Can a T-Shirt Save Africa?

And Other Questions for the New #Slacktivism

A charity t-shirt says, ‘I’m fashionable and socially conscious’.

And who isn’t supportive of a good cause like helping women or children? We are so conditioned to applaud these efforts that we rarely ask whether it all makes sense.

My favourite example is the t-shirts that announce, “This Shirt Built a School In Africa”. Let’s name and then discard obvious issues:

* A shirt can’t build a school
* Wearing a shirt won’t build one either
* A $30 shirt cannot fund a school (however modest)
* Africa is a big place
* How do I know what school my shirt contributed to?
* What if too few shirts are sold and so no school was built?

Nigerian-American writer,Teju Cole on the latest slacker activism campaign

Of course, a slogan like “This Shirt is One of Many Whose Sale Is Expected to Fund Educational Programs for Children at Location X, and if Enough Money Isn’t Raised, then Funds Will Be Redirected Towards Less Expensive Educational Goods Like Y” just doesn’t have the ring that the cool kids would agree to have printed across their chests. Let’s leave marketing to the experts.

The more fundamental issue is whether this type of well-intentioned intervention is at all advisable. Economist Dambisa Moyo is tireless in her message that, “an aid-based strategy hurts more than it helps”.

Indeed, one wonders how it helps to have numerous uncoordinated interventions in the delivery of social programs in far away places. During normal times, it may result in bottlenecks that stand in the way of the outcomes they individually seek. During crises, when desire to intervene is clearly warranted, our good intentions may be exponentially problematic.

Haiti is not Africa but has had quite a lot of experience with do-gooders that make a mess of things. Known as the Republic of NGOs with over 10,000 before the January 2010 earthquake, it did not clearly benefit from the help it has received since. An early UN assessment is that there were challenges in managing, “the enormous influx of international responders, among them hundreds of NGOs, which would have been a challenge for any government”.

Former Haitian President Michel Martelly, the head of state during the immediate aftermath, was quoted as saying, “The NGOs and international community have ruled Haiti in the past, but I will tell you today we have the right government, we want to take control, we want to identify our priorities, ourselves. We want friends and partners, but we want them to act where we want them to act”.

Back to Dambisa, in her book Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is A Better Way for Africa, the Zambia-born Moyo isn’t polite: “One of the most depressing aspects of the whole aid fiasco is that [… everybody knows… ] aid doesn’t, hasn’t and won’t work. Commenting on at least one aid donor, the Chief Economist at the British Department of Trade and Industry remarked that ‘they know its crap, but it sells the T-shirts’” (p.46).

When the recipients are so ungrateful, what to do with our t-shirts?! I suspect these kinds of reactions from far away won’t even slow down our kindness. Maybe it’s not really about them, maybe we’re not so kind.

The charity t-shirt also says ‘I’m not alone’. It is an example of what Harry Beckwith calls our need “to be a part” of something great. Imagine holding hands with everyone who spent $30 on a t-shirt that helped solve an intractable problem like affordable education? And all the while looking great. Now that would be genius!

… Oh what heroes we’d all be if that made sense. But it doesn’t so back to the drawing board my well-intentioned friends!