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Question of the Week: Slactivism

by Development Channel Staff
September 11, 2012

A man looks out of the window of a car which drives under a projection that is part of the non-profit organization Invisible Children's "Kony 2012" viral video campaign, in New York on April 20, 2012 (Keith Bedford/Courtesy Reuters). A man looks out of the window of a car which drives under a projection that is part of the non-profit organization Invisible Children's "Kony 2012" viral video campaign in New York on April 20, 2012 (Keith Bedford/Courtesy Reuters).

Can YouTube and shoes promote development and reduce poverty?

Question of the Week posts review important questions and controversies in global development by providing background information and links to a full spectrum of analysis and opinion. Today’s post tackles the debate over whether one can positively affect development through online activism and consumer purchases.

In theory, it is easier to contribute to poverty alleviation and humanitarian relief than ever before. Case in point: the non-profit Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign and its viral YouTube video urging the capture of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. A worldwide phenomenon during a torrid stretch in March 2012, the video has been viewed over 100 million times. With a few clicks of a mouse, one can spread awareness on Facebook, sign a petition, get ideas for in-person activism, and more. However, some deride these efforts as ineffective “slactivism,” defined by the Collins dictionary as “the public proclaiming of one’s political beliefs through activities that require little effort or commitment.” And the Kony 2012 campaign faced vehement accusations of ignoring African voices and oversimplifying the situation in Uganda (not explaining that Kony no longer appears to be in Uganda, for example). Clearly, “doing good” from far away is no straightforward matter.

Just as people can easily spread awareness about humanitarian and development issues through social media, they can similarly donate products and money to humanitarian or antipoverty efforts by buying iPods, shoes, and more. This faces a similar range of praise and criticism. While well-intended, many argue, these efforts can not only cause unintended harm but also give people a false sense of achievement, diverting energy, attention, and funds from more useful actions.

In recent years, a variety of companies have mounted activist campaigns through the sale of their products. In 2006, U2 leader Bono and philanthropist/businessman Bobby Shriver founded (RED), an organization that harnesses corporate philanthropy to fight AIDS in Africa. (RED) teams up with partners like Apple, Starbucks, and Gap. These companies sell special products—for instance, a red-colored iPod—and then donate a portion of their proceeds to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. So far, (RED) has raised some $195 million for the Global Fund’s work in sub-Saharan Africa. The organization argues that this work is particularly important in light of the funding constraints on AIDS relief. “As the global economy threatens public sector funding, more than ever we need innovative fundraising models like (RED), which has done so much to align the private sector to our goals,” Global Fund’s general manager said in a press statement.

However, the initiative has also attracted criticism for the amount of money the companies spend advertising the (RED) products (and thus their own corporate philanthropy) versus the amount of money the products actually raise. The (RED) model “is very different from ‘helping Africa’ by buying products actually made by Africans, in Africa, or by choosing products that claim to have been made under better social, labor, and environmental conditions of production,” write two researchers who have studied the (RED) phenomenon.

Another approach is to donate goods directly to developing countries. The TOMS shoe company has a well-known “buy one, give one” model: when a customer buys a pair of shoes, TOMS donates another pair to a child in a developing country. The company says that as of 2010, it had donated over one million pairs of shoes to children. TOMS also raises awareness, promoting an annual “Day Without Shoes,” meant to remind people of “…how many children in developing countries grow up barefoot and all the risks, infections, and diseases they endure.”

But can donated shoes actually alleviate poverty? “Once their free shoes wear out in a couple years, the children TOMS ‘helped’ will be just as susceptible to the health and economic perils associated with bare feet as they were before,” remarks one corporate philanthropy consultant. Donated goods can also subvert local economies, the consultant and many others argue. In response to the “Day Without Shoes,” an aid blogger started a “Day Without Dignity” counter-campaign. The campaign suggests that “handing out free goods out-competes local markets,” citing the statistic that “used-clothing imports to Africa caused 50% of the increase in unemployment between 1981-2000.” (They seem to be drawing on this paper.)

It is not just shoes, and not just TOMS, that have drawn scrutiny. In 2010, a campaign trying to send one million t-shirts to Africa generated such substantial criticism that the project was canceled. Even in humanitarian disasters, well-intentioned but misguided donations can complicate relief efforts. For example, after the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami, the organization Pharmacists Without Borders “found that although officials didn’t request any medicine, they received 4,000 metric tons of it, or more than 4 pounds for each person in the tsunami-affected area,” explains an article. Much of this medicine could not be stored properly, had expired, was documented in a language that people could not read, or was otherwise unsuitable. The large quantities of useless drugs delayed the distribution of the medicines that people actually needed, and the effort to safely dispose of the drugs “cost donors and the Indonesian government millions,” the article says.

Given these problems, how can good intentions find success? Some argue that solutions are available. For instance, the eyeglass company Warby Parker has received praise for donating glasses and money to the nonprofit VisionSpring, which trains people in developing countries to give eye exams and sell low-priced glasses, creating jobs and providing needed supplies. “VisionSpring works to alleviate poverty by providing necessary employment. TOMS works to alleviate poverty by providing unnecessary shoes,” one blogger notes.

Even if this is true, though, some development experts would like to see TOMS and similar organizations find a way to succeed. Discussing the development implications of TOMS and Warby Parker, a New York Times “Fixes” blog post highlights the need to “turn an increasingly popular philanthropic model into a mechanism to positively and sustainably impact the recipients.”

Indeed, TOMS has a big opportunity, argues another blogger. Though the model of giving shoes away is flawed, she writes, the company can generate enormous impact thanks to the enthusiasm it has generated. “You have the keys to the hearts, brains, and future actions of a whole generation of American youth looking to do good with their money, their time, and their futures,” she says, addressing the company’s leaders. The challenge is harnessing this desire in ways that truly serve those in need.

What do you think?

Do online activism and donated goods promote development and reduce poverty, or are they ineffective or even harmful? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below, and stay tuned for future Questions of the Week soon.

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