Roll the tape from my childhood TV screen: image of a 4 year old Ethiopian girl, ribs visible, distended belly, flies on her face, and a voice over, “For just 50 cents a day, you can feed this child.”
This story is emotional, concrete, personal…and effective. It accomplished its goal (getting people to donate). But the aid did not get to the root of Ethiopia’s problems. And the image of the poor, suffering, African child who needs to be saved is tremendously destructive.
This story, and its many cousins (the emotional appeal, focused on pity) were in vogue in the 1980s, and they got people to dig into their pockets to donate to international charities. They also did a lot of harm. They dehumanized people, creating an us/them mentality. They fed on and into a power imbalance. They created distance rather than connection. All of this in the service of getting someone to do something good.
The good news is that this storyline is mostly dead. But there’s a newer version of this story that’s still pervasive, and it’s more subtle. It’s the “here is what you’re buying with your money” story. “For $10 you can buy a bednet that will save a life.” “For $120 you can buy a goat that will feed a family.” “For $5,000 you can dig a well that will provide safe drinking water.”
Here’s what worries me. It is true that you can buy and deliver one bednet, one goat, or dig one well for $10, $120, or $5,000. And as a donor you absolutely want to know that your money is being used well, and a concrete connection reinforces that feeling.
But just because the one story is true doesn’t mean it remains true when you play the same reel 1,000 times. When you want to dig thousands of wells or provide livestock to millions of families, don’t things get a whole lot more complicated? And, by the way, who came up with the technology to create that mosquito net? Who is funding innovation to create the next, better solution?
We need better stories, ones that recognize that we are all interconnected. Ones that put dignity and creativity and innovation at the center. And ones that give space to create complex solutions to complex problems – while still giving people a sense that they are part of the solution.
I think part of the answer comes in replacing the somewhat misleading concreteness with membership and inclusion. Your $15 is helping solve this problem. And better yet, here are a bunch of other people who are also interested in being part of this same solution.
Let’s share our stories, why we care, what we hope to see accomplished, and what else we are doing to make the world a better place.