And You Will Hear Our Voices

Editor’s note: Teddy Ruge is the co-founder and senior project manager of Project Diaspora, an organization to energize “African’s economic, social, and cultural revitalization,” and a frequent blogger on issues of development in the African ICT sectors.

It is amazing how fast things change these days. In less than a week, a paradigm shift with the potential to affect the entire developmental aid industry occurred. In my opinion, this is probably the best thing that could have happened to the industry. The rapid-fire story goes something like this:

Successful individual wants to do something good to make the world a better place by giving back. So, after contacting some charities, said individual spends the better part of six months working out a plan to collect and send 1 million shirts to Africa. He leverages his successful business and media contacts to launch his campaign. If this were a Hollywood treatment for a movie script, the final sentence of this paragraph would be “..and then hilarity ensues.”

Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything funny about this. The individual here isn’t some fictional character, but real life Jason Sadler, founder of, a company whose business model is built on him wearing a client’s shirt. The natural extension for a feel-good exercise was to do some good using the one thing that he knows: t-shirts. At least, that’s what he thought he would do.

Within hours of the #1millionshirts hashtag hitting Twitter, it was the conversation of the moment. My first full tweet went up at 9:04pm on April 27th, “As an African, I beg the 1 Mil Shirts campaign dies a slow death. We don’t need another industry-crushing initiative by clueless do gooders.” Fewer than 3 days later, I was in a round table discussion with Mr. Sadler and participants from five continents representing various sectors of the aid industry. Mr. Sadler delivered a heartfelt mea culpa. In quick fashion we started trying to come up with ideas on how to turn this into a successful project. (Big thanks to Katrin Verclas at MobileActive for organizing the round table.)

For the first time in the history of development, social media, philanthropy, development, accountability, logistics, common sense, top-down solutions, and recipient voices all collided in spectacular fashion. Right out in the open. A project was launched, summarily bashed, killed and redirected in the span of 70 hours of it going public. The conversation that started with a single tweet, turned into an avalanche of blogs ripe with disdain from the aid corner for yet another ill-concieved top-down, western-driven project. The conversation migrated from 140 characters of quibbles into full analytical blog posts, rants, and well-reasoned open letters for Mr. Sadler to reconsider the ramifications of his campaign.

The repercussions of this for the aid industry are yet to be determined, but I can share with you what it means for me as an African. For the first time, the voices of individual Africans were heard.

My own blog response which went up the day after my first tweet was rife with anger and disappointment. For too long we as Africans have stood by and let the world determine how we develop, how we speak, how we interact and how we govern. For too long we’ve been sidelined while our futures were determined in boardrooms in New York, Washington, D.C., and London. For far too long we’ve been told what the solutions are to our problems should be. We have even been told that we had problems that we didn’t even consider to be problems. Collectively, the continent has sunk into recipient mode. Our governments have been trained to rule in pursuit of the proverbial carrot dangled in the form of aid. NGOs, aid organizations, charities by the bushels have made careers out of working in the aid industry on the continent. Getting a job for the World Bank is a ticket to a six-figure salary and a driver in Nairobi, Kenya. Never mind that 50 kenyans could be on salary for what the individual in that position makes in a year. 40 years on since the end of colonial rule and $700 billion later, we still can’t point to a single country on the continent that operates without the need for aid.

Is there a genuine need for aid and charitable works? Yes, there is. But there is equally, if not more room for common sense. There is much more room for dialog with Africans like Marieme Jamme, G. Kofi Annan, and a host of others. There is room for complete projects vetting and determining the nuanced difference between dire need and perceived need. Jason Sadler’s project assumed Africa had a dire need for t-shirts but ignored our fledgling textile industries, the crushing weight of the second-hand clothing industries on the continent, and altogether dismissed our dignity as recipients of someone else’s crap. Dumping a million free shirts on these fragile and often informal sectors was a recipe for disaster, not to mention the needless expense.

So what does this really mean for us as an ever-increasing population empowered by the social media stage? It means we have the responsibility to start speaking up for our continent. We have right to say enough is enough with the hand outs, enough with the aid mentality, enough with the top-down solutions, and enough with being ignored on the global stage. Our voices count, and it would be good to partner with us—to have a conversation with us first—before any projects are started.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if every aid project started with a genuine conversation? It would be amazing how effective aid could be just by listening and paying attention to the nuances inherent in every project. I applaud Mr. Sadler’s change of heart and willingness to listen to criticism that ranged from snarky to informed to blind rage. It is my sincere hope that this triggers a paradigm shift in the aid, philanthropic, and charitable industries. It is also my sincere hope that African voices are taken into consideration. In this connected world we live in, we are just a stone’s throw away.

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