The Onion of Africa advocacy

The Onion of Africa advocacy” is my new nickname for Falling Whistles, the Congo advocacy group that appears to be staffed more by graphic designers than people with policy chops or good taste. On first read it’s hard to tell whether all of their material might actually be a big inside joke designed to mock tasteless, shallow advocacy messaging. Which would be awesome… except that they’re serious.

Their latest email, with the subject line “Announcing the Hamptons Edition Whistle” and a message body composed entirely of an image, is pasted below (click for larger version):

Judge for yourself?

02

08 2011

7 Comments Add Yours ↓

The upper is the most recent comment

  1. 1

    Ha, yes, they are obviously in love with their image!

  2. Suzanne #
    2

    gag. gag. GAG.

  3. Jillian Richardson #
    3

    This may not be the traditional image of advocacy, but by making their campaign less doom and gloom and more fun, they reach a broader audience. They’re trying to show that helping people can be something everyone can do….but some facts would be nice too haha

    • 4

      Jillian — I used to work at a consulting firm that helped a number of nonprofit organizations with their online advocacy/fundraising/messaging (including one focused on Sudan), so I sympathize with you re: making campaigns that can reach a broader audience. In fact, our struggle was more often with the opposite — we found it was generally more effective to use the more heart-wrenching doom and gloom messaging to raise more money, even if that didn’t match the situation completely. It’s especially hard as a consultant because ultimately you’re trying to help an organization make its message better rather than determining what the message is in the first place. I didn’t like that line of work and I got out of it, and a big part of that was because it’s very hard to get the tone right, be respectful, and educate readers along the way. But I digress…
      I think there *are* limits to what is OK to say in order to reach a wider audience — the end does not always justify the means. If it takes this sort of narcissistic messaging to reach a certain set of people, maybe we don’t want them to be involved? And if one acknowledges that the tone/design is *not* necessary to reach this audience, then that says they can be reached other ways. I say do your best to reach new people, but not like this.

  4. Cara #
    5

    Falling Whistles (an organization for whom I do not work or represent) has done a remarkable job at reaching out to an otherwise largely untapped market of donors. They have successfully facilitated the rehabilitation of hundreds of child soldiers, and have done so with programming run entirely by national staff – programs run entirely by Congolese leadership rather than some white 20-something with a desire to ‘save the people’. While it may not be how you would choose to run your campaigns, they have been remarkably successful at attaining financial support from a demogrpohic that otherwise hasn’t been overly concerned by using marketing to make it cool, and have done so with virtually no overhead costs – something which many other organizations and NGOs cannot claim.

    • 6

      Cara — thanks for your thoughtful response. See my comments above to Jillian re: reaching other donors. Just because they have been able to with this tactic doesn’t mean they couldn’t also do so with other strategies as well. If the messaging must be *this* self-centered to reach people… ugh. I think they can do much better, and still do much good.
      The whole ‘save the people’ message (or at least – “look at us we’re amazing for doing this work!”) does come through to me in their messaging, so I would be happy if that didn’t carry over into their program work.
      Also, based a quick browse of their 2009 annual report I’m not sure your claim re: overhead costs is accurate. They didn’t have staff expenses – which I take it means most of their staff are volunteers (laudable, though questionably sustainable, and probably one reason the Africa policy experts I know dislike their policies so much?). They received $232k income and spent just $43k on Congo programming (though they also saved $88k). Of course, the ratio of overhead-to-program expenses is really a poor measure of many things, so it tells us nothing about the quality of that programming. If it’s great and Congolese-lead and all that, why not just promote that work directly? Do we really need the veneer of hipster do-gooders talking about themselves? Also, I guess I’m not a big fan of “awareness-raising for the sake of awareness-raising”…

  5. Kirsteen #
    7

    So glad to finally read something like this. I have been watching Falling Whistles with interest over the past year or so and couldn’t quite believe how self-absorbed they were, presenting themselves as some kind of visionaries wearing skinny jeans. Maybe that’s unfair, but it’s the impression I got.

    It is true that this whole necklace thing has gotten people going and has gotten more people interested and worked up about the war in the DRC, as they should be. Yet, I wonder if many are more interested in the idea of Falling Whistles itself, with its hipster interns, young following, and mini music festival fund-raisers, whistle ranges such as the aforementioned ‘Hamptons’ not to mention the (vaguely) hot (in a hipster way) guys who founded the whole thing. As you mentioned, this FW Hamptons ad is image-based; I scanned it and it doesn’t mention the Congo once! Not even in the small print. What a great message to send out about the Congo; one which doesn’t even reference the country itself. Thankfully, it namechecks things which are really important (“Beach. Sailing. ROPE!”). Hmmm.

    For an organisation which claims to represent the ‘human face’ of the conflict, Falling Whistlers sure have some interesting things to say. In a section on the website about the conflict itself, they come out with dramatic, sweeping statements such as: “All the soldiers rape. All the soldiers pillage”. In a recent FW blogpost written by one of their advisors visiting the Congo, it was written: “If you are born in Congo today you are probably born stuck – in poverty, without education, without even roads to get your tomatoes to a market”. [Oh, OK then Falling Whistles, we’ll take your word for it.] That doesn’t sound like an educated, considered viewpoint to me. And it is definitely not a good thing if that is the image of the conflict which they are disseminating to their ‘followers’. I even heard from one DRC blogger that Sean Carasso et al were thrown out of the DRC on one of their first few trips there for, basically, not having a clue what the hell they were doing. Who’s surprised? Besides, it’s hard not laugh (apologies for rudeness) when you read the founder’s self-description on the website: ‘Sean Carasso – Vagabond Scribe’. What?!

    As a student who has studied and researched various aspects of colonialism and violence in the DRC (including the employment of child soldiers), I had a look at Falling Whistles’ intern recruitment process, just out of interest. What struck me is how the internship is sold: it is immediately stated that interns don’t receive funding or any kind of salary. So far, pretty normal. What is provided is live-in accommodation for all the interns to share, a ‘new family’, and the ability to romanticise a job where they don’t get paid and rarely sleep (I quote “If you’re looking for the most down and out, upside down, never sleep or shower, work till you drop, exhausting semester of your life; we are your people. You’ll spend your days in close corners, rub shoulders with strangers who will become like siblings, burn the midnight oil when the world has gone to sleep, and fight toward a goal most would call impossible. Peace in Congo”).

    The application form expresses interest in applicants with experience in fields including web design, carpentry, fashion accessories, jewellery design, e-commerce, and print and materials production (among others). Nowhere does it state that one should have a sophisticated (or even a basic) understanding of the ‘situation’ in the DRC. The application questions are equally irrelevant: “What music is on your playlist right now?”/ “What historical or fictional character has had the most influence on your life and why?”. This ‘soul-searching’ questionnaire completely put me off applying, before I’d even glanced at the rest of the application or website. The intern blog itself is filled with pictures of the interns having fun, lists of the music they like, their little life stories, and some (very) occasional titbits about the Congo and how ‘horrifying’ the violence is (well done for noticing), interspersed with cheesy ‘inspirational’ quotes. I just found it remarkably self-important, vomit-inducing, and painful to read.

    ‘Wronging Rights’ bloggers did a hilarious take-down of Falling Whistles back in Dec 2009 (link: http://wrongingrights.blogspot.com/2009/12/what-do-nkundas-child-soldiers-and-jon.html ). Among the gems they come out with is the following:
    “You know what we hate? Wearing jewelry that doesn’t remind us of the brutal slaughter of innocent children. It’s a real problem too, because there are only so many blood-drenched conflict diamonds we impoverished bloggers can afford.
    Luckily for us, Falling Whistles has arrived to fill that chilly void”

    Quite.

    Lastly, has anyone ever seen someone actually wearing a whistle? I don’t live in the States so I haven’t seen any, but can’t imagine the prospect. They really are ugly.



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