Building Markets

Back to all blogs
13

Bringing some sex appeal to the aid industry

A few years ago (actually, over a decade ago), I was in the old and infamous Dili Club on the beach in Timor, talking to a Californian woman working at the UN mission.  She was telling me about her screen play.  The story was about a heroic young doctor who finds love and conquers inner demons while saving starving children and dodging bullets in Africa.  When she finished her elevator pitch, I rolled my eyes, turned my back, and ordered another beer.

The old Dili Club: Rick's Bar meets Star Wars Cantina

You’d have done the same thing, right? Because, hey, we’re the real deal.  Real aid workers don’t believe in happy endings with perfect windswept hair and orchestral soundtracks. No, we turn our nose up at this “Hollywood bullshit” and sneer when George Clooney rocks up with his Raybans, some sat photos, and the Vanity Fair photographer.  The mere presence of Sean Penn in Haiti is enough to get us in a snit (although, you’d think in Haiti we’d have more pressing things to worry about.)  We’ve even played to the cheap seats here on the PDT blog by providing a satirical flow chart for celebrities who “want to help”

Celebrity? Want to save the world? Click here.

So, like you I’m sure, when I saw the promo for Off the Map, I rolled my eyes, cleared my throat, and began to rant about this “Hollywood nonsense which glamorizes and trivializes a serious and nasty world blah blah blah.” In my morning paper, the synopsis made it sound even worse:

“Six doctors will go to the ends of the earth to remember the reasons why they wanted to become doctors in the first place”

or

“Lily is half Emergency Medicine Resident and half Girl Scout, which is the perfect combination for La Clinica Cruz del Sur. Whether she’s climbing on ziplines or catching coconuts, Lily will do whatever it takes to save her patients, even if it means risking her own life.”

YouTube Preview Image

(By the way, ziplines? Has anyone ever seen a zipline used in an aid mission? Anywhere?)

But on the walk to work, I began to think about it, and I changed my mind.  I may never watch this show, but I’m glad it exists.  Here’s why:

The biggest problem facing aid and peacekeeping? Human resources.  Way too few genuinely effective and efficient people work in the industry.  As anyone who has needed to staff up in an hurry knows, finding the right person at the right time is very very hard.  This is a supply problem. Smart people are not joining this labor market in the same numbers that they are Wall Street or Main Street.  If shows like this can add some glamour to the industry, and as a result more people consider it as a career option, then this is a good thing.  In fact, it’s a great thing.  And I really am not that worried about motivations.  If a brilliant young engineer joins the UNDP because he mistakenly thinks there’ll be ziplines and babes, fine. What matters is that he’s joining the labor pool and bringing his badly needed skills to the field.

Add sex appeal, change the supply and demand. Easy.

The second reason why this show is good news for the aid industry? Donor attention.  Individuals tend to be very generous while Anderson Cooper is reporting from the tarmac of the latest disaster zone.  But, giving quickly drops off as the story moves off the front pages.  If they are gently reminded that the world is a mess, that there are good doctors out there trying to change that, then it’s possible they’ll reach into there pockets a little more frequently.

The lesson: Giving and TV coverage are linked

And, if the show runners at ABC want to really do some good, they should make a plug for MSF or another MercyCorps at the top and bottom of each show with an SMS number to make instant donations.  That would be good karma for those Hollywood bastards, no?

And now, a word from our sponsors?

There you go. My kinder, gentler strawman: Off the Map is good for the aid industry. Tear away.

Tags , , , , , , , , ,

13 Comments

  1. Tom Murphy says:

    I am biting my tongue and holding judgement until I watch it. I have decided to try to watch at least the first two episodes before really jumping in. As you point out, the show could bring some talent to the field. The question will be at what cost? I am glad you offered a different view to discussions about the show. I have a feeling I might not agree with you in the end, but it is causing me to think twice.

  2. Just the fact that you don’t climb zip-lines…

  3. Scott– love this article, even though I don’t exactly. I’m not as critical of celebrity activism as most people in the field (maybe because I’m not really in aid/dev, but work with media and art) and I don’t have a knee-jerk reaction against popular, cultural or fictional depictions– or against celebrities who work to put a spotlight on issues and deploy resources (even if they’re wearing RayBans as they’re doing it.) So yes: Sex appeal is a great idea to get people to notice the industry in a new way– but sexy in the way sex is shown in European art films– realistically– not the kind you see on American television. Like Tom, I should probably give Off the Map a chance before judging it, but from what I know about Shonda Rhimes brand, we’re not getting sexy or realistic drama, we’re getting emotive melodrama about self-involved characters. I think you’ll get from Off the Map for aid what you get from Grey’s Anatomy for the medical field– and I’d argue that Sanjay Gupta has done more for the profile of the medical profession than Patrick Dempsey has. We need more people in the field, yes– but those who *know what they’re doing*. We wouldn’t want a bunch of couch potatoes “finding themselves” through Off the Map and running off to Brazil or Bolivia, would we?

  4. That should have been “Scott– love this article, even though I don’t exactly agree… ” Sorry for that.

  5. ann turner says:

    thanks for the photo of the old Dili Club. Ah, the nostalgia!

  6. Paul Currion says:

    1. “The biggest problem facing aid and peacekeeping? Human resources. Way too few genuinely effective and efficient people work in the industry.” It is highly unlikely that the sort of person that gets motivated by kitsch melodrama is going to be effective, efficient or even particularly nice to be around.

    2. “giving quickly drops off as the story moves off the front pages. If they are gently reminded that the world is a mess, that there are good doctors out there trying to change that, then it’s possible they’ll reach into there pockets a little more frequently.” They’re already aware that the world is a mess; the reason why they give money is so that you’ll stop reminding them.

    3. Because the one thing we can never get enough of is Whites in Shining Armour. The real reason why there’s a human resources problem in aid and peacekeeping is because we don’t trust, value or promote national staff quickly enough or far enough to fill the gaps that we know exist.

  7. Scott Gilmore says:

    Lina: You’re right. Need more Sanjay Gupta, less Dr. McDreamy.

    Paul: I think your point #1 is the most valid criticism of my argument. Even as I wrote it I thought “How likely is someone to stay in the aid industry if they entered looking for zip lines?” On your point #3, I agree and PDT agrees entirely and passionately. We’ve been arguing for years (with some modest successes) that the international community needs to use more local staff (without badly distorting the local labour markets mind you). But even in the most optimistic scenarios, we are always going to need ex pats (white or not) for reasons of neutrality, experience, etc. So while we do need fewer internationals and more nationals, we also need better internationals (“Stat!” as Dr. McDreamy would say.)

  8. Paul Currion says:

    “But even in the most optimistic scenarios, we are always going to need ex pats (white or not) for reasons of neutrality, experience, etc. So while we do need fewer internationals and more nationals, we also need better internationals.”

    I’m not convinced. Internationals aren’t neutral except in their own minds, and experience is something that can be built up by anybody, if they’re given the chance.

    What we need more of is more bilateral and regional exchange of local staff so that they can build up experience, exchange lessons learned and create their own networks.

    This is an extremely simple thing to do, which is why we don’t do it. Instead we pour thousands of dollars into improving demonstrably non-functional systems, and call it a) reform or b) innovation.

    p.s. If you want to borrow my zip line, I’m not using it at the moment.

  9. This may not be the forum for this, but may I take a moment to advocate we stop using the term “Whites in Shining Armor”? I understand the anger behind what is primarily Western aid/dev interventions, but the term is derogatory. We wouldn’t talk about “Blacks or Brown People in Shining Armor,” would we? Why single out “do-gooders” for their skin color as opposed to their lack of experience, sensitivity, knowledge or motivation? (And, anyway, there are plenty of brown and black people who would qualify as clueless do-gooders– if you’re going to call them out, get their ethnicity right, at least.)

    I’d agree what’s needed is better study or apprenticeship on the international and national sides about systems transformation and context-appropriate projects– and a better set of tools to create partnerships and networks, between int’l and nat’l, and among nat’l/ local. I don’t think Shonda Rhimes is going to get you people who think systemic change is sexy, Scott. But you never know, do you?

    (And I do love Paul’s “Instead we pour thousands of dollars into improving demonstrably non-functional systems, and call it a) reform or b) innovation.” It was quite a hit on Twitter, as well, deservedly so.)

  10. anon says:

    OMG that looks awful; however, sex (even love) and zip lines do feature in aid work – at least where I’ve been (I think there’s a strong correlation with risk):

    1999 Bujumbura – there was a zip line

    unfortunately, and the reason this is anonymous, is that it was to transport drunk expat aid workers from the second floor of the anon.-agency house with a great splash into the swimming pool

    sober engineers would not have been stupid enough to use polypro rope… almost killed someone – that would have been a headline – aid worker killed in drunken zipline swimming pool accident

    there were also seven aid worker marriages that resulted from that single year in Burundi

  11. Brigid says:

    I think we underestimate TV audiences. They know hospitals are not at all like the set of Grey’s Anatomy, crime scene analysis in real life is not CSI, and life in general is not so dramatic or easily resolved in a 50-minute episode. It’s fair to keep an eye out for anything blatantly offensive, but I wouldn’t waste too much energy on it. Real life doctors and lawyers certainly don’t.

  12. Paul Currion says:

    “I understand the anger behind what is primarily Western aid/dev interventions, but the term is derogatory.”

    It’s intentionally derogatory, but the vitriol isn’t aimed at the people so much as it is at the narrative. It’s not you or I who’s presenting white people as saviours, it’s the media – in this case, ABC. I’ll stop using the phrase the moment the media starts focusing mainly on the 99% of UN and NGO employees that aren’t white – and in particular the national staff that do most of the heavy lifting.

  13. I like this post….

    […] Although this blog post is not the most recent, I enjoyed it and created a link to it at my blog. Have you considered updating it with a fresh video. […]…


Rss Feed Tweeter button Facebook button Youtube button