So if you haven’t heard, Ashton Kutcher is throwing his trucker hat in the “I can stop malaria” ring of shameless honor. This time using all manner of self-promotion via a pseudo-popularity battle with CNN to see who can amass 1 million followers the fastest. And the gimmick? Kutcher will buy 10,000 bed nets if he reaches 1 million followers before CNN does. Kutcher’s foundation of choice to furnish the bed nets of course is Malaria No More. *Sigh*
Please forgive me for sounding annoyed, but I am. Actually no, I am frustrated beyond belief. There is something very fundamentally wrong with this movement to buy up millions of bed nets to send to Africa. I certainly don’t fault Kutcher for failing to do his homework on the subject. I mean, if I was as busy as he is—waxing my chest and making movies—I shouldn’t be faulted for failing to see the kind of damage my generosity is wreaking. I mean, come on! I am a movie star forgodsake!
The solution to malaria, much like varied solutions to ending our addiction to aid, can be found within Africa. My problem with the strategy of dealing with malaria employed by Malaria No More, Nothing but Nets, et al is that it erodes the ability of local capacity to deal with this problem. It is also not infinitely sustainable, and dare I say it, smacks of paternalistic ethos. It’s a band-aid on a gashing wound. It’s the “fly-to-Africa-and-adopt-a-brown-baby-instead-of-investing-in-a-sustainable-business-that-can-help-the-entire-family” syndrome. Africa’s capacity to tackle these issues is vastly eroded by a Western celebrity culture of “look at me, look at me, I am saving Africa”-ism, and the misguided notion that Africans can’t do anything for ourselves, therefore it is the West’s right to do things for us.
Sure bed nets keep you from being bitten, but what are we supposed to do when we are not under the nets? But our lives could be that much richer is were earning a living as workers in the non-existent African anti-malarial industry. We could have been growing artemisia and pyrethrum or working at a bed net factory; feeding my family with the proceeds, but alas, I can’t. Ashton Kutcher was feeling unloved and wanted to run a little popularity contest, and we get to be the spectators circus sidekicks victims.
Wouldn’t it be better to invest money into indigenous companies that can make the nets, therefore maintaining a sustainable business selling bed nets? Or investing in the agricultural sector so farmers are more able to meet demand for crops like Artemesia annua and pyrethrum, easily-grown botanical ingredients in anti-malarial drugs?
These seemingly well-intentioned celebrity stunts of altruism are not killing mosquitos, instead they are killing the livelihoods of the very people that are supposed to benefit from the nets. And this is not symptomatic of celebrity cluelessness as applied to the eradication of malaria. It’s systemic fault in International Development sectors. Even WHO is also implicitly clueless in this regard.
Kenyan, Dr. Macharia Waruingi MD, DHA, best summed up this common knowledge divide as the culprit behind so many failed large-scale development projects in Africa, in his paper, Tragedy of the Commons in Global Health:
Alienation, which results in separation of things that naturally belong together, breaches processual integrity. For example, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) strategies for fighting malaria produced actions and interactions that inhibited the flow of relevant knowledge from people living in developing countries to the WHO. In this case, the WHO did not have a process to know about the production of pyrethrum by local nationals living in the highlands of East and Central Africa. SC Johnson (SCJ), a multinational corporation, knew about the production of pyrethrum from the highlands, and collected the pyrethrum extract from poor farmers. SCJ did not help the farmers to repackage pyrethrum for malaria control. On the other end, the WHO imported synthetic pyrethroids to help the poor farmers fight malaria.
Although SCJ and WHO were dealing with the same individual—the poor farmer who is struggling with malaria and poverty—they did not communicate with each other. The relevant knowledge about the importance of natural pyrethrins in malaria control did not flow among the three stakeholders: the farmer, the people at SC Johnson, and the members of the WHO. In the effort to help the farmers, the WHO undermined the productivity of the poor farmers by flooding the market with the synthetic molecule.
There needs to be a cultural and system shift in the way the West approaches Africa’s problem. Flooding the market with cheap Asian bed nets impregnated with synthetic anti-malarials is not in itself a self-sustaining solution. If I was to be critical of it, I’d say it’s as counterproductive as slapping a AK-47 toting Somali pirate with a fly swatter while screaming “die, die, die, you stupid pest, die!” You are not addressing the underlying problem, only exascerbating it.
Ashton Kutcher and his pals need to talk to Hugh Jackman about how to properly leverage your popularity. Seriously, Ashton, it’s the first rule of International Development. As for your popularity contest with CNN,Julie Gomoll summed it up best. And neither do I.
Corrected spelling mistakes. My apologies.
Malaria No More posted information about an African Bed net factory today on their blog. It does not say for certain that they are sourcing their nets from this factory. It is implied, but it would be great if that was confirmed. Kudos to the Olysnet folks for a job well done!
Thanks everyone! Tracy