Invisible Children, Michael Jackson edition


Remember that for every successful viral video, there are millions of ones which somehow fail to capture catch on. This dance-laden attempt by the Invisible Children is one of them. Make sure you at least watch until the 2 minute mark:

I think I need to lie down – but before I do, I felt I should inflict this on the rest of you.

Hat tip to Boing Boing.

Awareness campaign fail, immigration edition

The Running Man Show, bringing awareness to the plight of wrongfully-imprisoned convicts

From The Guardian:

Contestants on the one-off game show from the public broadcaster VPRO, part of an annual week of experimental programmes, comprise five asylum seekers who have exhausted legal avenues to stay in the Netherlands and await imminent deportation to their country of origin.

They compete in a quiz about Dutch culture, history and language, with the winner awarded €4,000 (£3,500) to help cushion them when they are expelled. Consolation prizes include a bulletproof vest.

The seemingly glib tone is magnified by a smarmy male host flanked by a pair of female assistants wearing a mini-skirted pastiche of air cabin crew uniforms. The title is a play on words, meaning either Leaving the Netherlands or Mad About the Netherlands.

But wait, it’s actually a well-intended liberal scheme to raise awareness about the plight of asylum seekers:

With well educated, eloquent contestants who include an aeronautical engineer from Cameroon and a Slavic languages student facing removal to Chechnya, the intention is, far from mocking asylum seekers, to instead demonstrate how well integrated many are.

“Weg van Nederland focuses attention on the fact that, these days, many asylum seekers who are being expelled have children who have lived in the Netherlands for eight years or more. They have had a good education, speak perfect Dutch and have only seen their country of birth on television. We believe it’s time to stop and think about this.

Wasn’t it obvious?

The boy who cried crisis

One has to wonder why, in the hyper-connected world of 2011, why negative stereotypes of Africa as the dark continent (and land of rape and lions) are so persistent. Ted Nugent, who for some reason is allowed to write for the Washington Times, revealed perceptions which are all too common in the States:

There is no country in Africa that truly respects freedom or the rule of law. The majority of countries in Africa are in economic ruin because of political corruption and a history ugly with cruel despotism. That’s why starvation and disease are rampant. AIDS is projected to kill as much as half the populations of some countries. Genocide is a way of life. There is little light in Africa.

(Speaking as a redhead whose skin is genetically adapted to cold, mossy caves somewhere in Ireland, but occasionally gets on a plane to Dar es Salaam, I can safely say that if there is anything that Africa is lacking, it isn’t light.)

Many of these stereotypes are perpetuated by people who are actively trying to improve the plight of the poor. I’ve written too many times about how NGOs favor poverty porn because it brings in the dollars. The same is true of presenting development not as a challenge, but as a crisis. Karen Rothmyer writes about these perverse incentives in the Columbia Journalism review (hat tip to Charles Kenny):

But the main reason for the continued dominance of such negative stereotypes, I have come to believe, may well be the influence of Western-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international aid groups like United Nations agencies. These organizations understandably tend to focus not on what has been accomplished but on convincing people how much remains to be done. As a practical matter, they also need to attract funding. Together, these pressures create incentives to present as gloomy a picture of Africa as possible in order to keep attention and money flowing, and to enlist journalists in disseminating that picture.

Many who work in the industry admit that these practices are unfortunate, but pass them off as being necessary. Dumbing down advocacy is amazingly effective at bringing in the dollars, and NGOs know this. The framing of development as a “glass is half empty” problem pervades is even apparent in the way that policymakers talk about the Millennium Development Goals: we focus not on the amazing gains made in developing countries, but on what they haven’t yet accomplished. The story is always one of perpetual crisis.

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The pie in the sky

It's not clear that if we all beg for bigger slices, we'll just get more pie.

Alanna Shaikh rightly points out that, despite the incredible important of funding HIV/AIDS programmes, there are many health problems that are losing out in the fundraising arms race.

But here’s what I have figured out in the last decade: we can have more pie. Differently put, global health is not a zero-sum game. We can increase the funding that goes to it. In the last ten years, we have. The Global Fund and the Gates Foundation have radically increased the resources available to global health. The private sector has started funding global health, and government donors have increased their commitments.

There is nothing wrong with so much attention going to AIDS. HIV gets exactly as much attention as it deserved. It’s the second most terrifying pandemic of our time. (I really think first place belongs to MDR TB). About two million people a year die from AIDS, and there are about 33 million people currently infected with HIV. It is devastating to communities, families, and nations. It is worthy of every red ribbon, activist, and dollar of funding it receives.

What is wrong is that other health problems don’t get as much attention. And that’s not a problem we solve by ignoring HIV. It’s a problem we solve by bringing more attention to the rest of the world’s serious health problems. We should learn from the publicity for HIV, not complain about it. What we need is to get that kind of attention for everything that deserves it.

I am a little skeptical that the answer lies with more or better publicity for neglected health problems. I think it is unlikely that we are capable of increasing the volume of campaigning on some worthy causes while somehow avoiding crowding out others by increasing the overall pie. Owen Barder does a good job of dissecting some of the issues here.

For one, the more causes that potential donors get bombarded with, the less effective any of them will be. I should demonstrate this with some resounding empirical work, but I think this video of Robert Stack fending off a bunch of activists at LAX says it all:

So increasing overall noise by amplifying fragmented messages might not increase global giving and might even fatigue the entire process.

What about crowding out? We need to be more honest about how many messages we can take on board at once – our collective time thinking about global problems is rather limited. If someone tells me I should be thinking about neglected tropical diseases, that’s less time I’ll spend thinking about HIV/AIDS or education or conditional cash transfers or international trade.

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The fungible and the furious

New, unpleasant information requires careful analysis, not knee-jerk reactions

Last week the medical journal Lancet released an article suggesting that, on average, governments that receive more  health aid divert tend to shift domestic resources away from health.

The paper made some headlines and upset aid critics and much of the global health community. A part of this has to do with a misunderstanding of what the findings mean – a confusion which isn’t helped by  those that propagate incorrect and sensationalist interpretations of the study.

However, a lot of the anger over the results comes from those that do understand the implications of the study, but are angered by an apparent divergence in priorities between the global health community and recipient governments. Both Ranil and Owen Barder talk about this in more detail, although I’ll go through some similar arguments.

These are my scattered thoughts on the whole issue.

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The devil wears poverty rates

What could be more hipster than development statistics?

Dear creators of StatAttak, designers of development statistics-based clothes,

Today I stumbled upon your website, thanks to the twitter feed of Texas In Africa. I read your insightful story on how you came to care about development statistics:

…we came across “Life Expectancy at Birth.” Andorra was the highest with 83.51 years, and all the way at the bottom was Mozambique with 31.1 years. This shocked and horrified us, especially since the average age of our small company is just under 28 years old. We spent the next couple of weeks telling this horrible statistic to everyone we met. Everyone we told was as shocked and appalled as we were. We quickly realized that telling people individually was gonna take too long, so we came up with the idea of StatAttak – a t-shirt line based on statistics that people should be aware of. This way people would become walking billboards for these stats, and they would help spread the word. The hope is that once you see these numbers, you can’t help but want to change them.

What a fantastic idea – instead of donating money to charities have a reasonable chance of helping the poor, I can instead shell out $25 for a stylish, if illegible, t-shirt which will help raise that immeasurable asset of “awareness,” albeit only after some confused, drunken explanations at the parties I will be attending with said shirt.

Thank you StatAttak, for taking the context out of the statistics, allowing me to “make people want to change them”, even if I’m not giving them the slightest clue how best to do so.


Matt Collin

PS – Even with my boring, un-statistical clothing, I get the feeling that I’m always a few years behind the fashion trends. T-shirts with time-varying statistics on them might go out of fashion a little faster (then again, even if Angola’s poverty rate is lower a year later, who’s going to know, right?)

Would you like fries with that?


There’s a lot of badvocacy out there. Amanda at Wronging Rights has given us the worst offender, ever:

“Using a ketchup sachet, we demonstrated the horrific nature of living in a land mine affected country and how much a part of everyday life that horror is. The idea is simple: as you tear open the sachet you also rip through the child’s leg and the ketchup inside pours out like blood.”

Amanda points out that the effects might be mitigated by starchy hunger:

The smidge? That the net effect of the campaign was almost certainly to ensure that, when Kiwis hear about landmines, they develop an instant craving for french fries.

I don’t have much to say, except to continue to refer to you Texas in Africa’s excellent critique of badvocacy.