We all start out somewhere. A few years ago a regular topic of conversation amongst my friends here might be to slag off one or all of the volunteer agencies that bring gap-year kids out to Africa to do something meaningful, but which mostly achieve very little, and 99% of the benefit typically goes to the volunteer. There are other good reasons why volunteers might be a bad solution (like shutting out local labour), but I also know many people in conservation and development who started out volunteering with such an organisation. They are one way of giving budding development professionals a start in life, and for all the rest there are some take home memories of how the other half live. (Not to be sniffed at if you want, for example, to get discriminatory trade policies changed at home.) I, myself, was a self-starter, but I recall how little I knew back then, and how instantly I was dismissed as well, quite obviously knowing **** all. But some kind souls did help us and advise us, and much to my pride we are now recognised as one of the leading innovators in our sector in the country, and now I get to dismiss other people as being naive, clueless and generally a waste of time and space.
All of which brings to mind in a roundabout way the recent furore over the 1 million t-shirts for Africa campaign. Now I enjoyed reading some of the criticism as much as anyone else; 1 million second hand t-shirts for Africa does seem like a spectacularly bad idea, and general waste of resources. Most of the ire seemed to get funnelled the way of its publicist, Jason Sadler, who responded in kind. But for me the greater criticism should be directed at those ‘professionals’ who suggested the idea to him in the first place (apparently HELP International, though I haven’t fact checked this thoroughly). I think, and many development commentators have said, that the aid industry as a whole has a pretty poor record. (This is not to say there haven’t been some good things, but plenty of what we’ve tried has flopped badly; see HRI’s satirical take on the story to understand just how badly institutional aid could do the t-shirts idea.) We need new people, new ideas, fresh injections of talent, and different approaches. As Aid Watch pointed out, Jason Sadler certainly has some significant talents at promoting stuff on the web, which could be really useful to a whole range of development initiatives.
As an industry we need to get more welcoming of new people and new ideas. Aid and development could do with a bit of creative destruction.
ps. Anyone for a t-shirt bonfire? Not Jason Sadler’s. All those t-shirts made and distributed at considerable cost by development agencies to demonstrate field presence and ‘buy’ local support for their projects.