"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


snark isn't a bad thing

From Alanna Shaikh's wonderful UN Dispatch post on tropes used against aid critics:
Complaints about tone and attitude. “You are mean. You are shrill. Your tone is too aggressive. Don’t be so snarky. You’re not talking in a way that helps people listen. You should be nice to people who want to help and criticism isn’t nice!”

If you actually want to help people, you need to put your ego aside. Listening to criticism that’s phrased in a mean way is probably the least ego-wounding thing that is going to happen. You will go on to encounter communities who don't want to partner with you, staff members who think you’re an idiot, and government officials who think they can lie to you and get away with it. You need a thick skin to work in international aid. If you can’t handle some snark, you probably can’t handle all the misery your project will put you through as it gets going.
In other words, man up.

I think snark has its place in aid debates. Sometimes using humor is the only way to draw serious attention to a problem. Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying at how bad an aid idea is, how poorly thought-out a government decision was, or how horrible a situation innocent people have to endure can become.

Snark has its place. There are other times, though, when it really does detract from constructive debate. I'm inclined to think that the debate over 1 Million Shirts has struck a good balance between the two. How about you? Is a little snark useful? Would we be better off just playing nice?


Blogger Rachel said...

I'm not really sure (I can't access the video response) but I think what happens in cases like 1 Million Shirts is that the person who designs a project like that is so absolutely clueless that s/he doesn’t expect anything but praise. Like, s/he is really so unaware of the nuances and complexities of aid work, that when s/he gets a negative response, it seems to come SO out of left field that s/he was not at all braced for it and it HURTS.

And I’m sorry for the 1 Million Shirts dude, for that. I truly am. I would feel just humiliated if it were me, and so sad.

That said, in some ways I also think his hurt feelings are a necessary casualty in the battle to educate Joe & Jane Public on the fact that aid work is NUANCED and COMPLEX and I think that snarky, cutting, funny blog posts get read and disseminated and drive points home quicker, sharper, than hand holding and head patting would.

I suspect that the next person to consider shipping one million belts to starving orphans in South East Asian (“because we ALL deserve pants that stay up on their own”) is going to be much more likely to think twice about it, now, and get more information and put more rational thought into her/his emotionally-driven ideas.

Personally, in one case where I saw Bad Aid beginning, I spoke up softly, to spare feelings and friendships. I should have started yelling and been snarky and an asshole if need be, to make my point. It was a mistake.

Thursday, April 29, 2010 3:50:00 AM

Anonymous Jenny Stefanotti said...

I can understand the frustration that so many development experts feel when another ostensibly well intentioned but visibly misinformed project comes along. But in general, I don't think taking criticism to the point of personal insult particularly productive - in fact this was my very first reaction to Project Diaspora's post yesterday.

I'd like to believe that humility and respect for each other should be a central tenet for engagement in development. The appropriate reaction then would be to strip the idea / individual down to what is valuable, and with constructive criticism provide the needed understanding to redirect efforts. Coming out of the gate and calling someone a moron is only going to make them defensive and less likely to listen. Maybe I'm just too nice because I'm new to this.

On the other hand, in come cases the person in particular might be so unwilling to listen to polite feedback that the only way to influence them is through a public flogging. This appears to be the case with Jason and 1 Million shirts.

There is a possible counter-argument to everything I've said though. The potential damage of executing ideas like these may be so significant that we need to change the payoffs for the Jason Sadlers of the world. In this case snarky commentary would very effectively serve that purpose - both by creating more attention and increasing the negative perception of the individual.

The risk also, for all the snarky commentators out there, is that people stop listening to you.

Thursday, April 29, 2010 8:18:00 AM

Blogger Ian said...

Great blog post, and great question to mull over.

For me I can enjoy some humourous snark as much as the next person, OK, I admit it, probably more. But at the same time if I were able to stick to it I think there are a couple of important considerations, I'd like to follow in my own commentary:

1. Does it work? - I think that sometimes it works, and maybe is even necessary in the face of widespread apathy or unwillingness to listen - at the same time if you are too snarky it can backfire either by riling up the person you are trying to get to change, or by bringing out the sympathy vote against the cynical aid-worker.

2. Do unto others - hard to remember sometimes but it's always worth asking oneself, how would I feel if someone wrote this about me in a public forum?

For those of us who have been working in development for a long time, and also have seen our fair share of well meaning but useless, or worse harmful aid ideas it can be easy to forget often people who come up with these things do so because they don't know enough to realize what they are doing. Better to educate them if they are open to this, rather than antagonize them.

At the same time we can all think of some very prominent and influential people in the aid world who ought to know better, or are doing things that are positively harmful, and are not open to listen. In these cases I think a bit of snark is more than called for ;-)

Thursday, April 29, 2010 8:39:00 AM

Blogger Chris Waluk said...

I echo Rachel's thoughts. Well said.

Blog forums are different than phone calls. When talking directly to Jason Sadler, snark is completely inappropriate, he is just a guy trying to do something good. There are far worse people we deal with everyday. But the blog world isn't for Jason, it's for the rest of us who are trying to learn about good and bad aid. I think it's safe to say that Jason never once crossed any of these aid blogs before this week, and he was completely unprepared for the response to his program. I do feel a little sorry for the guy, but I wonder how somebody gets so far into launching an idea without doing any background research. And he's obviously not alone.

I will also say that when I first heard William Easterly speak in person, my friends and I came away thinking that he came off as lacking any compassion for the poor. Even though we all agreed with his philosophy, his snark towards bad advocacy was a real turn off. Good leaders tend to avoid burning bridges, and I don't get the sense that there is any hesitation amongst aid critics to just throw good intentioned people under the bus for their bad ideas. Badvocats like Jason are not the cause of poverty and perhaps should be treated less like enemies and more like potential allies....maybe.

Thursday, April 29, 2010 10:39:00 AM

Blogger Eric said...

Jason's 2nd video certainly displayed a little more balance but still a lot of the arrogance and defensive 'snark' himself and I think perhaps this is the reason for some of the snark on the internets - he just rubbed people the wrong way with his responses.If he had come out a little less brash and combative and not all 'haterade', I think most could have agreed he was just a misguided guy trying to do some good. But he didn't...

I agree with the above posters, I think he was a little blindsided by all the backlash. Yet, I can't help but feel that it was a much needed 'slap in the face' to someone who was clearly wearing blinders.

Is snark useful? Yes, for exactly those moments that someone needs that 'slap in the face' to wake them up, get them to look around, dig deeper, etc... Here's betting that Jason thinks a little deeper and now recognizes the scrutiny that aid projects have to succeed...

As Alanna states in her great post, sometimes you need to put aside your pride, realize not everyone is 'out to get you' and listen to some of the criticisms regardless of how they are delivered. Hopefully Jason does more listening and less getting hurt because someone didn't like his ideas...

Thursday, April 29, 2010 11:23:00 AM

Blogger JCN said...

New lurker here. All causes supported by creative people deserve a robust snark-based defense, I think, and it looks like I'm in agreement with folks.

Love the blog.

Thursday, April 29, 2010 12:44:00 PM

Blogger MissBwalya said...

I have really enjoyed the debate on this issue. It has elicited good discussion and really should be a teaching moment. I think Jason has been overwhelmed with the number of "negative" responses and has buried his head in the sand. This will probably block good messages getting through, and he won't be swayed to re-think. Which is a shame! If you're going to put yourself out there be prepared to receive criticism and try to learn from others who may know better than you.

Thursday, April 29, 2010 9:12:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks for the thoughtful points, everyone. I hope you'll join the conversation tomorrow at noon EST - everyone is invited to listen in on a conference call. I'll post details early tomorrow.

Chris, I especially like your point about good leaders not burning bridges. There's a difference between a leader and a critic, right? But you can't lead effectively unless you listen to your critics, who sometimes have really important points.

Thursday, April 29, 2010 9:37:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Chris Waluk's point that communication via blogs is different than face-to-face communication is important. Different mediums have different norms. And snark is a communications tool like any other, used judiciously. It gets the point across. It gets attention.

I think the second video validates all of the so-called snark around the blogosphere. Jason really doesn't get the point. "Trying" to do good isn't enough. Good intentions can lead to bad outcomes. You get an A-for-effort in elementary school, but not when you are (attempting) to affect the lives of people you don't know, don't know anything about, and who didn't ask for your interference in the first place. His willingness to shift to "underwear" made me wonder, briefly, if he was kidding, because it was such a flashback to that other stellar example of badvocacy, the panty-drive.

His challenge to the effect of "do you have a million people who will donate a dollar? I think not because it would have been done" is another example of not understanding opportunity cost. There are lots of fundraising jobs for causes good and bad. I hope that charitable dollars to go to effective organizations, and I have no reason to believe that 1milliontshirts qualifies.

His insistence that "his" charities sparked this idea also rubs me the wrong way. First, I'm troubled by the possessive pronoun. Second, there are plenty of poorly informed charities that will encourage bad ideas, either through ignorance or a taste for publicity of any sort. I haven't seen any reputable organization endorse this campaign! Third, he seems to ignore the vast experience that people commenting on his campaign have in this field and geographic region. Appealing to unspecified and suspect charities doesn't undermine the perspective of all of the other well-informed people out there. I get the sense that Jason doesn't realize how deeply involved in international aid and development other people are. But while it may be just a trendy hobby for him, it's a life-long professional commitment for many other people whose perspective he dismisses, seemingly because he simply doesn't have the background to appreciate its value.

Friday, April 30, 2010 1:31:00 PM


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