Thursday, March 7, 2013

Beware of do-gooders bearing gifts

I NEARLY FELL for it. Back in 2009, a group of Harvard undergrads devised a brilliant product: a soccer ball that creates and stores electricity during game play. In 30 minutes of play, the "Soccket" can power an LED lamp for 3 hours. Presto! A clean, cheap, Eco-friendly energy source for the downtrodden in developing nations. Socckets are now being marketed by Uncharted Play, a for-profit "social enterprise" that aims to "create fun products and services that address real world issues and bring joy to the masses." So what's not to like? Nothing, except the old adage: Beware of do-gooders bearing gifts to brown people. There is no shortage of well-meaning (mostly white) people offering donor-driven, top-down, photogenic solutions to Third World problems. The problem, as critics Aaron Ausland and Kelsey Timmerman point out here and here, is that virtually all of these "solutions" fail the Fish Test. To wit: In impoverished regions, is it better to give a man a fish or teach a man to fish? The answer is obvious -- except, evidently, to those pushing their feel-good but futile products. The Soccket is a cool invention that I hope will find utility somewhere. But it's still a fish. And, as Ausland argues, it represents everything that's wrong with international development today. At bottom, the problem isn't electricity, it's poverty.

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