Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Could we create an Ice Bucket Challenge for global development? Should we?

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What are international aid organizations learning from viral campaigns?

I wish there was an Ice Bucket Challenge for humanitarian disasters that would raise awareness about what aid workers do, and the risks they face.”

~Shannon Scribner, head of Oxfam America’s Humanitarian Policy team in Washington on World Humanitarian Day

One well-crafted message can raise awareness of a problem and increase donations to a cause at the blink of an eye. In the case of ALS Association it has been to the tune of almost US$80 million in a little over a month, over 30 times more than the funds they raised during the same time last year, and 1.7 million new donors.

Humanitarian and development organizations and non-profits around the world are now asking – how can we get in on some of that #IceBucket success?! People on the front lines and organizations’ communications staff have wondered this a few times in recent years:


In 2012, Invisible Children’s Kony campaign demonstrated that general audiences still respond in overwhelming numbers to messaging that offers a clear problem and solution upon which they can act quickly. However many Ugandans whose lives were affected by Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army were puzzled, offended, and outraged at Kony2012’s depiction of the conflict, and particularly their call to ‘make Joseph Kony famous.’ As an aid worker and blogger who wrote early on the Kony2012 video, I was overwhelmed with people hungry for dignity and for meaning, and who, like me, were concerned with the lack of apparent “grounding” of the campaign.

It was hard not to take some learning from this online and person-to-person phenomenon that was Kony2012. As described by communications professional Riona McCormack on commitnit.com: 1) emotion sells, 2) urgency equals action, 3) people were motivated to act, including purchasing an “action” kit or the cool merchandise Invisible Children sells.

Despite the success of the simple, immediate, feel-good activism that the campaign offered two years ago (their video on YouTube today has over 99 million clicks), Invisible Children’s revenue and assets have been dropping since 2012. In the minds of many, conflict, justice, and reconciliation in eastern and central Africa – and development for that matter – seemed too delicate of a concept to be summed up in a slogan or some cool graphic images.


In May this year, international media attention and over 4 million tweets focused on the story of 276 school girls who were abducted in Chibok, Nigeria by militant group Boko Haram. The #BringBackOurGirls hashtag that was started in earnest by Abuja attorney Ibrahim Musa Abdullahi was co-opted by a documentary filmmaker in Los Angeles, whose colleague stated that the Nigerian kidnappings were “an important moment for us to promote our film,” prompting the hashtag and an incorrectly-associated photo of a girl in Guinea-Bissau to go viral with the help of notable celebrities and figureheads including FLOTUS.

The emotive and urgent call to action was a slacktivist’s dream, but the international awareness and outcry have not yet resulted in the return of the abducted girls to their families.

The key question from #BringBackOurGirls was this: If people feel that they have helped by “spreading the word,” and nothing changes, does this eventually result in disinterest among previously un-engaged people when the next cause fad comes around?


Only a few months later, we have a Hollywood storyline and we’re all the wet heroes. If you haven’t done it yet, you’ve seen your cousin or former high school teacher do it on Facebook. George W. Bush has done it. Oprah and LeBron James have done it. Mark Zuckerberg challenged Bill Gates to do it. Some clumsy people should not have done it. Justin Beiber didn’t do it right. Stephen King did it and Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters did a Carrie version of it. Matt Damon did it with toilet water. Actor Orlando Jones has adapted a “Bullet Bucket Challenge” in solidarity with the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Bucket of rice? Rubble?

Another 26-year-old man made a very truthful video about his Lou Gehrig’s diagnosis and taking the challenge, which was initiated by a 27-year-old former college baseball player, Pete Frates, who is himself living with ALS. Thus few are questioning the need for compassion and engagement in issues of injustice and suffering at home and around the world.

For all of its supposed shallowness and anticipated fleeting popularity, this visible and achievable (and fun!) action has resulted in real dollars for the disease. But some academics question the effectiveness of celebrities’ promotion of charities and other critics cite “funding cannibalism” or “moral licensing.” In other words, if the amount people are willing to donate in finite, participation in the ice bucket challenge for ALS may mean that they will be less likely to donate elsewhere, resulting in a disproportionate loss for other deserving charities.

 The implications of “going viral” for #globaldev

I hear often among my nonprofit friends and colleagues the impassioned rants about what really “goes on in the world” and “how real change occurs” and how clicktivist campaigns arise without the necessary nuance, context, or self-awareness. Lina Srivastava, a social change narratives strategist, argues that many of the issues we work on in the development sector are “unhashtagable.”

While it’s hard to tackle such complex issues such as poverty on social media, we have also seen that campaigns like #YesAllWomen and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown can touch off powerful and memorable public dialogues when they touch some genuine concern or frustration within people. In my work I see that more than ever before, globally-engaged citizens in rich nations are looking for effective ways to affect change in the developing world. Can the international development sector’s communications transform the desire to be of service into well-thought out actions that sustainably challenge the global injustice of poverty?

In this age of opportunities created by digital communications, it seems all of us do-gooders have more lessons to learn.