Beyond elitism: What Jason Sadler and 1 Million Shirts taught me
And so it ends. Just like that.
A few months a go, a social media phenomenon took hold on the web in the form of international development practitioners and defenders waylaying yet another do-gooder attempting to do right by his conscious. Jason Sadler, successful entrepreneur and founder of innovative upstart website, iwearyourshirt.com, waded into murky development waters by attempting to send 1 Million Shirts (1MS) to Africa. We can safely assume that Jason had no idea what kind of global reception his initiative would receive. Within 72 hours, a tinder box of echo-chamber tweets fueled blogs and blog comments from all corners of international development. Yours truly was especially rattled at yet another attempt to dump Western left-overs on my beloved continent. There was nothing sugary nice in my response.
In the months since the roundtable discussion hosted by Katrin Verclas at Mobile Active, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with Mr. Sadler in an advisory role to try and redirect 1MS. Along with @mjamme, we held weekly conference calls in an attempt to strategize and brain storm some ideas in which Jason could redirect 1MS. We didn’t accept to be on the board because we have the time and nothing better to do. We did it because we believed in the power of an individual determined to make a difference in the world.
Personally, I did it because of my belief that it is important to foster partnerships. It is important as an African to have a voice in how my continent’s current and future development takes shape. It is important for me to be vociferous in rejecting ill-concieved packaged, top-down solutions meant as panaceas for our complex developmental challenges. It is important for me to do that because I now have a voice. As Africa’s renaissance ignites, it is imperative that we also take the microphone and speak for our selves, but not only to rebuke, but also to teach, partner and guide. I took the time from a hectic travel schedule to have audience with Jason every week. Wherever there was a wifi signal that could support Skype, I joined Jason, Stephen, and Mariame for our weekly one-hour conversation. The kerfuffle over the child-trafficking post was news to us as it was posted without our involvement and this was dealt with internally afterwards.
Jason’s decision to shutter 1MS came down to simply a personal decision. Jason’s priority was and remains his business. 1MS was never going to be something he took on full time. What he found out was that it required his full-time attention. I can safely say that Jason learned a lot during our meetings, which perhaps played a role in the decision. To responsibly do what he wanted to do required more time than he could afford to pull away from his successful business.
I’ve been masticating on the lessons gleaned from this whole saga and some it has forced me to look internally as well as the whole development/aid industrial complex as a whole. My only qualification in this field is that I have 30+ years being an African, 20 of those as a member of the Diaspora, if that even counts. I have a degree in Communications Design and pay the bills as a designer and photographer. Does that really qualify me to speak on behalf of one billion people? Does it qualify me to berate a genuinely well-meaning individual when within the African Diaspora community there are millions that do nothing at all? Does being an African in a field so dominated by degreed Western academics make me an unqualified poser? Do I side with with the corp of professional do-gooders or the recipients lulled into a tendered existence of expecting hand outs? Or am I just a photographer who’s lost focus on the purpose of my life because I am too drunk in idealism?
Whatever the verdict might be for me, a few things have risen out of this saga. Of importance is that for once, a meaningful global conversation was had on the nuances within the humanitarian aid complex. The industry wasted no time defending its turf. To me this signaled an entrenchment, both in the culture of thought and entitlement. Don’t get me wrong, a bad idea is a bad idea. No two ways about it. But I look at it beyond that. The fact that no one besides Mariame and myself ended up on the board to assist Jason, to me, is an indictment of the whole industry. We were all happy to heckle from the sidelines at the newest do-gooder out of his mind, but very few of us stepped beyond Jason’s arrogance to try to channel his energy in the right direction. In the 3 months I was on the board, no one reached out to leverage Jason’s marketing prowess or partner with his proven entrepreneurial clout.
This all begs a few more questions. Who is entitled to do good? What qualifications does one need to pass as a humanitarian/aid worker when passion is no longer a qualifying passport? Let’s remember Bill Gates is an entrepreneur turned do-gooder. Does his money magically seal him from criticism or is the industry too afraid to criticize a cash cow. He had no qualifications in global health before funding an initiative to synthesize artemisin and importing it into Kenya, thereby imploding Kenya’s natural artemisin industry without even a slap on the wrist. But I bet you he has learned a thing or two since then. So why can’t Jason be given the same due pass for his passion?
Too many of us were quick with the “good riddance” tweets at the news of the shuttering of 1MS. How many of us have actually thought about the fact that along with it, we dismiss the possibility, the idea of another Jason coming from the outskirts of the aid complex to truly change the world? It is absolutely possible for one person—wholly unqualified—to upend 60 years of aid industry inclusiveness with a new paradigm. But did we leave a sliver of room for such a person to even dare raise their head? Is there room for a lone ranger or are we too far gone in our self-righteousness to ever entertain that thought.
In our elitism, we have forgotten that we are humanitarians at the core. Paid professionals or not, we got into this business because the status quo in the world wasn’t good enough. Whatever our enclave of practice might be, lets not forget that at the heart of what we do, is a human doing. So let’s recognize the mistakes made, cross the divide and shake the hand of the next do-gooder with one hand and guide them with the other. Frankly, we need their help.
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