charity

You want to hug a dolphin? Or maybe plant a tree? What about buying a goat for a village in Ethiopia? Or a desk and chair for a school in Banda Aceh? No. Mm-mm, difficult one. Wait, I have just the thing for you – how about supporting the Foundation for the protection of Swedish underwear models?

And you think I am joking about that last one. It might be tongue in cheek, but this cause has over 400,000 signed up members globally. Okay, it is a Facebook cause – but one of the most supported causes. They even managed to raise some money for their nonprofit – after specifically asking for NO money. Yes, this is a nonprofit and their aim is the “promotion of international understanding”. No, I really am NOT joking.

The point I am trying to make is that we now have a cause for every taste and need. And then some. Once you find your cause – which organization within this cause do you want to support? And so on, and so on. The list just gets longer and longer.

This shouldn’t be a problem. People can now match their passions with the right organization. And there are enough charities out there to still have a slight different individual flavor that makes you so much more different from the plebs who support Oxfam (joking people…). Oh no, you support Project Africa – because it is so much more than a goal, it is a mission. A cause that goes with your evening dress and another that goes well as a car refresher hanging from the rear-view mirror.

And it makes life so much easier if you run a company. All you have to do is pick your cause and adopt the charity or nonprofit that is still available. You feel strongly about education for kids? Make your pick – we still have EduKiddiCare and KEDUCare available. (Man, how many times can someone focus on education before we run out of charities or ideas?)

But the growth in charities and causes can have a bad impact as well – apart from the bad jokes (sorry). Firstly, it waters down the important stuff and diverts attention. Instead of tackling the real big issues facing the world – Climate Change, Abuse, Poverty & Hunger, War, Disasters and Health (the Big 5 plus Climate Change) – we tackle every issue that comes to mind. Can we really justify saving the dolphin, battling bottled water, fighting immigration, protesting GM crops and anti/pro-abortion marches (the Little 5) while people are dying of hunger, disease, abuse, disasters or war? Of course all these other issues are important, but more important than people dying right now in this world we all share? I don’t know – your call.

Even more important than the long list of options and diverting attention – the diversion of funds. Two dynamics stand out. Firstly, aid only increases marginally each year – and even then it goes to certain causes that are important, but not really charity for the needy. For instance, where do you think 80% of US federal ‘aid’ go? A handful of countries that are not really on the most needy list – Israel, Pakistan and Egypt. And oh, it includes military aid… And it gets worse because the money is now spread across and even wider range of causes and organizations. Each year another nonprofits comes along that wants a piece of the pie – and reduces the share of the next one.

But the single biggest problem I have with the proliferation of charities? They divert money away from Africa and other places of need. Instead of the funding going directly to the charity in the country suffering, it goes via other charities and donor bodies first. And everyone takes their cut. The money for empowering women farmers in Zambia doesn’t go to Women for Change. Oh, they might get a small amount. But the money first goes to DFID or USAID or GTZ – or whatever government agency. And then it goes to Oxfam GB or US or Germany. And then it goes to Oxfam Southern Africa. And then it goes to Oxfam Zambia. And the leftovers go to Women for Change.

Businesses always try and streamline their value chain. We should do the same with funding. No more than 2 steps before it gets to the actual people that need it and should benefit from it. Cut out the middlemen. Hey, they make money for campaiging in any case by collecting from door to door and in the streets. It doesn’t mean the end of Oxfam or Care or Save The Children and mates. Just the beginning of the nonprofits who can really bring immediate change to the people who need it most. It will force every charity to focus on achieving real change and doing the bit they are best at. And more of the program money will go to the charities who are closest to the real issues on the ground – they are part of the people who suffer in their community. We just need to streamline the charity supply chain a bit.

Of course there is another reason for my little rant. Is it about caring about something or doing something? The caring bit is about you. But the doing bit is about those who need the help. It’s a slight but important difference. You can pick a charity or a cause the way you pick a dress or shoes – something to fit in with your needs and different tastes. But please don’t forget that this isn’t about you. It’s about those who really need you to be part of them and part of the solution. I worry that the causes are so diverse that we start forgetting who and what this is all about. It’s not a clothing outfit to fit with your personality. It’s about people. And what they need.

Mm-mm, maybe I just found the cause that fits my charity. The AA BARF charity needs your support. Really… The Angry African Beer And Rugby Fund never really got the funding or supporters it deserved in any case. And the money will go directly to the cause it supports. I promise…

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Give us a bit of water and some sand and we will build the Empire State building. It amazes me how innovative people in Africa can be. Natural born entrepreneurs. I know we have loads of issues and problems – and our own baggage to carry as well. But some of the things we do when we get our hands on something new is just “awesome”. (I have been in the US for too long! Picked that one up from my daughter…) The way people in Africa use mobile phones and the Internet in Africa is way beyond what any of us (or foreigners) predicted or dreamed of.

I know. I said that we in Africa are staying disconnected from the world. But that is just part of the story. Yes, we struggle to stay connected but don’t give us half a chance or we will rule the world. Once we get off World of Warcraft or Facebook. Boy are you lucky we don’t use that too often. Imagine people who like being connected to each other having the opportunity to do social networking while in different places! World here we come! I wonder if we will ever get off the Internet and still live and interact with each other if we were given that opportunity? Thank god for staying disconnected – it allows us to stay connected.

But I have two other stories about us and our version of web 2.0 to tell you about. The first one starts in Zimbabwe…

Yes. Zimbabwe. The country that is going through hell at the moment. And it has been going on for the last few years. But give someone a mobile phone and see us fly. OneWord Africa (one of my favourite sites – hidden agenda, I worked with them for a while a few years back. Hi Patricia!) reported on how people are using mobile phones to go hi-tech in campaigning for the upcoming election. It is not that easy to campaign in Zimbabwe at the moment. Crazy Uncle Bob isn’t what he used to be. Democracy isn’t what it used to be in Zimbabwe. He isn’t allowing much freedom for people to campaign for anyone other than him. And he instigates violence and riots against the opposition. So what are people to do?

Well. He made the mistake of allowing people to have mobile phone. And when you have some water and sand… We campaign. The people in Zimbabwe text each other left, right and centre to get the message across. But not just personal messages. No way. They do it African style. In a way to make sure people know where it comes from and who they all support. A group with no place to meet – but a group none the less. They text a message that identifies them as a supporter of a specific party or person. A simple “Vote for Simba” to highlight support for Makoni and a longer “Have you not suffered enough? Morgan is the solution” for Tsvangirai’s faithful. Simple, but beautiful and genius. Bob – you control the radio, television and newspapers, but you can’t control the keypads.

But they don’t stop there. No way. They go further. Ring-tones. Here it is more about opposition to Crazy Uncle Bob than support for an individual. The opposition play a local song, which asks in Shona: “How long will you vote for ZANU-PF?“. Pure genius. People phone you and others hear. One snag. Run when the phone rings and you are close to the police! Pure genius for keeping democracy alive though. I almost gave up hope on Zimbabwe, but the people proved me wrong again. And I like being wrong in cases like this.

My other story comes from one that was told to me by Martin Feinstein a few years back. He used to run Proudly South African, but now runs Enablis that tries to help entrepreneurs use the Internet to enhance their business – and support them financially and with management support. (I can’t vouch for them. They have good methodology, but I don’t know how effective they are. Just haven’t been keeping an eye on them. So this is not a plug for them.) He was telling me about this guy in Soweto who found a brilliant business idea – a pure win-win (almost). And all he needed was a computer and a shipping container for an office and storage. His plan? So simple. He used to go to one of the markets every single day to buy his stuff. And there were hundred, if not thousands, of women selling their goods. But they closed every single Monday to go to the wholesaler to buy their stuff they sell. They all got into the taxi’s and travelled into the city to buy their goods.

And what a loss for their business. No discount because they bought little amounts at a time. Loss of business for the day they were closed. And money for their travels. And the wholesale had to deal with so many people at the same time. His idea? Why not get them to place their order with him and he logs it into the computer and sends one order (with separate packaging) to the wholesaler. The wholesaler then delivers because it is a huge order and gives him 15% discount for the large order. That is his cut – the 15%. The women didn’t pay anything more than the usual and actually saved because they didn’t have to pay the taxi. And they were open on Monday’s for an extra day of business. Genius isn’t it? Everyone won. Okay – the taxi guys lost out, but less sympathy there with their driving skills… The plan was not rocket science, but still genius by the guy to see the opportunity. (Sorry – never got his name.) And what did he want from Martin and them? Just help to get a container and a computer. Less than $2,000 and bam you have a highly profitable business. I love that story – it tells us so much about the entrepreneurs hiding away all over Africa.

Okay, so it is not the typical web 2.0. But we are not “typical” in Africa either. We take technology and turn it into something that helps us make our society better – and ourselves better. The fastest growing mobile phone users in the world? USA? UK? Maybe India or China? Try Africa. We have few landlines. No problem – we’ll go wireless. Yes, we are disconnected from the world. But we are so connected between the ears.

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I got an email from a good friend at Oxfam. They were not happy about my blog about Oxfam – Oxfam suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder. They felt it was unfair and hurtful. But let me explain a bit about my feelings towards Oxfam – before you get yourself all worked up about the email I got.

I worked for Oxfam for about two years. And I worked with them for many more years than that. Yes, I have issues with them that relates to my time there. I will go through all of those in future blogs. But not today. Today I want to tell you what is my beef with Oxfam. It’s important to me because I care about the organisation and the people there. And I care about the fact that someone I respect and seek counsel from is upset about what I wrote. Oxfam is a great organisation and that’s where my problem starts.

I joined Oxfam because they are by far the most influential development non-profit out there. They are a monster in the Great Britain. Everyone catches cold if they sneeze. And they have the money to back it up. Around $600 million for Oxfam Great Britain alone – the original, most influential and biggest of all the Oxfam’s. Oxfam is the place to go to if you want to have an impact on poverty. They can out campaign anyone and everyone if they want to. They have the programs on the ground to back that up as well. They have millions of supporters globally and partners in over 100 countries. And that’s why I joined them. To make a difference.

The main reason I joined Oxfam is also the thing I like the most about Oxfam – their reason for existing. Their mandate to fight poverty is a noble cause and an important one. Oxfam is all about fighting poverty. Every single decision they make is based on whether it fights poverty. It’s in their constitution. It’s what they are all about. But it is not only this mandate that is important, but also that they provide an alternative voice for the poor through their actions and campaigns. The people who work for Oxfam believes in the mission. No one questions the reason for Oxfam’s existence. Giving the poor a voice is something I continue to admire.

I don’t blame them for having so many campaigns. I don’t agree with it, but I can understand it. Poverty is complex. And poverty comes from many angles – war, disaster, politics, trade rules, aid, health, environment, climate change and more. All of these create poverty and make poverty worse. The Oxfam mandate is to fight poverty – so which one do you choose? You can’t. Plain and simple. Oxfam can’t choose because they have to fight poverty at every place and in every corner of the world. But they don’t mind. They know that they can’t solve poverty, but they can fight it and campaign on it to try and influence those who can change and affect poverty.

That’s one of the problems that Oxfam will always face. They have to continue to fight and fight and fight. And hope the world changes little by little. And companies will get frustrated because Oxfam will never tell them that they did a great job. That’s not what Oxfam is about. They need to keep on pushing and pushing. Hoping that companies will take one step and then another – and each time with Oxfam pushing little by little. Don’t expect Oxfam to applaud what you do. That’s not their job. Their job is to move you a little bit and then a little more and then a little more. So you will always get a ‘step in the right direction’ answer from them. You want them to applaud you? Then solve poverty. Nothing will be good enough until Oxfam sees the back of poverty.

And the people working at Oxfam? Man, I don’t know where to start with them. They are committed. Deeply committed and passionate about changing this world. Imagine having to face just bad news every day and you still go back to the office. That’s what they are about. They go back to the office knowing that it is going to be a bad day at the office. Somewhere a child is dying and somewhere a disaster has struck. Poverty is still there in all its glory. It takes a certain strength to face this every single day. Day in and day out. And knowing that it won’t end in their lifetime. These people are made of lots of humanity and a little flesh.

But don’t think they are just some somber intellectuals. No. They have fun and can party. And they can be funny as hell. Phil Bloomer is one of the funniest guys I have ever met. They love their work and they love each other. And they know that they needs each other to be like this or else they will never get through the day. Push, Constantino, Sumi and Liam – just a few people I met during my time that I will never forget. Not their work – that’s one thing. No, I will always remember them for the people they are. Heroes. Heroes every single day. And they don’t even know it or care for it.

Oxfam is typical of good developmental non-profits. They are working towards making themselves obsolete. They are trying to work themselves out of a job. Because they know that if that ever happens it will also be the end of poverty. So they work hard to get themselves unemployed.

So what’s my beef? Very simple. I want them to try even harder. I don’t question their commitment. And I will never question the people working there. But after working for them I got to know their weakness. They are the best in the world when it comes to fighting poverty. From programs to campaigns – no one can touch them. But I saw them from the inside and know that they can do better. I know that they are working at 50% of their potential. Many reasons for this – and I will go into that in future blogs, but not today. I saw what they achieve each day – more than anyone else in the world. But I also saw what they could achieve. So much more. One more life can be saved by doing a few small things differently. Some of these things are internal and some of them external. But I saw them and realized they have so much more to offer than what they are offering at the moment. Imagine if they work at 70% of their potential? How much better will the world be if they are already this good?

I want them to work on improving day in and day out. With the same urgency that they put into their campaigns and their emergency relief. They are an undisputed champion already. No one gets even close to what they are doing. But they must not be happy with being the best. They should strive to be the best they can be. I will attack them from every angle I can get to get them to improve one step at a time. I will use their tactics against them. I will push and push to get them to take that one extra step. And then I’ll say that it is a step in the right direction. Never happy. Never happy. I owe it to them, but more importantly, I owe it to my people in Africa. Remember, Africa is what drives me to do the work I do. They are my conscious. And Oxfam is the vehicle of change.

I do it because I love them. I do it because I care for them. I do it because I saw their potential and want them to be that person I saw. I do it because I want to see the back of them. I want to Make Poverty History.

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(Please read My beef with Oxfam before you read this blog. It will provide you with context on why I tackle Oxfam even though I respect them.)

Oxfam has such a short attention span. Really, they are like my 4-year old daughter. She jumps from building Lego to coloring in to building puzzles to playing with her dolls. Okay, so she is playing, but can’t stick with any one thing for too long. But she is 4 and I expect her to try different things as she grows up. But Oxfam is a senior citizen at 60 and I expect them to behave with a little bit more focus at this golden age. Maybe it is just ADD.

See, they jump from one campaign to another. If it’s not Make Trade Fair then it’s Access to Medicine or aid or labor or MDG’s or agriculture or supply chains. They can’t even stick to a commodity – coffee, rice, cotton. You take your pick. Never staying long enough at one thing to see it through. Like a guy in his early 20’s jumping from one fleeting relationship to another. Never willing to commit to a serious relationship. Maybe he just never found real love yet. And maybe Oxfam hasn’t either. That one issue that really gets their heart racing. Okay, they do have a love – fighting poverty. The problem? Too many different faces of poverty out there. Coffee, trade, aid, medicine, labor, agriculture – all faces of poverty. Difficult to pick your one ‘love’ isn’t it?

I know, the world is full of problems and Oxfam needs to address a wide range of issues of injustice – aid and trade being just two of the key issues. But really, can’t they at least see one of them through? Look at coffee. They started off with a bang in 2002 and within a year they dropped it for something else. Same with Access to Medicine. Yes, they had an amazing campaign in highlighting the issues on a global scale. But they didn’t achieve any change. We’re still stuck with the problems of before – dying people not getting the medicine they need. Aren’t they supposed to ensure that there is actual change before they move on to the next thing? Coffee hasn’t changed, neither has the WTO or agriculture or rice for that matter. They just jump from one thing to another.

And like a spoilt teenager they want to have their bread buttered on both sides. They won’t work on these issues anymore, but still want to be invited to the parties and get-togethers. Access to Medicine – they haven’t worked on this since Sophia Tickell left. They have a small team working on this but that is not good enough. Mohga is good, really good – and so is the people working on that team. But they have little support. No campaign support apart from a new document highlighting failures every now and again. And then nothing until they have something to write about again. But no campaigning anymore. And what do they achieve? Nada, nothing, zilch, zero. Okay, maye that is an overstatement. They brought the issue to the attention of everyone in the world and we have seen changes – medicine donation is higher than before with every pharmaceutical company now having a program in Africa and other developing countries, and trade rules are better than before (not perfect, just better). But our people continue to struggle each and every day. The battle is far from won. We are not even close – just closer.

Okay, if they want to highlight important issues and then step aside for a partner to take over – fine. They can do the team sport approach where everyone has a role and they play just the first few minutes before being substituted. But then they should invest in building partnerships. But they aren’t that good at that either. They push too hard to have it their way and not enough on working in partnership where both parties have an equal say. And the world is a bit too complex for that. You think they have partners? Think again. Most NGO’s really dislike them – in Africa and the UK. I worked both sides of the fence and know how strong the anti-Oxfam feelings are in both worlds. And this undermines the good work Oxfam is doing. Other organisations don’t see the Oxfam I see – the good and commited. They just see someone who wants it their way. Come on Oxfam, spend more time on partnerships – this is your legacy as they will continue your (joint) fight while you focus on the next anti-poverty fight. But you can’t be the captain of the team and be substituted in the first half. Get it?

They remind me a bit of the companies they like to tackle so often. Always looking at what is the hot new issue that fits into their brand identity. Today it is climate change. And yes, Oxfam that knew nothing of the environment is now all of a sudden a treehugger. I know there is a clear link between climate change and poverty, but just how important do you think the environment is in Africa right now? More important that HIV/Aids, TB, Malaria, civil war, clean water, food or a roof over your head? Don’t think so.

Oxfam get back to what’s killing people now. Not what might kill them in a few years time. We don’t have that kind of luxury. If they want to have a voice on climate change then go partner with someone who has a history in this field – Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, NRDC or Greenpeace. And try to partner with them more effectively. You play the supporting role and give them some more visibility.

So come on Oxfam, sharpen the focus or sharpen the partnerships. I know you can. But you’re not. Don’t be like my 4-year old. She plays with something new every five minutes, but I also know she is growing up. Are you? Okay, maybe you don’t suffer from ADD but Sensory Overload – too many poverty issues to focus on. But I got your attention didn’t I?

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The Oxfam Coffee Campaign – or Mugged – was the major Oxfam campaign in 2003. And it was timely. Coffee prices were at an all time low and coffee farmers were suffering. And it helped bring to life the struggles farmers face in the current multilateral trade system – a global trade system that held very little benefit for the small farmers.

It had all the ingredients for a successful Oxfam campaign – a product that people consume in abundance (coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world – only oil beats it), an alternative with a catchy name – Fair Trade, the faces of African farmers on all materials to get supporters going, and well known brands that people could brand as the ‘evil predators’ – Nestle, Kraft, P&G and Sara Lee. A lethal combination and the bread and butter of campaigning. And luck was on my side – a few things went my way and I was asked to head up the campaign a few months after joining Oxfam in 2002. (Previous campaign lead Sophia Tickell left within a few months of me joining Oxfam).

I thought we had a good campaign. We asked coffee companies, or Roasters as we called them, to commit to very specific actions to help address the coffee crisis. And many of the companies we targeted did take up our challenge – not all of them, but at least a few did. I thought we should ‘celebrate’ our first year of the Mugged campaign by doing some proper quantitative research to assess whether the Roaster did what we asked them to do. It was going to be easy – tick the box and move on. We even came up with the idea of giving companies a report card to show the progress they made. And the campaign anniversary took place in September when so much focus would be on the report cards kids receive at school – easy publicity.

But there was a major problem I did not even think of – what will happen if one or more of the companies passed? For me it was easy – if you pass you pass. It would show people that progress has been made and that we can be part of the change we want – that their support and our campaign can make a real difference. And that we are grownup enough to tip our hat to those companies who recognize their mistakes and made the changes we asked them to make.

We did our best research and even developed a ‘bean count’ system – 0 was ‘ just not coffee’ and 5 was ‘the fairest brew’. And the nightmare began when we realized that the most boycotted company in the UK, and major campaign target, Nestle passed the test. Most people just couldn’t stand the possibility of acknowledging anything good at Nestle – never mind saying publicly that they did okay in doing what we asked them to do. It just wasn’t cricket.

Still, for me it was easy. We had to do what was right – report our findings. I had a daughter that just started school and wouldn’t want anyone to move the goalposts for her when it came to school. And I couldn’t do it to someone else – even if I didn’t like them. So I stuck to my guns and argued that we should do what was right and acknowledge that companies made progress and that they got a pass on their report card. Mind you, they didn’t get A’s in our initial research – they got C’s. A pass, but not a good pass – ‘room for improvement’, ‘work harder’ and ‘showing promise’ would be the taglines that would accompany the report cards. Not glowing grades, but a pass nevertheless.

I had to go on a trip and left the work for others to complete – do the graphics and get the campaign materials ready. Boy, was I in for a surprise when I got back. Someone senior (and someone I respected and liked) decided that we just couldn’t give companies any credit and changed the maths. Instead of grading them on the things we asked them to do, Oxfam changed the grades and decided to make one of the four things we asked them to do count for 70% of the grade. Why? Because almost all of them failed this part of the test. It didn’t matter that Oxfam believed that this one part wasn’t more important that others. What mattered most was to fail the companies. All of them. And they did. Nestle got 43% in the report card.

I learned a harsh lesson. I might have taught research methodology at university, but when it came to social maths you can’t beat a campaigner. Truth and fact was truly in the eye of the beholder – Oxfam.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention. I refused to budge and refused to lead the report card campaign. It did happen. Just not with me leading it.

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