You’ll recall how, when George W Bush stood for re-election as US president back in 2004, outraged Europeans organised petitions and marches to demand that Americans vote for someone else.
And then, in 2009, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was trying to steal the Iranian presidential elections, millions of people around the world turned their web pages green and fired off thousands of Twitter posts to call for free elections.
Or how about when, in 2007, George Clooney went to Sudan to demand that the international community do something to stop the genocide taking place in Darfur.
As you’ll also remember, Bush lost to John Kerry, Ahmadinejad went into exile and Darfur is now peaceful and prosperous.
Oh, wait, no, none of that happened.
“The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. … Social networks are effective at increasing participation – by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. … Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice,” writes Malcolm Gladwell in a New Yorker column, Why the revolution will not be tweeted.
So, if lending your name and opinion don’t work, how about giving money? And, while we’re on the topic, how about giving a LOT of money?
In Philanthrocapitalism, authors Matthew Bishop and Michael Green proclaim that “giving may be the greatest force for societal change in our world.” Bill Gates has famously dedicated the bulk of his tremendous fortune towards supporting innovation in education, health and food production.
Let’s look at the top ten countries with the highest rates of under-5 infant mortality: 1 Sierra Leone, 2 Afghanistan, 3 Chad, 4 Equatorial Guinea, 5 Guinea-Bissau, 6 Mali, 7 Burkina Faso, 8 Nigeria, 9 Rwanda, 10 Burundi.
All but Afghanistan are from Africa. Not one of those countries is a proper democracy. It is certainly true that sick and unhealthy people are unable to produce or earn sufficient to care for themselves let alone hold a government to account. Would better healthcare lead to better governance? Or does poor governance lead to poor healthcare?
For the 37 countries in the world where more than 10 percent of children die before reaching the age of five would more donations from rich people in foreign countries help?
Welfare delivery tends to be extremely inefficient. If an NGO is offering to care for HIV-positive babies, how many babies should they be able to care for given a defined budget?
A study I did five years ago into the effectiveness of charitable organisations was revealing. Benchmarking indicated no consistent costs for equivalent services. Businesses, faced with known selling-price points and constant feedback from customer purchasing behaviour quickly learn – whether they want to or not – what an efficient process needs to be.
Charities face no such feedback.
The entry of the Bill Gates billionaires’ donor club has thrown this inefficient and cosy world into uproar. Executives are used to regular measurement and optimisation of processes.
Development organisations are starting to become more efficient. But there are still no examples of countries anywhere in the world that transitioned from poverty to wealth solely because of the benevolence of outsiders.
The Economist asks, in its review of The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong With Humanitarian Aid? by Linda Polman, “how we resolve the tyranny of the present and ensure the kind of help that will safeguard the future.”
I’d go so far as to argue that aid prevents change.
In Paris in 1789 the French monarch had all but bankrupted his country with wars, and food price inflation saw bread rise from 8 to 12 sous in a year. The people stormed the Bastille triggering the French Revolution, ushering in the age of republics and changing Europe forever.
If it happened today Bob Geldoff would arrange a concert, millions of peeps would tweet, and aid convoys would supply food. “Let them eat nutritious high-protein cake,” says Marie Antoinette. Descendents of King Louis XVI are still in charge.