Moscow charity gala

An article in The Guardian newspaper today describes a high-profile ‘charity’ event held in Moscow, which uses the idea that it is ‘awareness’ raising as an excuse for it’s lack of material contribution to charity:

It was a starry event that lured some of the biggest names in Hollywood along with a sprinkling of the Muscovite elite. There was Woody Allen, playing with his jazz band after a performance by Andrea Bocelli.

There were Francis Ford Coppola and Jeremy Irons, Orlando Bloom and Steven Seagal, Sophia Loren and Dionne Warwick, all gathered in the leafy heights of southern Moscow for a charity gala like no other: this charity does not dispense its largesse.

The Federation Fund, which has presented itself as a children’s charity since forming late last year, has rapidly turned into one of the most controversial operations in a country known for opaque projects. This weekend, after weeks of billboard advertising splashed across the capital, it laid on a lavish two-day show in aid of … Well, it was not entirely clear what the event was in aid of.

The charity says it is no longer about raising funds, but raising awareness. Some of the guests said they had been paid to attend.

Doubts about the Federation Fund surfaced soon after an inaugural concert in St Petersburg this year shot it to prominence, thanks largely to Vladimir Putin’s notorious version of Blueberry Hill, which became an internet hit.

Three months after that show, the mother of a sick child wrote an open letter to the president, Dmitry Medvedev, complaining that hospitals promised donations had received nothing. The fund moved quickly to donate medical equipment to several hospitals, and then denied any wrongdoing, saying it had been set up to generate publicity, not cash.

This is an extreme form of something detectable in other campaigns which spend lots of money to raise ‘awareness’, with a disproportionately small material outcome, such as the RED campaign, for which Advertising Age wrote:

The disproportionate ratio between the marketing outlay and the money raised is drawing concern among nonprofit watchdogs, cause-marketing experts and even executives in the ad business. It threatens to spur a backlash, not just against the Red campaign — which ambitiously set out to change the cause-marketing model by allowing partners to profit from charity — but also for the brands involved.

World Press Photo 11 review frames ‘attention’ as a “blunt instrument”

2011 World Press Photo Omar Feisal shark
Omar Feisal, a Reuters photographer based in Somalia, won the Daily Life Single category at the 2011 World Press Photo awards with this picture of a man carrying a shark through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. Photograph: Feisal Omar/Reuters

In a review of World Press Photo 11 in The Observer on Sunday 29 May 2011, Roland Elliott Brown writes:

Many make the most of minor subjects: Feisal Omar’s picture of a Somali carrying a man-size shark through a devastated Italian colonial street is the most extraordinary, otherworldly image in the book; Marco di Lauro’s image of a Nigerian meat market conjures Hieronymus Bosch. Daniel Berehulak’s images of the Pakistan floods, by contrast, are efficient documentary shots of a traumatic, “big” news subject, but lack the streak of visual experimentation or surreal commentary that would give them “artistic” punch. Some images, such as Javier Manzano’s Mexican murder victims, have absurdity and bleak beauty to spare, but only regional resonance. The form’s tilt in favour of experienced photographers and “artistic” work enables an escape from any suggestion that juries sit in judgment over suffering humanity. Yet it also validates the photojournalist’s cliche, that their skills “bring attention to” far-flung subjects. “Attention” is a very blunt instrument, more effective locally than from afar, where it produces mostly helpless perturbation.

Nevertheless, viewers can hardly object if the pictures of pain displayed in their shelters arrive dressed up for the marketplace of their sympathies; to the extent that they do, they may need to learn to be perturbed in finer, bolder ways.

This description of ‘awareness’ as a ‘blunt instrument’ bears out the description in my thesis of the PlayPump’s ‘awareness-raising’ as limited, in that it doesn’t help to inform the viewer of the complexity of the water problem in the developing world, just of its own ability to solve it.

“Donor aversion to ‘unsexy’ water projects…”

Fiona Harvey, Monday 27 June 2011

“A key development goal to halve the number of people without access to basic sanitation by 2015 will be missed because donor countries have diverted aid money away from “unsexy” water projects, according to the World Bank and the charity WaterAid…”

Steve Robins – How Shit Became Political

At the African Centre for Cities.

When: Aug 4, 2011 (3.30pm)
Where: Rm 2.27, Davies Room, Engeo Building, Upper Campus, UCT, Cape Town

1474158470 6d8f3bc1b6 B

In this seminar, Professor Steven Robins of the University of Stellenbosch’s Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology discusses the challenges that activists, journalists and writers confront when trying to render the mundane realities of “structural violence” and chronic poverty politically legible. It is particularly concerned with how these representational challenges are played out in terms of the binary relationship between the “spectacular” and the “mundane.”


An editorial in the Guardian praises the work of Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee – the ‘randomistas’ – in conducting randomised control trials on development initiatives. Would like to see Ben Goldacre’s comment on the quality of their trials, as it’s one of his areas of specialty.

Particularly interested in the mention of their research into whether recipients of free mosquito nets value them – ‘an emphatic yes’. Kudos to them for questioning the simplistic (and non-evidence-based) idea that people only value things they have to pay money for; a convenient fiction for the interests that want to charge for goods and services (like water).

In praise of … Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee
Through lots of microstudies, they make a subtle case for one big argument: aid really can help poor people
6 June 2011

Since the banking crisis broke, the different schools of economic thought have gained much exposure. You’ve heard of the Keynesians, the monetarists, the behaviouralists. Well, now meet the randomistas. The nickname given to the work done by MIT economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo refers to their use of randomised control trials, familiar to whitecoats working in science labs but not so common among crumpled development analysts in, say, West Bengal. Yet Banerjee and Duflo put the random trial to excellent use to find out what works. Want poor families in north India to immunise their children? Offer the parents a small bag of lentils as an incentive and vaccination rates make a startling jump, from around 5% to almost 40%. Or take the question of whether poor Africans really value mosquito nets they are given free. Much debated within university faculties, it took a randomista to go out to west Kenya and find the answer (an emphatic yes). Duflo and Banerjee tell these stories in a lovely new book called Poor Economics. As they admit, randomistas cannot answer some big questions – how to tackle food prices, for instance. But through lots of microstudies, they make a subtle case for one big argument: aid really can help poor people, provided the money follows the evidence. The economists back home lining up to warn George Osborne his plan isn’t working must wish there was some simple experiment to settle the manner, without making guinea pigs of us all.

The politics of toilets in South Africa

David Smith in the Guardian, 17 May 2011:

Why is South Africa still providing ‘apartheid toilets’?
How can a nation that builds five-star hotels and airports and hosted a successful World Cup still fail to provide decent sanitation?

… Like the Reverend Wright’s fiery sermons, or Gordon Brown’s “bigot” gaffe, unexpected bumps in the road can change the course of election campaigns, and so it is that televisions and newspapers in South Africa are full of images of toilets ahead of tomorrow’s local government vote. The image has come to symbolise the post-apartheid state’s continued inability to deliver electricity, running water, sanitation or housing to millions of people. It has left many wondering how a nation that can build five-star hotels and airports, host a successful football World Cup and enshrine human rights in its constitution can violate the basic right to defecate in private.

Toilets are the battleground between the two principal rivals for South Africans’ votes. The African National Congress (ANC), 17 years in power, has come to regard itself as the natural party of government with overwhelming support from the black majority. The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) – which controls Cape Town and claims it is the best-run city in the country – is striving to bury its reputation as the bastion of the white elite. First there was an open lavatory scandal in the DA’s backyard. Cape Town was condemned in a recent court judgment for building 50 unenclosed loos in the Makhaza section of Khayelitsha. The gleeful ANC claimed this proved what it had been saying all along: that the DA protects the privilege of Cape Town’s affluent suburbanites while kicking its township dwellers in the teeth. These were “apartheid toilets built by racist whites who don’t respect blacks”…

Donor trips to the developing world

Sophie Arie writing in the Guardian, 10 May 2011.

NGO package tours – holidays with a conscience?
A growing number of NGOs are offering package tours to developing countries so that donors can see their work in action.

…So is this the future for development agencies? To show people and not just tell people how hard life is for the poorest of the world’s population? And will this become the ultimate way for the discerning donor to decide if an agency deserves his or her support?

For some time, aid agencies specialising in child sponsorship have made ad hoc arrangements, despite the time and resources this demands of local staff, for individual donors to meet the child they support. Many also take major donors, board members and policy-makers on “immersion” trips. And many run volunteer working trips and fundraising adventure holidays…

Compare to my findings about the elastic membrane in my PhD.

Shigeru Ban disavowing novelty

A reporter for The New York Times posed the question to Japanese designer Shigeru Ban: “Katrina. The Asian Tsunami. Haiti. Every time a natural disaster of this order occurs, designers present innovative ideas for shelters that never get built. Why not?”

Shigeru Ban replied: “We don’t need innovative ideas. We just need to build normal things that can be made easily and quickly. A house is a house”.

See also paper in ‘Design for Need’ re. disaster relief.



My name is Ralph Borland, and I’m an artist, designer and technologist based in Cape Town, South Africa. I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town on the research project Global Arenas of Knowledge, which is investigating ‘Southern Theory‘. Before that I was a postdoctoral fellow at the African Centre for Cities. This site houses my PhD thesis, and my continuing research into objects (and development) – for more information, please see the About page. This is my journal, where I keep track of articles of interest to my work. You can use the ‘Categories’ menu in the sidebar below to navigate through posts – ‘Objects‘ for example. Please feel free to send me links to examples of interesting objects or anything else related to my research – you can contact me here. Subscribe to this blog by clicking here. For my wider work please visit