Last night reminded me of why I love Uganda. The afternoon rain gave way to a beautiful evening with a vibrant sunset, which I enjoyed from the back of a boda boda on my way to Nelson Mandela National Stadium. There I joined 20,000 fans for the semifinal of the CECAFA Tusker Cup and watched Uganda beat Tanzania 3-0.
Amidst blaring vuvuzelas (African horns used to intimidate the opposition), impassioned Ugandans waved flags and sparklers as they cheered on their team and brawled with Tanzanian fans shortly before half time. The handful of riot police mimicked the referee on the field: instead of intervening, they let the fans fight it out. I was a bit worried for the safety of the Tanzanians in the crowd, but the violence quickly subsided and spectators returned their attention to the game.
Throughout the match, vendors weaved through the stands, selling fried chicken, popcorn, beer, soda, and fried grasshoppers (a popular Ugandan delicacy). Towards the end of the first half, they also distributed thousands of massive brochures that were the same size as three sheets of 8.5 by 11-inch paper taped together. I grabbed one because I was intrigued by the glossy color photos.
“Hand & soap need your support!” the ad says. It features a picture of Didier Drogba, Africa’s biggest soccer star, with a small child, who is holding a bar of soap. “Play hard, play with passion. It is a matter of honour. So is washing your hands with soap.”
The ad also pictures two cartoon characters, “Handy” and “Soapy,” which were performed by actors in full body suits walking around the sidelines.
At first glance, I didn’t think much of the brochure or the characters. That’s an odd thing to advertise, I thought. But this wasn’t just a soap company trying to promote their product; it was a German-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) called “WASH United.”
According to their website, WASH United was founded in 2010 with three goals: “Make toilets sexy”; “Promote hand-washing with soap at critical times”; and “Full recognition and realization of the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.” They have reached over 100 million people in Africa and India through media advertisements, education programs, and sponsoring major sports tournaments, like the CECAFA Tusker Cup.
Trying to promote better sanitation is a critical goal, especially since diarrhea and pneumonia are the two biggest global killers of children under the age of five. While their aims are laudable, however, there are a number of things that bothered me about WASH United’s ad at the soccer game.
First, the environmental impact is obvious. Passing out thousands of giant flyers is an absurd way to get your message across. If anyone from this NGO has ever visited Kampala, then they would have seen the piles of rubbish lining the streets and smelled the ubiquitous stench of garbage being burned. Kampala has virtually no waste management services, so most residents burn their litter or toss it out on the streets. Unless people decide to hang these flyers in their homes and keep them forever, I assume that most of them are already on the side of the road.
Even more disturbing is the demeaning message that this NGO portrays. Featuring characters like “Handy” and “Soapy” might be a good way to encourage kindergarteners to wash their hands, but to the 85% of fans at the soccer game who were grown adult men, this must have seemed ridiculous.
While many American and European-based NGOs operating in Africa are subtly paternalistic, there is nothing subtle about WASH United. Imagine a nonprofit trying to teach sports fans in London or New York how to wash their hands with soap by having cartoon characters at soccer and baseball games. People would be insulted! But somehow, it’s okay for an NGO to spend thousands of euros on ads that teach grown Africans how to use soap.
I imagine that the founders and supporters of WASH United have the best of intentions, but the underlying logic of their campaign seems deeply prejudiced. Not only do they assume that Africans need their help, but they also assume that Africans can’t even do simple tasks—like washing their hands—without foreign intervention.
Stopping childhood pneumonia and diarrhea are pivotal goals, but there are probably more productive ways to encourage better sanitation. If WASH United finds the Ugandan education system so lacking that it doesn’t teach children how to wash their hands with soap, then perhaps it should spend its money improving public education. Or if it finds that the cost of soap is too expensive for most Ugandans to afford, it should build a soap factory outside of Kampala to create jobs and increase the supply of soap.
People are also unlikely to change their habits just because they see an ad of Didier Drogba using soap. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes the process of habit formation as revolving around cues, routines, and rewards. According to Duhigg’s principles, WASH United’s marketing campaign would be more effective if it focused on the cue (“Are your hands dirty and gross? Wash ‘em with soap!”), the routine (“Add a bar of soap to your washing routine”), or the reward (“I love that feeling of clean hands…now I can eat without getting diarrhea!”). I know these slogans aren’t as flashy as a big picture of Drogba, but basic psychology might make them more effective than “Give your all. It is a matter of honour. So is washing your hands with soap.”
While I hope that WASH United’s campaign achieves more than I give them credit for, I implore them to think critically about the implications of their messaging. Even when people are trying to help others, the legacy of colonialism still shapes much of our thinking on Africa and continues to perpetuate cycles of aid and dependency. Although NGOs are usually more effective than bilateral aid that gives cash directly to governments, they still establish networks of dependency and absolve the state of certain responsibilities.
Take Uganda as an example. The health sector here is largely bolstered by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and various NGOs. These NGOs deliver critical services and medication that are literally saving lives every day. But because people are getting their medical needs taken care of, they aren’t demanding more services from the Ugandan government. The government still collects tax revenue, but now it doesn’t have to invest as much in the health sector and can spend its money on new fighter jets, guns and ammunition, and political projects to entrench the ruling party.
Because the erosion of democracy is an unintended consequence of foreign aid, Daily Monitor Managing Editor Daniel Kalinaki wrote a column yesterday on why recent donor cuts might be the best thing that’s ever happened to Uganda. If you’re interested in this topic, it’s worth a read.
Ultimately, I don’t support cutting all foreign aid, because there is important development work to be done here in Africa. However, I think we can be smarter about how we deliver aid. The first steps should be to study a problem and to look at how local populations are already addressing that problem. If a civil society organization, a business, or a governmental entity is already making progress in an area, then we should offer them support instead of starting a brand-new NGO based in Washington, D.C.
And if there is already an international NGO moving forward on an issue, then we shouldn’t create five or six that are doing the same thing. It is a running joke in Kampala that half of the NGOs here are doing the same thing. There is so much NGO overlap that women’s groups and schools will sometimes hear nearly identical presentations about HIV from three different NGOs in the same month.
If we have researched a problem and decided that an NGO is the most effective institution to address it, then we should proceed strategically and ask ourselves, what is our ultimate goal? Is it to provide short-term aid that builds local capacity so that Ugandans can run their own economy? Or is to initiate long-term programs that will continue to be run by foreigners? Unfortunately, the status quo in development tends to follow the latter model, but I don’t think it always has to be this way.
The Ugandans I have met so far are brilliant. There are engineers, doctors, lawyers, and administrators who know how to develop their country, but there are deeply ingrained structural challenges that get in the way. As an American, I appreciate the gung-ho, let’s-fix-this attitude from the USA, but it’s foolish for us to think that our methods are better than Uganda’s. And unfortunately, I have met some foreign NGO workers who give off the air that they are smarter and wiser than most Ugandans.
So before we send naive and inexperienced 22-year-olds abroad to “change the world” (myself include), perhaps we should ask the civil society leaders of these countries what they really want from us. “Foreign expertise” probably doesn’t top very high on the list.