It’s pronounced “fiddy cent”: Social change initiatives across the world.


In a previous post I shared about the common pitfalls of social change that we consistently see. It is important to think about these things prior to entering a new community, not to be negative, but to avoid doing more harm than good. Simply put, it’s about being aware. You are entering a new community from the outside, this alone reinforces the idea that the communities themselves are lacking and need resources from the outside to work on their problem. So we need to be careful.

I work with students engaging Alternative Breaks programs (week-long service trips over spring and winter breaks, see Break Away) and in that program they take a class with me about social change and community service. This past semester they took some time to discuss an article called “7 Worst International Aid Ideas“. Now, this article is by no means a scholarly published article, it is one persons opinion on some of the aid initiatives they have seen and heard about, but it is a good discussion starter.

Note: I was given lessons from the students on how to properly pronounce 50 Cent’s name. So here is a lesson for you if you too struggle with rappers these days, it is “fiddy”, not “fifty”. Apparently I am not as cool as I thought.

The article covers 7 main ideas. Here is a brief recap of a few of them:

One million t-shirts for Africa- Foreign aid circles employ the synonym SWEDOW (stuff we don’t want) to describe aid initiatives. An example- Jason Sadlers’ 1 Million T-shirts program. Sadler admitted he had never been to Africa, and had never worked in aid or development before, but he cared, and came up with the idea to send shirts to Africa to help.

  1. Why was it presumably bad?
    1. It’s debatable whether people actually need t-shirts in Africa. There is practically nowhere that people who want shirts are unable to get them. “Just because you have a really large hammer does not mean that everything in the world is a nail.”
    2. Just dumping millions of shirts is inefficient. Think about packing, shipping and transport costs alone. It’s wasteful. It would be far more cost effective to commission a local manufacturer and creating stimulus with the local economy.Why would you buy any more shirts if now you have a five year supply for free?T

TOMS Buy-One-Give-One- TOMS shoes built their brand on the idea that buying one pair of their shoes automatically gives a pair to an underprivileged child in a developing country. TOMS has been widely criticized for the same reasons as the shirt campaigns.

  1. Why was it presumably bad?
    1. Misses the point that it’s not a problem of not having shoes, it’s a problem have poverty. Shoelessness is a symptom of a much larger issue. While donating shoes helped shoelessness, it does not help poverty.
    2. Jobs help poverty. TOMS doesn’t make its shoes in Africa or the countries they are sending them to, they make them in China.

Machine Gun Preacher- Sam Childers, aka the machine gun preacher, was an American child who spent some time behind bars, headed to Sudan on a missionary project to repair huts devastated in the war. There he said he was commanded by God to build an orphanage for local children, and also to fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army who was terrorizing the region.

  1. Why was it presumably bad?
    1. Trying to solve a problem of armed insecurity by establishing another armed militia, no matter the size, is not the solution. Peace, and a long-term future for those affected by violence, can only be guaranteed through a diplomatic agreement.

50 Cent ransoming children in Somalia- 50 Cent visited Somalia at the request of the World Food Programme to raise awareness of the issues there. He toured hard-hit areas with the media, then announced that he would provide a meal for a child in need for every “Like” on his Street King energy drink Facebook page. He would also donate a million more meals if the Facebook page reached a million likes.

  1. Why was it presumably bad?
    1. The meals presumably have been budgeted for and could have been donated without the Facebook “likes”. This is essentially extortion concealed as humanitarianism – 50 Cent has the ability to donate the meals, but will not unless the general public gives him something first in the form of Street Kings brand promotion.

There are obviously good and bad to each of these initiatives, but it prompted a great discussion and allowed the students to think critically about international aid work. They questioned, argued, agreed, and discussed this material. It was wonderful.

What are your initial thoughts about these efforts?

More resources- check out what Forbes has to say about lessons from TOM’s Shoes.


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