02 August 2010

How American Media Gets it Wrong

Update: This has quickly become my most popular post as a feed in from MetaFilter.  It has lead to some really strong reactions. Unfortunately, the links to not include this response post from Jina Moore: http://ow.ly/2tvKe where she corrects many mistakes I made.  I followed up to her post with this: http://ow.ly/2tvCO  that addresses where I still disagree and where I have now seen that I made a mistake.  It also acts to flesh out some of my thoughts that started here.  So, I welcome all new visitors and encourage you to read the two companion posts.  Comments are great and I hope you will see that I really want to learn more through this.  Please stay respectful and let's try to see if we can learn from each other.  Tom

Update 2: I have created a post based on the lessons I have learned through this process and Aaron Ausland writes a great reflection that calls for 'moderate elitism' which should be read as well.

The Washington Post featured the story of Mark and Naomi Hughes in their Sunday edition.  It tells of the ‘life changing trip’ the two made through East Africa that lead to their realization that students needed bicycles to get to school.
Students were often late because they were walking distances from two to 10 miles and would arrive exhausted. In a village without electricity, the long walk home also meant that they frequently arrived after dark and had no light to study under. And because the nearest secondary schools were even farther away, many children couldn't go at all.
The solution to the problem came to the two in the form of buying bikes.  (It must be noted that one smart thing they did is buy local bikes so that it gives business to the local economy, reduces un-necessary costs and does not run into the problem of bringing in bikes that cannot be repaired).  They even developed a clever scheme for raising the money; donate 10 percent of the fees earned through their grooming business, donate all tips, and encourage clients and employees to participate. 
Entirely missing the way it can be demeaning, they named the newly created nonprofit Pets for Pedals.  Yup, that is the name. The article goes on to praise them more and talk about how they donated 45 bikes last year and hope to donate 100 this year.
Here are where the problems come into play.  You must be asking how the 45 were distributed by this point. Simple. A lottery.  22 boys, 22 girls and a coed drawing. So, 45 kids went home one day with a bike from the white heroes, while the majority returned home likely upset they did not win (remember, these are kids). 
What happened after the lottery? Article does not say, but let’s do a little hypothetical.
The children return home to families who were unable to afford bikes for the child to go to school.  So, this means that they only have a bike for the father/mother to travel to work or do not have one at all.  The families without bikes rejoice as they just came into a free bike that will now be used by the father to travel around and child will continue to walk.  Those who have no need for the bike and are smart will probably sell the new bike or one of their old ones for a profit.  Some might get to keep the bike for themselves, but it will be just a handful.  A few bikes will turn into scrap metal as it might be more valuable to some, others will fall into disrepair and be sold because they cannot be maintained.  When the Hughes return to the school to see the bikes, they will see many lined up outside of the school.  The head teacher and principal will tell the children to talk about how great the bikes are and offer profuse thanks to the Hughes when they come.  More bikes will be given away via lottery and the same cycle will continue.
Credit has to be given for the innovation for raising money.  The Hughes have found a great way to raise money for a cause they deeply believe in.  They should definitely continue this practice as it is a way to connect with more people with each dog they groom.  However, the program itself seems to offer little in terms of real solutions.  They should join up with existing programs that are providing projects that are proven to be sustainable.
What is more disconcerting is the fact that the Washington Post featured this in their Sunday Edition.  There needs to be better reporting than this simple feel good story.  The narrative of life is far too complex to reduce to something as simple as the story of the Hughes family.  Maybe I am completely wrong about my assumptions and leanings, but there is nothing in the piece that works to reduce these concerns (and, before a Kristof like argument finds its way in response, let’s stop pandering to people and assuming that they would not be able to read an article that includes more of the impact of this program).  There seems to be a much lower standard for development and aid reporting that editors continue to OK and journalists keep on writing.  Enough of this poor work.