Thankyou for disengaging

By Sam Ryan

At the time it seemed reasonable to be congratulated as part of an audience that got up “early” on a Sunday morning to attend the 2014 Global Ideas Forum session on “thinking more creatively to solve global health problems”.

It was a throwaway line, and indeed may have held some merit for some groggy audience members. Yet, it returned uncomfortably to mind following the discussion. Some of the creative ideas seemed to merely reinforce the comfortable bubble in which those of us who are proud of ourselves for getting up before 9am on Sunday exist, and frame the broader reality of inequality as a problematic barrier to getting ordinary Australians to help the cause.

In any case, we were there, and heard creative solutions with regard to understanding the needs of people and communities and how to best assist them, as well as how to tap into people’s wallets. It was the latter that – in my own mind – raised serious questions about whether some of the most publicly celebrated recent successes in raising money for NGOs are truly effective in addressing global issues of inequality.

In a prelude to the discussion, Lizzie Brown, CEO of Engineers Without Borders, was inspiring as she outlined the work of the organisation in seven countries (including Australia), and the importance of a “hands-off” approach to development and capacity building for sustained and non-dependant assistance:

“Rather than focusing on service delivery – building wells, installing energy systems – we focus on training and mentoring and other capacity building activities so that the local engineering community …  has the skills and expertise that they require to deliver strong education and health programs.”

While capacity building is not a new, creative approach to assisting communities, it is one that remains under-appreciated and/or little understood.

Having been taught “engineering and design in a way that was completely devoid of the environmental and social context”, Brown explained the organisation’s industry goal of “transforming the Australian engineering sector”, summed up with the question: “How do we help every engineer and designer see themselves as a humanitarian?”

With the government cutting aid commitments and gutting departments responsible for aid (though not always appropriately), more responsibility falls to non-governmental organisations like Engineers Without Borders to provide appropriate support, and to the citizenry to support organisations undertaking appropriate work. Something that is not always straightforward for any of us who are not experts in the field. Their presence in countries where Australian governments have contributed – even through aid – to problems, such as in Cambodia and Timor Leste, merely highlights this.

And so surfaces one of the primary concerns with the emerging “consumer-driven philanthropy” promoted by Wesley Rodricks, Creative Director of Thankyou Water, who joined Brown and Chris Vanstone the Director of Co-Design at the The Australian Centre for Social Innovation, for the main discussion.

Admittedly, I was already rather cynical about raising funds to solve issues by selling bottled water, but Rodericks, perhaps unwittingly, expressed my misgivings perfectly:

“one of the biggest things that we focus on at Thankyou is engaging with a younger audience to get their eyes opened up to this global issue of global health and development without them finding that accessing articles and journals is incredibly boring …”

And he continued:

“a word that gets thrown around is ‘aid porn’ – using images of starving children and malnutrition in the world and selling that to help these people. [Thankyou’s approach is] about showing them how they can grow from development, and showing people that are actually living a life that is just as happy as we are, but they just don’t have access to the things that we do.”

Speaking a few days later at the Wheeler Centre about consumer-driven philanthropy, another young entrepreneur, Simon Griffiths – the man behind Melbourne’s Shebeen and Who Gives a Crap toilet paper – expressed a similar sentiment, saying “we need to move away from this age-old tactic of using guilt to motivate sales.”

Imagery must be used wisely, but it has been powerful in bringing injustice to light and motivating people to denounce government policy in cases such as the Vietnam War. We should avoid desensitisation, but must also denounce censorship for the purposes of comfort.

Is giving consumers the warm, fuzzy feeling of donating when they are actually purchasing just promoting ignorance of the real issues among some of the most powerful groups of consumers and voters in the world? This panders to the gratification of the “easily bored” consumer society – without the burden of having to think about the impact of global inequality, and our society’s contribution to it. Is this the rise of a kind of “detach-tivism”?

One could argue that “aid porn” comes in trendy packaged products that allow us self-gratification while not seriously considering the real, broader impact of our consumer and voting choices.

Focusing the consumer experience and glossing over the organisations that actually receive their funds is problematic, and there has been good reason to scrutinise Thankyou’s choice of recipient organisation in recent years.

Thankyou’s founder, Daniel Flynn, has even admitted that “Of course, it’s far more effective to donate directly to charities that fund water projects but if you have to buy a bottle of water, Thankyou Water is a conscious alternative.’’

Though a much smaller name, Engineers Without Borders seem to be much worthier of the praise and promotion received by Thankyou and Who Gives a Crap. However, that’s not the nature of publicity – and marketers know it, they are just playing the game.

If we can channel and support creative energy towards engaging people in issues perhaps we can influence the flow of money directly to the most effective and efficient organisations. In addition, we could bring greater pressure to bear on governments and alleviating some of the issues created by government policy and misuse of aid.

One could argue that “aid porn” comes in trendy packaged products that allow us self-gratification while not seriously considering the real, broader impact of our consumer and voting choices.

For middle-class westerners to reap rewards from global inequality and simply buy absolution via products that seek to offer the least confronting method of “doing something” seems a little crass. Perhaps we ought ask what’s more powerful – a dollar or a little bit of information? And then go for both.

These are commendable ventures but we must recognise the danger in lauding them as solutions. In the context of middle-class, suburban Melbourne, these innovative ventures have genuine merit. But is it sufficient to encourage consumers (and voters) to engage in this feel-good, blind philanthropy?

Every time we congratulate each other merely for buying a better product or getting up early on a Sunday, a synapse connecting us to the broader world dies. But then, cynicism won’t fix the world.

Sam Ryan is a freelance writer, and editor with Right Now.