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CHAPTER EIGHT Marketing Development 257 A cousin of mine in California refuses to go to funerals because they are “too depressing.” She does not deny death; she knows that the people whose funerals she avoids are dead. She simply prefers not to walk up to reality in all its full-frontal three-dimensionality when she does not have to do so. Like my cousin, the general public’s avoidance of a negative message about poverty has become more urgent. Poverty is depressing and threatening . Polls show that Americans want little to do with poverty in the third world. Perhaps this is because of our prosperity or how tenuous we feel about its continuing. But it may also be because people can take only so much cognitive “noise” before they turn it off. Poverty is less and less a phenomenon with quick or easy answers, and the more we recognize that, the more we want to hear the opposite message. And when that message does not work, the public’s next best preference is to look away. But whatever the reasons, it seems that at the beginning of the twenty-first century the window of opportunity to explain development fully, even to the few members of the public who are potentially willing supporters of international development programs, is smaller than ever. This poses a double dilemma for the hundreds of private organizations in development that try each year to raise money directly from the public. Obviously, they have to devote more energy to inventing newer and slicker ways to “sell” poverty. But a deeper consequence is that the low tolerance for the truth is itself a threat to effective development, for in trying to sell it without the full truth, many organizations undermine what they should be trying to do. The Power of Positive Thinking Because of the obvious set of emotions surrounding the topic of poor children , a good entryway to the dilemma many organizations face is to look at the phenomenon of child sponsorship. And while child sponsorship is a specialized kind of approach in development, the distortions and twists that go into such fund-raising are not so different in kind from those which other types of organizations use. Most child sponsorship organizations have Web sites and run television advertising campaigns. Here is an example of a TV campaign that appeared in the mid-1990s.1 Scene 1: A bearded white man is walking through a village somewhere in Africa. He talks about the children—about their hunger, their impoverished condition —notes that thirty-five thousand of them die every day, and then tells us that we have seen the pictures before, many times (he does not show us these, however ). “But what do you do,” he asks, “if little Senente arrives on your doorstep and sits down right next to you?” Scene 2: The picture of a pretty, smiling little girl comes on. Her name is Senente. She is clearly poor, but she is not miserable (this is the “after” shot). “Well,” says our host, answering his question on our behalf, “you feed her, you give her clean clothes, and you put your arms around her.” He does not put his arm around her, perhaps because it would be perceived as patronizing (or, these days, as child abuse). Scene 3: Then he explains that [name of the organization] is dedicated to “eliminating hunger and disease from the reasons children die.” “That,” he adds dramatically (and defiantly), “is a doable task. Your $21.00 a month provides one child with good food, life-saving medicine, and the education to extend his good fortune into the next generation.” It is hard to appreciate how “loaded” such texts as this are, since we see them, inevitably, within the framework of all present-day advertising and communication. But they rest on top of an archaeological pile of buried images of poor people, past miseries (flood, famine, disaster, war), and, above all, recurrent disappointments (if we’re over forty-five we remember being told before that we can make a difference in solving problems, just as we know that these problems persist and even worsen). In the 1980s, private development agencies in America began using the word “donor fatigue” for this cumulative effect, which is what these appeals are implicitly trying to combat. When CARE, one of the first large private organizations to solicit money from the public, began doing so in the post–World War II era, its ads simply...


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