Beyond elitism: What Jason Sadler and 1 Million Shirts taught me by TMS Ruge | August 3, 2010 | Filed in : Headline,International Development | 11 comments Jason Sadler shuttered 1 Million Shirts campaign to focus on iwearyoursh

Beyond elitism: What Jason Sadler and 1 Million Shirts taught me

by TMS Ruge | August 3, 2010 | Filed in : Headline,International Development | 11 comments

Jason Sadler shuttered 1 Million Shirts campaign to focus on

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,, 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.


ritzkiss August 11, 2010 at 12:18 pm

I think there are many things to take from this whole situation, which I have followed from the beginning but rarely commented on. I think in the beginning Jason rankled a lot of people with his attitude about the undertaking, especially in his videos. As a listened in on the conference call, that defensive arrogance was still there as well as the constant justification – I just want to help, is that so wrong. I think though, that in the end, with him sitting in with you and with his ultimate decision to step out of 1MS, that he showed a willingness to learn and a willingness to admit he bit off more than he realized. This is a step for him.

As for the aid community, which I admit as a current academic I only watch from afar, I think you hit some key issues. Too often there is a sense of entitlement that accompanies a degree or experience, as if there should be automatic respect accorded. Not only this, but it is still to some extent a bit of an 'old boys' group (excuse the sexism). If such ideals as community participation, participatory action, etc… are to be more than by-words needed to gain funding, than some of this sense of entitlement of respect needs to be checked – there needs to be the willingness to include more voices, dissenting voices, annoying voices, etc… There are still things to be learned from such people, and I am glad to see you post on this and be willing to see what you learned from the experience, which was undoubtedly a challenging/frustrating one for you at times.

This sense of entitlement I think is also rooted to some extent in dominant, Eurocentric privileging of logic/Western science/formal education. Jason wasn't able to provide adequate credentials to be included in the discussion, but can the average African who should be involved in the decision making processes do the same? Not many of the ones I've worked with have degrees in development, but still their insights and knowledge is invaluable. Too often white, Western trained aid workers dominate the mic, leaving no room for other voices to share – something that should be questioned.

Anyways, this is a bit of a ramble but just some thoughts on it all.

mediamaker August 5, 2010 at 11:32 pm

Thanks for this post. I applaud many of the various social entrepreneurial projects or development projects taking place all over the world, but part of what you bring out in your writing is that the stories still start with the "entrepreneur" or "do-gooder," and really only tell the stories of their triumphs or exploits. I think this is a trickle-down model of publicity which can be as damaging as any other trickle-down model of anything. As long as the spotlight of publicity is largely focused on those who are starting the initiatives instead of those the initiatives are intended to "serve," (many of whom remain nameless and unknown– audiences aren't meant to see them as whole, multifaceted, actual people, just to see that they've been helped) then there will be an imbalance that perpetuates, on a symbolic level, the economic disparities and inequalities that exist in the world. At some point the conversation has to be as much about, if not more so, the "end user," so to speak, of all this development-focused energy– a discourse on their terms. Until that happens, the whole project is going to be plagued by an elitist mentality that won't do anything on a deep level to dismantle the structural differences that have historically been so damaging. For every article about the Gates Foundation and their work, I would love to see 10 articles about Kenyan people, organizations, and what they know and have learned. Until that happens, I think it's just more of the same inequality, dressed up in pleasing, PR-friendly, "do-good" clothing. So keep grabbing the mic!! (Also, in agreeing with Chika's comment above, I'd like to add that technological know-how is useless at best and destructive at worst without many, many other forms of know-how, which people all over the world have in abundance. Knowledge and technique should not be seen as the exclusive domain of one particular group of people.)

GreyZone August 5, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Great post! The tone of this post is so much more sophisticated than the early pride in snark.

In an afternoon where some assistance efforts of mine have borne some fruit, this is another piece to brighten my afternoon. Thanks for staying with the process, through its ups and downs.

TMS Ruge March 11, 2012 at 10:16 am

I am trying so hard to grow out of the snark and engage on an intellectual level. This has been a learning process. Thank you so much for your feedback!

chiefofawesome August 4, 2010 at 3:06 am

Wow. This is AWESOME!

Michael Kirkpatrick August 3, 2010 at 9:13 pm

The author is a Ugandan who has witnessed the destructive nature of such initiatives with his own eyes. It takes more than good intentions to be effective and sustainable. Many people don't understand that mass donations can ruin the loca…l economy. It creates a welfare system of dependence.

This is a great documenary that explains the second-hand clothing industry and its advese impact in Africa.

"T-Shirt Travels" | Independent Lens

@BSKyambadde August 3, 2010 at 4:45 pm

"And so it ends. Just like that" that is quite sad! Jason ought to be congratulated for trying to make a difference within the limitations of his knowledge, experiences and circumstances. Hopefully the "professionals" and others learn from Jason's initial stumbles in so-called "smart-aid" solutions. "Do gooders" have the passion (and means) to be part of the solutions for a better and fairer world; they should be helped to understand and partner with those in need. There is a risk of discouraging and isolating potential partners. Thank you for post, and hopefully PD becomes one of those avenues to help "do gooders" fine tune their passion. Could this be an opportunity for a platform to match community sourced small scale needs (apt skills/biz dev't) and volunteers/mentors?

Jane Reitsma August 3, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Great post! In regards to your comment on joining 1MS- I definitely think any charity needs to have at least one community member on its board. Usually I am referring to a much smaller community than all of Africa of course!

There has been some interesting chatter on twitter lately about being snarky. I think people are starting to recognize that their twitter world is not private and there needs to be something more constructive than just complaining about various projects.

What makes any of us qualified to do this work? We do it with ears and eyes open. We learn and grow and take constructive criticism to heart.

chika August 3, 2010 at 3:58 pm

For me it is the fact that parading around as a benevolent do-gooder from the West foisting some poorly thought through project on the poor childlike Africans, who of course don’t know any better, is becoming extremely trendy nowadays and that is what rankles. Frankly I don’t see any of these bleeding hearts rushing off to India or China to do the same over there and that is what I find very irritating (maybe because if they did go to India or China, they’d be given extremely short shrift and told where to go in no uncertain terms!). Yes I do understand that Africa does not possess the technological know-how to tackle the myriad of challenges that currently beset our continent but I would rather that technology transfer takes place from developed economies to developing nations and then, in this case, Africans can take that knowledge and build locally grown solutions to their problems. Africans are innovative, stoic, resourceful and know how to make something from nothing. The image of Africans as helpless and forever requiring NGO intervention is not an image I, as an African woman, am familiar with. We should begin dictating the discourse on our continent and not have it hijacked, yet again, by well meaning foreigners. I’m very glad that other Africans have begun to understand this and are now beginning to publicly articulate this fact.(re. Dambisa Moyo)

Meanwhile your tweets and website are required reading for anyone interested in the rise of the new globally minded African. Keep up the good work!

@intldogooder August 3, 2010 at 3:53 pm

As the so-called "elitism" of international development practitioners is called into question by amateurs and entrepreneurs coming onto the scene, it highlights what I believe to be the true “glass ceiling” within the development industry.

It’s time for those of us within the system to challenge and abandon the vestiges of “expertise infusion” leftover from modernist and racist perspectives of "development." Our most pressing challenge is ensure a more inclusive development discourse that genuinely listens to those the system is claiming to serve.

I’ve had the privilege of working with over 300 grassroots organizations in southern and east Africa during my career. Most were linked to local churches, schools, or clinics or were independent groups that assist children by extending support and services into areas that are not reached by government or international agencies. The extent of their work is much too often under-recognized and always under-resourced. A mapping exercise sponsored by UNICEF identified over 1,800 community-based organizations focused on orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi alone (Network of Organizations working with Vulnerable and Orphaned Children in Malawi, 2005).

There are certainly issues in working with local groups that will challenge the sector. But when will the policy wonks, so-called “experts” and donors finally come to appreciate community-based organizations’ strengths, such as their resourcefulness, flexibility and community responsiveness that IS worth cultivating and learning about? And that is inherently sustainable? Could it be that maybe the new "do-gooders" we reproach are on to something that those in the system are grossly missing?

It’s time for a dose of humility in the sector to acknowledge the vision, structure, and impact that grassroots activists and community leaders in Africa do have. Clearly these folks have knowledge and expertise could be invaluable to us all in navigating the paradox of development. Whether we are sitting in a multilateral donor's office in Nairobi, or having wanderlust dreams while at our unfulfilling job in Michigan, let's all commit ourselves to supporting communities in Africa to mobilize themselves, to discover their resourcefulness and courage, and to carry their voices and visions to challenge our shared global inequity.

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