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Effective aid

Last week, Advertising Age, a trade publication for the advertising industry, ran a story about the performance of the Red campaign, through which famous brands offer red-colored versions of their products and services, and donate a portion of the revenues to charity. So far, the project has raised US$18 million, much less than expected, and the Ad Age story suggests that a backlash may be brewing.

That’s too bad, because the Red campaign seems like a well-intentioned effort to help the less fortunate.

What I found particularly interesting was a quote from one of the executives behind a parody site, buylesscrap.org, which encourages people to donate directly to the charities supported by the Red campaign:

“The Red campaign proposes consumption as the cure to the world’s evils,” said Ben Davis, creative director at Word Pictures Ideas, co-creator of the site. “Can’t we just focus on the real solution — giving money?” [emphasis added]

For some undertakings — Alzheimers research, for example — donating money makes sense. But for others, like improving human rights or eradicating poverty, cash is only part of the solution. Achieving these goals often means reforming incompetent governments, reducing corruption, introducing property rights and other changes that money simply cannot buy.

Throwing money at a situation makes donors feel good. It can also perpetuate the problem, especially when it underwrites kleptocratic regimes and encourages a culture of dependence.

This is a conclusion that the Canadian government reached after donating over C$12 billion to sub-Saharan Africa since 1968.

“Without good governance, it is difficult to envision progress in other areas or the effective use of international assistance.”

It probably doesn’t help that only 19% of the Canadian government officials involved are actually in Africa.

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