Category Archives: Silly Friday

Balloons for Baluchistan

It’s Silly Friday, a time to look at those development projects that transcend the ridiculous to reach a kind of clueless, navel-gazing glory.

This NYTimes article from May last year is a kind of classic of Development Bloat: what happens when the political imperative to exercise American soft power crashes head first into Afghanistan’s very limited capacity to absorb it.

The litany of development gimmicks here is grimly hilarious. For my money, the plan to “create a stream of shared instances of unexpected happiness” by handing out pink balloons to strangers on the streets of Kabul is unmatched in the annals of Development Bloat.

Continue reading Balloons for Baluchistan

Toms’ one-for-one: because children this cute can’t be wrong

Did you hear? For every pair of TOMS shoes a western customer buys, they give away a pair in a developing country. To children. Very very cute children. Like these.

Toms’ one-for-one is a really nice idea – but only as long as you don’t spend any time thinking about it at all.

If you do, you grasp why One-for-One has already carved out a cherished place for itself in the Annals of Bad Aid. A perfect synthesis of Bad Corporate Social Responsibility and Development Mission Creep, One-for-One destroys local livelihoods, drives cobblers out of business, in a quest to burnish a fancy brand’s image. (At least it did as originally designed, some say the most recent incarnation isn’t quite as bad.)

It’s the kind of thing that drives practitioners around the bend. Really, there are protest videos. (Though of course it could be worse: they could be giving away used shoes.)

None of which is to say giving a poor child nice shoes for free isn’t nice. Of course it is.

But the real question all these stuff-for-free programmes need to answer is simple: if you calculated the dollar amount it costs you to make and distribute these shoes and just gave it to your beneficiaries as cash, how many of them would turn around and use that cash to buy those shoes?

Continue reading Toms’ one-for-one: because children this cute can’t be wrong

CWB: The Reductio ad Absurdum of Development Bloat

If you had to dream up an absurdist name for an organization embodying the worst of Development Bloat, you couldn’t really do worse than Clown Without Borders.

And yet it’s a real organization, with real volunteers and projects in 25 – count ’em, twentyfive – countries! Because nothing raises funds quite like starting at the top of Maslow’s pyramid and rappelling down…

Teddies-for-Tragedies: Because only a monster can resist a picture like that!

It’s Silly Friday, a time to look at those development projects that transcend the ridiculous to reach a kind of clueless, navel-gazing glory.

When it comes to the cloying, manipulative use of Cute Kid pictures to drum up donations, it’s hard to outdo the sheer, brazen chutzpah of Teddies for Tragedies, a charity that does very much what it says on the tin.

The Guardian Cracks It: Kenya’s Problem Is TOO MUCH Rural Investment

Everyone knows Liberal Guilt is a seller’s market, but oh brother, where to even start with The Guardian’s feel-bad-now piece on Blood Roses and Chocolate for Valentine’s Day?

The notion that you can improve the lives of the world’s poorest people by cutting off the few, tenuous economic links your readers have with them is – how to put this politely? – totally insane.

I guess it makes people feel empowered to be told that their daily choices can have an impact on the lives of the world’s poorest. And there’s a noble sentiment at the heart of that that we really should honor. What’s sets me off, though, is the pig-headed determination to make the perfect the enemy of the good, shaming readers for taking part in one of the few, tragically few pipelines currently linking their pocketbooks to the world’s poorest people.

Check it out:

Around 70% of the roses being sold in the UK this week were cut in Lake Naivasha in the Great Rift Valley, according to the Kenya Flower Council. The industry is dominated by multinationals, which own vast farms, and about 800m flowers will be dispatched from Kenya to Europe in the runup to 14 February, making them the country’s biggest export earner.

While the industry’s carbon footprint is far from fragrant, there’s also the issue of low-pay and harsh employment conditions for pickers to consider.

Yes, those Kenyan flower-pickers sure are peculiar, leaving the rural idyll of life as a Kenyan subsistence farmer for the drudgery of life as a flower plantation worker. (Shhhhhh, don’t ask too many questions about rural Kenyans’ actual lives, lest you realize the conditions you’re casually condemning as “harsh” and “low paid” are an immense improvement on the alternatives – the real alternatives, not your fantasy alternatives.)

Sigh. There’s enough bad economics and confused aid thinking here to keep me going for weeks on end, but let me try for the aggressively abridged version:

Continue reading The Guardian Cracks It: Kenya’s Problem Is TOO MUCH Rural Investment

Skateistan is a Failed State

It’s Silly Friday, a time to look at development projects that transcend the ridiculous to reach a kind of clueless, navel-gazing glory.

Let’s hear a round of applause for Skateistan, an Aussie Skateparks-for-Afghanistan(-and-Camb0dia) non-profit that achieves a rare, perfect 10 on our Development Bloat Checklist.

Given the sheer, prima-facie absurdity of the idea, you almost feel bad for the guy who had to draft their mission-statment-spiel. He seems to have solved his unsolvable conundrum by relying almost entirely on buzzwordy jargon:

“has developed an innovative [1], youth-led [2] programming that builds confidence, trust and social capital[3] among children using “the hook”[4] of skateboarding for developing youth leadership[5]. Provides opportunities[6] for education and creative thinking [7] that help break the cycle of poverty [8] and exclusion [9].”

That’s nine airy, jargony buzzwords in a 40-word mission statement…chapeau!

OK, ok. I admit. One doesn’t want to be too Grinch-y about these things. The standard disclaimers apply: of course developing children’s confidence is a good thing, as is opportunity, and creative thinking and breaking the cycle of poverty and, indeed, even skateboards.

But one doesn’t want to be too polite, either, because in a world where aid has to fight a neverending rearguard action to establish its own legitimacy with skeptical donors, the mere existence of silly stuff like this is already a problem.

Let’s not mince words here: Skatistan exists so a bunch of guys in Australia who are into skateboarding can feel good about themselves. It’s the Churrigueresque of Development Bloat.

Its superfluousness is its raison d’etre. Its sheer wackiness is the key to its memorability. It explores the furthest reaches of development bloat with a lack of self-consciousness that’s almost admirable in its chutzpah.

I am in awe of them. But they need to stop.