Anti-poverty campaigns using social media are falling into the old trap of stereotyping the people they're meant to serve
Ami Musa is a 13 year old girl from Sierra Leone. She wants things like soap, shoes, water and education. She is also sharing those wants on Pinterest. Well, that is at least the set-up of a campaign by UNICEF UK that uses a fictional girl to show "what 13-year-olds like Ami from Sierra Leone really want."
Pinterest users are encouraged to repin each of the things that Ami wants in order to "remind people of what the world's poorest children dream of." A link then takes a user to the UNICEF UK campaign where they can show their support. "Children like Ami need basics that many of us take for granted: food, education, healthcare, a clean supply of water. Your donation can help us provide these and other essentials. Thank you," says the site to a visitor.
The pins were sent out at the beginning of September, a point in time that coincided with the developing cholera outbreak in Sierra Leone and Guinea. Each received over 100 repins, over 40 likes and a handful of comments.
Pinterest represents a bit of a brave new world for NGOs to reach newer audiences. There is an opportunity for fundraising because the majority of the audience is quite homogenous. Over 2/3 of Pinterest users are women, roughly half are between 25 and 44 years of age and a quarter have an annual household income above $100k (not really sure how this is calculated). All that adds up to potential donors.
Most NGOs are using Pinterest to share their photos from the field mixed with organizational messaging. For example, the Oxfam ER account has a folder on the Sahel crisis that includes pictures of how Oxfam is responding, videos, celebrities visiting, people with their farms and message specific pins.
The offering from UNICEF UK is meant to show the things that a young girl needs in order to thrive. Each of the pins highlight a specific need, but phrase them as wants. An opportunity is missed to fill out the picture and show that 13-year-old girl from Sierra Leone has wants that go beyond her basic needs. She may be interested in some new music or a specific book. Maybe she wants a radio to listen to her favorite radio station or hopes to get a new Sunday dress to wear to church.
Like any child in the world, the things that Ami wants are diverse and expansive. Pinterest seems well equipped to show those changing desires and tell the story of a young girl that could connect with the audience that frequents the site. It also is a chance to expand the way that people hear about and understand a young girl from a country like Sierra Leone.
Maybe the audience could learn about the girl's traditions through outfits worn by her family or traditional events that take place for a holiday. The advantage of social media tools, like Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter, is that they provide avenues to tell a full story to an audience rather than have to grab them with one piece of communication.
Acumen Fund founder Jacqueline Novogratz is famous for her phrase 'patient capital.' Communications could heed her advice as well. She concluded her TED talk on the subject of 'patient capital' saying:
"[W]hat it takes is a commitment from all of us to essentially refuse trite assumptions, get out of our ideological boxes. It takes investing in those entrepreneurs that are committed to service as well as to success. It takes opening your arms, both, wide, and expecting very little love in return, but demanding accountability, and bringing the accountability to the table as well. And most of all, most of all, it requires that all of us have the courage and the patience, whether we are rich or poor, African or non-African, local or diaspora, left or right, to really start listening to each other."
When will that level of patience and a willingness to be held accountable for how NGOs talk about poverty start to kick in? Who is going to truly innovate on the ways that issues are discussed with the public in a manner that is not just a slick repackaging of Live Aid?