22 June 2010

Lessons from St. Nick (a lonely vuvuzela to a World Cup chorus)

I was immediately struck by this post from Nick Kristof’s blog post yesterday:

Just a quick note to say that since Nick’s Thursday column, which proposed giant bomb-sniffing, Tuberculosis-detecting rats as alternatives to more traditional Father’s Day gifts, Apopo, the organization behind the so-called HeroRATS, has received more than $150,000 in donations. And according to Mari Kuraishi, president of GlobalGiving.org, an online donations company that sponsors projects around the world like Apopo, an additional $30,000 went to non-rat-related enterprises.

As much Kristof bashing as I have done in the recent past.  I have to admit a bit of admiration for him.  I do not want this to sound the least bit snarky, but there should be admiration for a person who is able to write articles for the NYT and garner interest that leads people to take action for a cause.  He does not advocate things that are completely bad, but I just wish he could do better.  It is really besides the point since he has been able to not only have people think twice but act by making a donation.

Scott Gilmore kindly pointed out that Kristof had the same impact on the organization Tostan.  In his recent book written with his wife, Kristof says:

"'[Tostan has] done what UN conferences, endless resolutions, and government statements have failed to do,' Foege told us. 'When the history of African development is written, it will be clear that a turning point involved the empowerment of women. Tostan has demonstrated that empowerment is contagious, accomplished person by person and spreading village by village.'"  (p. 228)

Given a 4 star rating on Charity Navigator, a quick glance at Tostan reveals that their work relies heavily on community requested involvement.   The details of the program are not important to this post because the fact that Kristof can bring support to it through his writing is most significant.  Being that he is published in the NYT with some syndication, it is impressive the impact that some of his columns and writings have had.

What does this mean?

Given the impact Kristof has had on attitudes on aid and charities, it seems that there is a place for a person or group of people to reach out and provide advice about how to engage in development/aid/charity/volunteering/philanthropy.  This gives the community of aid bloggers who stand in opposition to some of Mr. Kristof’s writings to reach a large audience.  Bonnie Koening put it best saying, “It is a rare situation where you can get ‘good media;’ the balance between needed publicity & credible info (edited from tweet).”  To myself and some others, this balance is lacking in the Kristof columns.  Is it possible to find this balance and essentially compete with the readership of Kristof?  I say a tentative yes. 

There is a place but it has to be approached carefully.  For example, Bill Easterly writes numerous posts and tweets that call out and criticize the current aid consensus.  He is met with strong support but equally strong opposition.  In speaking to friends about Kristof in general conversations, most who read him see no problem with his articles.  They fall under the group that say his intentions are good and that his aim is to spread awareness.  To them, it is fine to objectify a raped girl (I refuse to link to the article, you can find it on Google) by showing her picture and using her name because people will understand what is happening in the DRC.  To them, it is better to be a little extreme in order to bring to light something terrible that is taking place.  I have tried to make them understand, but most are not willing.  This is the greatest obstacle.  People are fine with poverty porn because it at least shows people what is going on.

I often try to relate it back to the individual and have found moderate success.  I ask a person if they think it is ok to take pictures of people who are living in abject poverty.  A good portion will say yes because it shows what is really happening.  I then ask them to imagine themselves at their absolute worst and most vulnerable.  Do they want this moment be photographed?  Used in a campaign?  Printed in newspapers? Done without their asking?  Some will still say it is ok because it shows the truth.  I then ask if it would really be the truth?  Would that precise moment when you are at your worst be a true indicator of your life?  What about the 6 hours that proceeded and follow that moment?  Or the weeks for that matter.  Slowly more will come to understand the lack of compassion in such images.

I see Kristof part of the majority opinion.  It is ok to take the picture but you dare not do it to me.  So, again, how can the truth be told and compassion encouraged when the majority do not hold such an opinion?  It looks like there is not a simple answer, but pseudo-evaluation can be made of the current state.  Presently the audience is within the hands of Kristof, celebrities, and big time movers like Gates and Sachs.  Kristof has a reasonable influence and is a writer, so his is the most reasonable approach to take and field to enter.  Right now there are plenty of bloggers (listed in my roll on the left side and many more I do not list!) who deal with this issue.  Some, such as Saundra, Laura, and Alanna, have made moderate crossover to the Huff Po, UN Dispatch and CSM (respectively).  However, reading a post by Saundra on Haiti and responsible volunteering had links on how to volunteer in Haiti from other Huff Po contributors (sorry can’t find the link anymore).  The three ladies, amongst the other bloggers, are writing great things but it is not getting to a larger audience.

This was discussed a bit yesterday on twitter, but the way I see it is to make a concentrated effort.  Have a single place where writers who are concerned about international aid, development and philanthropy can get together to produce posts that do not step on each others toes and show what responsible aid should be.  The audience for such a site will be small.  Most readers will be people already in the industry, but the point will be to create a voice.  Kristof has an advantage because he found his voice and his audience.  We, the opposition if you will, have not been able to do so.  With many voices, I believe a collective approach can help to build a small amount of support but more importantly create a voice for responsibility and act as a catapult for some to move on to a larger audience.  The project is a salon of sorts (too bad the name is taken) where by ideas can be shared and dispensed.  Twitter acts as a place for this right now but it must move public and to a more complete setting.

A place like the Huffington Post would be a great place to have a section on this, but it appears that they are not prepared to make a real effort to support this movement.  I believe that there is a need to prove that there is a strong effort behind it and a base of support that can be grown by being included in a larger resource such as the Huff Po.

If I had the ability to start a reasonable website I would do it, but I am not fluent in web design at all.  Though some will be opposed because they see it as fruitless; I respond by asking, ‘what has the present strategy produced?’  The discussion has begun and I hope that we can organize a way to create a place where all of these strong voices can transform from a lonely vuvuzela to a World Cup chorus of them.