostitutes, probably too assumed at least the money would help them have a better life.

I sincerely urge you to rethink the ‘Buy a Girl her Life Back’ campaign.


Dear Ms, is an innovative website created by StrawberryFrog for Nanhi Kali. The core idea reiterated throughout the site is that the life of an underprivileged girl is not a condemned fait accompli. It is up to the viewers to change her destiny by ‘buying’ her life back – empowering her through education. The funds raised through online donations on the store will provide educational support to over 161 underprivileged girls in India. Our agency designed the site to be provocative to create an initial shock and awareness of the campaign and break through the wall of indifference. The website not only puts the issue of uneducated girls being most vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking  up front, but also provides the viewer with a solution to join the fight against it by sponsoring the education of young girls.

Brief background of Project Nanhi Kali -

Details of the actual interventions can be seen on websites and www–

If you would like any further information, please email me at this email id.


Sheetal Mehta

Trustee & Executive Director

Project Nanhi Kali

the argumentative essay

World Vision’s One Life Experience; an interactive African village

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

At the famed gigantic West Edmonton Mall in Edmonton Alberta, World Vision is hosting a free interactive experience called the One Life Experience. If you have not heard of it let me use their words to describe what it is all about.

The One Life Experience is a 2,000 square foot interactive village that is supposed to ‘transport you to the heart of Africa’. Through ‘captivating audio and powerful imagery, you experience the impact of HIV and AIDS by stepping into the life of a child’. It is supposed to be a place where you ‘will gain a new and compelling understanding of the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time, moving beyond the statistics by hearing the voice of a child in the midst of this struggle.’

Curious to see how they would represent the experience I explored the village and took a bunch of photos.

Each village visitor is given an iPod shuffle and headphones. You are told the name of the person whose life story you are going to listen to and then asked to enter the curtained area corresponding to your child in order to learn more about their experience with HIV and AIDS.













You are told about the child’s life and their family and whether they went to school. You’re given some statistics about the country where the child grew up. Then you enter into another curtained area and you are told of the bad things your child had to endure at a young age; one young man was kidnapped by the LRA, another young woman was raped several times and shunned by her community. As the story progresses you are introduced to different rooms that relate to the story.  So when the young woman who was raped goes to the hospital you enter a room with a hospital bed etc.

At the end of your One Life village experience you are led to a clinic area where you are told to wait on a bench while they check whether you have contracted the virus. With babies rage-crying in the background via your headset and surround sound haggard coughing at the clinic, the narrator tells you that in ‘your’ country many people are forgotten and they sit and wait for help that never comes.

Side Note: The blatantly manipulative expressed sentiment invariably makes my blood boil. These many people are ‘forgotten’ by whom? Their mothers and fathers and aunties and uncles and neighbors and all the other people that love them, that know them? I understand the desire to attract more attention. But calling them ‘forgotten’? It reminds me of ‘invisible children’. Invisible to whom?! How self-centric must we be when we engage with other humans on the planet? But I digress ..

So anyway, you are at this clinic and you know you are at the end of your ‘village experience’. Everything has been leading up to this moment, when you discover your status. Once you find out what happened to your kid (two children are positive, two are negative) they provide you with a brief update on what that young person is up to now.

If you’ve been through the exhibit or a similar one I would love to hear what your impressions were! I personally did not have a really great response to the visit. I scoured blogs looking for other peoples perspectives and tried finding someone who shared my discomfort, but alas, I could find no such expression. Everyone seems to have found the experience moving and valuable.

I think that one of my biggest underlying concerns was that the ‘experience’ was touted as transporting you ‘to the heart of Africa’. Which makes me think of Henry Morton Stanley.

editing the essay

I just don’t know that it’s appropriate to say you are representing the continent of Africa, its ‘heart’ and the experiences of HIV and AIDS within it, via a village. Let alone a ‘village’ with four characters in a mall. The continent is filled with cities and suburbs too, with stable homes, a queer population, loving monogamous heterosexual couples who have also all been impacted by HIV and AIDS. Where are the businessmen and politicians?

The ‘village’ was so simple and so lacking in complexity I found I really wanted World Vision to responsibly provide that further context.

One blogger expressed how he thought that the village experience should make us ‘feel lucky’ and ‘remind us of how rich we really are’. Being ‘lucky’ implies that living in a village environment is less desirable, which isn’t necessarily true. Besides, that feeling of “aren’t we glad we’re in Canada” is so incredibly misguided when you consider the communities in need in our own country.

It’s a political hot potato so let me just use it as an example; Attawapiskat, anyone?

As mentioned earlier, on your way out of the One Life Experience they have updates on the life you were following. They also have a bulletin board to send messages of hope to the children, a room full of portraits that you can sit in (kleenex provided) and then a space full of volunteers hoping to take your money.


On my visit, the volunteers at the end had a quiet, concerned and hawkish look to them. They all seemed to be trying to read the body language of the visitors and trying to figure out how best to approach everyone. The first question out the gentleman who greeted me with a sad smile was “Have you ever experienced anything so powerful before?”

Which reminded me of the things the young fundraisers on street corners say in order to try to start a conversation these days, like “Do you care about children?”

I will admit that I for one am feeling fairly tired of that direct intentional super manipulative guilting-into-helping type of engagement strategy. It was hard not to notice that throughout the village many of the experiences were designed to evoke a sense of pity and sympathy for the helpless African children. In one of the stories they talked in third person about a girl’s rapist as being, “a foe from which there is no escape”.  A first person account of that being a feeling is one thing. A third person pronouncement is another.

I wanted complexity and I wanted much more context in the one life experience. But they banked on the oft romanticized vision of a ‘poor African village’. To me this ‘heart of Africa’ village felt more like a caricature than anything else, it was like a walk through a World Vision TV ad.

Further Info:

AD for the One Life Experience on You Tube:

Roles volunteers play in the village:


Have you been through the One Life Experience or a similar interactive display? What were your impressions?

I’m really interested to hear about why or how others found the experience valuable too… ?


Good Evidence Andes Production Trip Fundraiser – March 24th 2012!

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

Buy your tickets here !

What do you envision when you think of the countries that border the Andes? Breathtaking mountains? Luscious rainforests? Locally grown coffee?

Good Evidence wants to help expand this understanding. We want to tell you about the amazing grassroots community work that is happening in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Issues of domestic violence, indigenous inequality, access to media and higher forms of education are some of the issues these innovative organizations are involved with.

So join us on March 24th, to learn more about these fascinating organizations at Good Evidence’s Andes Fundraiser! We are heading to Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia to make four short videos and need your help to get there. The evening will include delicious food, entertainment and activities, with all the proceeds going towards funding this production trip.

Entertainment will be provided by Ruben Esguerra a local artist whose music is described as a mix of Latin and Caribbean musical genres with poetry and hip hop.

Check out Ruben’s amazing music at 1.32 mins:

When: March 24th, 7:00-9:30pm

Where: Beit Zatoun, 612 Markham Street

Why: To get our production team to the Andes, to film four amazing organizations!

How: Purchase your tickets for only $10 on our website

* If you cannot make the event but still want to support us, donate on our site here!

We could not have made our Toronto videos without all of your help.
 Please join us again to make our Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia videos a reality and to continue supporting us as we challenge harmful representations.
We look forward to seeing you all there!

*Any questions can be directed to our Director of Communication and Outreach, Lisa Rideout :


We will be filming with these FOUR following community initiatives:
1) Defensoría Comunitarias in Cusco, Peru:

The Community Defenders is principally focused on providing safe and accessible spaces for children, women, and adolescents so that they can receive swift and definitive consultation on matters related to domestic violence and other domestic problems.



2) A.C Yawar in Lima, Peru:

A locally-founded and locally-run community theatre arts initiative that is committed to raising Peruvians’ awareness, knowledge, and respect for the historical and cultural intricacies of Andean national identity.



3) Intercultural University of Indigenous Nations and Peoples, in Quito, Ecuador:

UINPI is an institute of higher education that attempts to merge tradition and modern ways of knowing to challenge privileged ways of learning…




4) Cinematography Education and Production Center in La Paz, Bolivia:

CEFREC works in the realm of audiovisual production to educate indigenous communities on the techniques of film production so that they are able to produce their own videos to highlight the themes they want to see, in a variety of formats…


What Whitney Houston’s Death can Teach us about Media Representations

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

The news reverberated across the globe. The voice, the queen of pop, the greatest female singer to grace the airways, had died. On February 11, 2012, Whitney Houston was pronounced dead. On the evening before the biggest music award show, Houston was found unresponsive in her Beverly Hilton hotel. Immersed underwater in her bathtub, Houston was merely 48 years old. The news however did not come as a complete shock. Her past musical achievements had been marred by her drug abuse, turbulent marriage to Bobby Brown, and rapid weight lose.  Houston sadly leaves behind her nineteen-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown.

This however is not a post regarding Houston’s rise to fame, followed by her tragic downfall. I am not an individual that is greatly saddened by the loss of a celebrity. However, during my earlier years, there were many occasions when I could be found blasting a cassette tape and singing ‘I will always love you’ as I leapt freely on my bed. Thus the news of Houston’s death and subsequent outpour from fans, did not immediately cause me to react with sarcasm, as related to the actual important worldly events taking place. Some of my facebook friends however, did not have a childhood intimacy with Houston’s music. One of these friends posted, “Did you hear who died today? 50,000 people died of hunger today!!! oh and one coked out rich has-been …..” This post, albeit harshly, validly questions the ability for one death to garner such empathy while thousands of others are virtually unnoticed.

The culpability in this situation is arguably not on the faithful fans, but rather on the various media depictions that routinely dehumanize certain individuals, while humanizing (to the extreme) others. Depending on what statistic you adhere to, between 25 000 to 50 000 individuals die each day from hunger. A disproportionate number of these deaths occur in the global south, in particularly within the continent of Africa. While there are various sources including the News, documentaries, films, and literature, that provide representations of Africa, the most important (in my opinion) is those from non-profit organizations. Non- profit organizations working in Africa, carry a certain legitimization based on their altruism. As these organizations purport to aid Africans, they arguably, would not disseminate harmful representations. Unfortunately, this logic does not always hold true. With their good intentions in tow, non-profit organizations sometimes couple statistics with particular visual depictions that work to reinforce dangerous stereotypes. Africans are often depicted as starving, ravaged by drought and war, and unable to escape their situation without the help of wealthy westerners. Criticisms of non-profit organizations’ representations have led to the use of more ‘positive’ images. Smiling Africans are more recently shown as having agency, being capable of their own decisions, and merely needing the resources to achieve their own destinies.

While the second depiction is arguably better than the first, the problem lies in the oversimplification of complex issues and peoples. Individuals with very different histories are molded into similar narratives. The overuse of these repetitive images naturalize a single narrative of Africa (as has been tackled by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). The humanizing details that are necessary to invoke an empathetic and compassionate response, that last longer than it takes to make a donation, do not exist. Non-profit organizations’ flat depictions do not further knowledge of the situation, nor unveil the individuality of experiences. Poor Africans are seemingly lumped together as sharing in the same existence. A statistic of 50 000 people dying of hunger, therefore summons images of a downtrodden mass in a far away place with no rememberable characteristics. Granted, non-profit organizations are not provided with the space of a novel to address the vast complexities underlying world hunger and poverty. However, we must do better. Stereotypical representations of those effected by hunger and poverty in certain parts of the world have dehumanized thousands of individuals. They have become little more than a group of people we must help. The complexities underlying their situations must be brought to the forefront, if empathy anywhere close to that achieved by Houston’s death is to be realized.

I do not fault all of the fans that were deeply saddened by the passing of Houston. She was perceived as a kind spirit, with an amazing voice, that was troubled with addiction. Interviews with the star revealed her constant downfalls and triumphs. Her complexities were illustrated, Houston was neither merely a drug addict, nor a former gospel singer. She was messy, and indefinable. While celebrity obsession, especially during tragedy, surely contributed to the plethora of information citizens have on Houston, her death should make us pause and question whether certain lives are perceived as more valuable than others, why certain strangers’ deaths effect us more than others, and how we can go about changing this.

For individuals involved in organizations that are preventing tragedies, more resources and emphases must be placed on creating complex representations. Without these representations, a single death of a celebrity will continue to receive massive attention, while thousands of deaths of fellow human beings will be completely ignored.

Purchasing the Eradication of Poverty

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

fair trade teasfair trade teassupermarket aisles

In a massive grocery superstore, clinical in character, housing any product one’s heart desires, they can be found. They sit on one of the hundreds of shelves, pressed in between a few of the thousand of products that are illuminated by the florescent lighting. The products are not unlike the others, the packaging looks relatively similar and they could easily be mistaken as any other product.  However, upon closer glance by the consumer’s trained eye, it can be spotted. Placed on one of the corners, displayed in a confident manner like a badge of honour, a symbol with the words ‘Fair Trade’ can be found.

In Canada, fair trade products include Coffee, Tea, Cocoa, Cotton, Flowers, Fruit, Grains, Spices and Herbs, Nuts and Oils, Sports Balls, Sugar and Wine (Fair Trade Canada 2010:1). According to TransFair Canada, fair trade “seeks to change the terms of trade for the products we buy – to ensure the farmers and artisans behind those products get a better deal” (ibid).

Fair trade products, in particular coffee and tea, have become popular. Whether individuals want to support Ethiopian, Ecuadorian or Columbian farmers through their purchases, in North American coffee shops and grocery stores, they get to choose. Corporate chains such as Starbucks, Timothy’s Coffee and Second Cup often offer a brand of fair trade products, while grocery stores provide customers with the opportunity to choose from a variety of brands. Although many consumers may not know the fine details of what fair trade entails, they understand it as a more ethical purchase, with benefits going to the ‘third world’.

An article in The Economist titled How Fair is It? reviews a piece from the New York Times on fair trade. An excerpt from this article illustrates the ambiguous and potentially negative consequences of fair trade:

It seems like a lovely idea. Conscientious consumers are willing to pay more for goods produced in what is viewed as a less exploitative manner. But how well does the model hold up in practice? Dani Rodrik notes a few inconsistencies. He points out that fair-trade products often sell at no mark-up in retail stores, a matter explained away by retailers who claim they’ve achieved efficiency gains with fair-trade producers, allowing them to pay more for the product and still maintain their profit margins.

Mr Rodrik continues: Now, which one of us really know what “fair trade” certification is really getting us when we consume a product with that label? The market-based principle animating the movement is based on the idea that consumers are willing to pay something extra for certain social goals they value. But clearly there is an opaqueness in what the transaction is really about. And who gets to decide what the “long list of rules” should be, if not the consumer herself?

Consider some of the requirements that the fair trade purchaser imposes. [A] Brazilian coffee farmer has to make sure that his children are enrolled in school. Wait a minute, the economist in you should say. Isn’t the farmer himself a better judge of how his extra income should be spent? Should these decisions be made by Starbucks instead?

(The Economist, 2007:1)

The examination by Rodrick of fair trade products, questions the public’s awareness of what fair trade actually entails and whom fair trade truly benefits. The fair trade debate is complex and only a surface level examination can be offered here. However, the issue of development as consumerism, brought forth by the fair trade debate, is worthy of a critical examination.

The idea that North Americans can purchase goods to improve the lives of poverty-stricken individuals in the ‘third world’ is one that dominates development discourse. Consumers can purchase a hotly brewed coffee and contribute to a farmer in Bolivia’s community, or buy a RED t-shirt and help eradicate AIDS in Africa, or sponsor a child in Bangladesh for one dollar a day and improve her/his life. This relationship between North American consumerism and development is problematic.

The basis of the problem with purchasing as development is the great disconnect consumers can have from the issues that are supposedly being addressed through their purchases. When one’s engagement with development ends the moment after a credit card has been returned, little understanding of the issues is gained. If North American consumers know nothing about the people, communities or nations they are supposedly helping, and only know that these products cost more than non-fair trade products, times of economic crisis can prove devastating. Unsurprisingly non-profit organizations were greatly impacted during the recent economic crisis (Waldie 2010:1).

Furthermore individuals that have little understanding of the complexities underlying poverty within the ‘third world’ may be ready to support any method touted as an eradication of poverty. Colonialism, the enforcement of harsh dictatorships and the implementation of devastating structural adjustment programs, were all ‘sold’ to Westerners as beneficial to the ‘third world’. Without an understanding of the history of the nations, peoples, and issues being addressed, North Americans may blindly throw monetary donations at causes that have the same negative implications.

What is necessary, rather than a conversation regarding how we can make fair trade more widespread, is an examination of the implications of fair trade. What message does fair trade disseminate regarding the ‘third world’ and understandings of development? What role does consumerism occupy in North Americans’ understanding of poverty eradication?  More thought must be given to the forms in which development takes in the ‘first world’ beginning with this idea of development as consumerism.

Why might buying a goat be terrible?

Friday, January 13th, 2012

Moving from east to west, and from Christmas holidays to a New Year, I find myself packing up Christmas presents to move them with me. Looking through them it is clear that both my family and the family of my partner picked gifts that reminded them of me — bamboo socks, a reusable coffee mug, fair trade coffee, reusable handkerchiefs and so on. What I don’t have to pack up, though, is a certificate that a goat was bought for a family in Botswana, or a chicken sent to a single mom in Ecuador, or that a child had been sponsored in the Congo in my name. These gifts don’t appear, I suspect, because I rail against them when I see commercials or when World Vision’s catalogues come through our door. What’s wrong with giving someone a goat, or helping a kid go to school? I’m not sure I have a good answer for that, other than that I’m not sure it is inherently bad.

So why do I rail against these campaigns, these gifts that seem to move us away from needless spending and showering of gifts that may or may not be made by the same children that we could instead be sponsoring? Like my parents taught me growing up, it isn’t so much the present, but the thought that counts. It seems to me the thought behind these presents is the worrisome choice, rather than the chicken, pig, goat or sponsorship itself.

What does it mean to give a chicken to someone we don’t know in Ecuador, or even to an unnamed country, as a Christmas present to someone we do know and love? What relationships are created here and what do they look like? I wonder what we know about the world when it makes sense to us to bestow a chicken upon someone we don’t know, who lives in a country we don’t know much about. I have my doubts, too, about the efficacy of programs that give goats, pigs and chickens to people around the world. It seems to me that there might be more specific ways to help individuals, determined in conversation with them rather than in a palatable, kitschy catalogue of choices designed for foreign audiences.

World Vision catalogue

I don't know you, but buying this alpaca for you made me feel SO good!

People have argued with me, though, that these organizations may not even really give animals (and many organizations say this in the fine print). So although this is what the certificate might say, the work they do might be different — and so, consequently could potentially be in conversation with those people they aim to help. What is it, then, that makes a campaign where I can buy a goat in my best friend’s name so appealing? Why might organizations worry whether I’d be as likely to contribute if they told me my $50 contribution was going to the administrative assistant’s salary, or to help pay for the CEO’s jet? What is so appealing about the goat, and why don’t we want to pay for administrative costs (although I’d say we could agree on the jet)?

These advertisements and campaigns address me, a very privileged, white, Canadian woman who hopes to one day be a doctor (and be liberal enough to ask people not to call me that), as someone who could potentially buy a goat for a family in Ecuador. In this campaign, though, I am not asked to think about how the other presents I might buy might be made in the same country by underpaid workers, or to consider that the oil I use may be linked to the ridiculously disastrous policies of Texaco that have affected the lives of many in Ecuador.

In buying a goat for a family in Ecuador for my best friend, not only do I confirm that I am an awesome friend, but I also confirm my white, liberal identity, in which my own caring for the world is highlighted without linking wealth with the very terms through which it becomes possible for me to buy a goat.  The families in these programs remain nameless, shapeless, and anonymous to me and are brought into relation with me only through my ability to help them, and this is only through a present or money. The only way families and people can be seen through these programs is as needy.

I wonder about how this view of the needy and humble Ecuadorian farmer works to silence the struggle for indigenous rights in Ecuador, for land rights, or water rights, or the struggles against oil companies.

Why might buying a goat be terrible? It might not be.

But how does it bring us into relation with other people and how does this let us know ourselves and others?

One person’s junk is another person’s…junk

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Stuff we don't want: your used knickers

Listening to CBC last week, I caught development economist Charles Kenny discussing his article in the November issue of Foreign Policy magazine. The title really says all you need to know: “Haiti Doesn’t Need Your Old T-shirt.” Neither, for that matter, does any country with its own apparel industry and developing economy. And they don’t need your surplus grain — or Pop-Tarts! — either.

Using the example of the thousands of shirts donated to World Vision after every Super Bowl by the NFL (it prints “Super Bowl Champions” shirts for both contenders in anticipation of post-game merchandising, then has to dump the losing team’s), Kenny argues that while such “gifts in kind” may be given “with all the right intentions,” they do more harm than good. (A common theme in “development,” no?)

How can gifts be harmful? Well, there are a few notable ways:

  • Whether we’re talking t-shirts, teddy bears for kids in refugee camps, yoga mats for Haiti (WTF?), or panties for Sub-Saharan Africa, it would be much cheaper for a charity to buy these items locally, from local producers. As Kenny says, “When you buy that shirt in Africa rather than getting it in the United States, you help the local clothing industry.” Kenny admits that in some cases it’s hard to source needed items from local markets — e.g. tarpaulins in an emergency — but even in those cases the needed item should be purchased as close as possible to the site of the emergency.
  • They may decrease donations of money, which are especially needed to provide assistance in the case of humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters. If you’ve already donated your old shoes (and feel good about yourself), well you’ve done your part, haven’t you? As Kenny says, “What they really need is money, frankly, and the ability to buy the goods and services that they are in a much better position to know that they need than we are.”
  • Most importantly, people in “developing” countries do know what they need. As Kenny says, if you ask people what tops their list of priorities, “rarely would come back the answer, ‘You know, what we really need is an NFL t-shirt.’”

Even more nefarious than gifts in kind is food “aid.” The US Food Aid program, for example, dumps surplus crops — and sometimes, literally, Pop-Tarts — on recipient countries, a practice that has a huge impact on local farmers who must now compete with free food. American rice exports devastated Haiti’s own rice market.

We’re not advocating that you should not help people who are truly in need. We’re just asking that you consider and respect the needs — and dignity — of the intended recipients. The best way to do no harm with your best intentions is to ask people what they need. When we film with sustainable community initiatives, we ask how viewers can help. The Centre for Popular Education and Human Rights (CEPEHRG) in Accra, Ghana, for example, told us they need:

  • Female sexual health stats/fliers/articles/literature
  • Donations of female/male condoms, lubricant and dental dams
  • Support for the provision of HIV testing kits (rapid response) — actual kits, money or contacts
  • Support for local volunteer outreach and training — logistics, money or contacts
  • Support for STI treatment, medical drugs for the Drop-in centre — medical drug donations, money or contacts
  • General support for office activities
  • Portable stereo with batteries for community outreach
  • You can hold a CEPEHRG awareness event in your neighborhood!

Let’s deconstruct this list. The material goods — safe-sex materials, HIV testing kits, medicines, and the portable stereo — would ideally be sourced locally. Notice how many times money is listed. Notice the requests for information, contacts and general support. Most importantly, notice that CEPEHRG wants you to spread awareness of its community-based work.

Here’s another example. The Parkdale Tenants’ Association (PTA) in Toronto, Canada, asked us to invite you to:

  • Encourage governments to adopt policies that help tenants secure safe and clean living conditions.
  • If you live in Toronto, join the Parkdale Tenants Association’s building maintenance campaign.

The PTA’s wish list reminds us that we must speak out and get involved if we want to undermine the systems that cause poverty and injustice. “Giving” people stuff they don’t need or want won’t do anything towards eradicating either.

If you’d like to donate to or get involved with the community initiatives we’ve filmed with, find out what they need here. If you’d like to get involved with Good Evidence, see what we need here. Thank you!

You can read Kenny’s Foreign Policy article here, and listen to his interview on CBC Radio’s Q here (scroll down to the November 2 show; Kenny’s interview runs from about 06:15-17:25).

The Danger of a Single Story

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

I recently finished the novel Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was introduced to Adichie when I came across one of her lectures, “The Danger of a Single Story.” Purple Hibiscus follows the life of Kambili, a fifteen-year-old living in Nigeria. The novel describes Kambili’s relationship with her family and friends and how the overall political/social state of Nigeria influences their existence. I found the novel beautifully descriptive, interesting, and complex. Adichie was able to describe historically rooted layers of power, while intertwining them in the everyday experience of a fifteen-year-old female. This novel was Adichie’s first, and received excellent reviews. One of the reasons the novel received such positive attention was that it created a complex narrative of Nigerian people. Rather than focusing solely on the disparity in the country, it illustrated that, just like families from other regions, Kambili’s Nigerian family had a loving, tumultuous, and contradictory relationship.

A review from the Boston Globe proclaims: “Adichie’s understanding of a young girl’s heart is so acute that her story ultimately rises above its setting and makes her little part of Nigeria seem as close and vivid as Eudora Welty’s Mississippi.”

This review helps to outline how welcomed Adichie’s ability to convey such an identifiable narrative is by an audience that so often receives only a single narrative about African nations.

In her lecture “The Danger of a Single Story,” Adichie eloquently addresses the single narrative that Africans and North Americans have been receiving of “Africa.” Adichie recalls how reading British and American novels in her childhood subsequently shaped her own writing and made her believe people like her (Africans) could not exist in literature. She also discusses the single story of “poverty,” which resulted in her American roommates’ surprise at Adichie’s ability to speak English and the non-tribal music she listened to.

This single story that Adichie discusses is extremely relevant when reviewing North American ideas of “development.” The single form of “development” recognized in North America is often the idea that “the First World helps the Third World.”  Adichie’s lecture speaks to this point, as she outlines how power relations and complex narratives are intertwined. While Adichie read complex stories about American and British individuals, western individuals rarely read complex stories about Africans.

She illustrates this point with the story of a student who came to her and said, “It was such a shame that Nigerian men were all physical abusers like the father in your novel.”

Adichie responded that she had just read a novel called American Psycho and that “it was such a shame that young Americans were all serial murderers.”

Adichie goes on to explain that she would never have thought one character from an American novel would define an entire population, because she had read a variety of American novels, with a variety of complex characters.  The student, however, had rarely come in contact with complex narratives about Africans. Adichie claims her familiarity with American stories is related to America’s position of power in the world and ability to spread their stories/cultural products. She outlines that, in contrast to these complex American stories, narratives about Africans that North Americans receive focus only on poverty and catastrophe.

This single narrative is difficult to dispute when reviewing Africa in North American news coverage, documentaries, best sellers, etc. Adichie contends: “Show a people as one thing over and over again and they become it.” North Americans’ understanding of individuals in the “Third World” has been shaped by this single story of poverty/chaos and, consequently, so too have our understandings of methods of development. If all we see are images and stories of poor, helpless, and dying people in the “Third World,” then of course we are going to understand in our position as a monetarily wealthy nation that we should help them. Like Adichie, I do not believe the answer is denying stories of poverty and death in the “Third World,” but creating a more complex understanding and thus hopefully influencing ideas of development. I hope that with more complex narratives about the “Third World,” more complex methods of development will follow.

I highly recommend watching the entire video of Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” if you have not already done so.