To My Great Surprise, I Kind of Love This Charity Ad

When a tipster sent me this ad for the charity Water is Life, I had every expectation that I would hate it.

The gimmick sounded kind of gross: because 1 in 5 Kenyan children don’t reach their 5th birthdays, the ad takes a 4-year-old boy named Nkaitole and helps him complete his “bucket list.” I was prepared for lots of pathos and heartstring-tugging victimhood, but instead what I got was this:

After some reflection, I think that there are a few good things about this video that are worth highlighting.

  1. It focuses on potential, not victimhood. “Save a child” charity ads usually to try to prompt action by provoking the viewer to feel grief for dying children, and guilt for not saving them. By contrast, Nkaitole’s bucket list (which he refers to as “an adventure”), turns out to be a lovely illustration of the way that the whole world loses out when a child dies young. Nkaitole dreams of beating Kenya’s fastest man in a race, and of playing soccer in the national stadium, which subtly reminds the viewer that preventable child deaths might also prevent historic athletic achievements, or the emergence of beloved sports stars.
  2. The items on Nkaitole’s bucket list show that he is sophisticated and aware of the outside world, even though he’s never left his village before. In addition to his dreams of success at soccer and running, Nkaitole wants to ride a speedboat, fly a plane, drive a go-cart and a front-end loader, see the ocean, go ice skating, and ride a hot-air balloon. That’s not a westerner’s idea of what a remote, exoticized “African” would want to do. Rather, those are the dreams of any child, anywhere in the world. (If you add “become a ballerina with magical powers,” that’s pretty much my bucket list from age 4, especially the front-end loader part.)
  3. It makes Kenya look like an awesome place worth living for, not a sad place where children die. By showing that all that is waiting for Nkaitole when he leaves his village, it also tells the viewer that Kenya is a place full of exciting opportunities that are worth surviving for. Again, this goes back to potential, rather than victimhood. (Also, it really does seem great. I half-expected this video to be sponsored by the Kenyan tourist board. “Kenya: come for the beaches, stay for the ice rinks!”)
  4. No “whites in shining armor.” Did you notice that there are no NGO workers in this video? Seriously, none: no Water is Life volunteers pouring clean water for grateful children. No villagers doing a traditional dance of gratitude for their white saviors. No Water is Life SUV driving down a bumpy dirt road. Not even, it should be noted, any sign of Water is Life staff paying for or accompanying Nkaitole on his “adventure,” even though I presume that was the case. Once again, that puts the emphasis on how awesome Nkaitole is, not how awesome the viewer is for deigning to help him, which I appreciated.

I have no idea whether Water is Life is actually doing effective work or not. (They appear to be focused on distributing filtration straws at the moment, which is the kind of development trinket that tends to arouse my skepticism, but they claim to be working on longer-term solutions as well.) However, their ad’s respectful attitude towards the people they’re trying to help suggests that they’re doing something right.

Amanda Taub


  1. One of the most brilliant aspects of this video is the sense that anyone can identify with it. Running on the beach, flying in an airplane, playing sports, go kart racing, your first kiss…these are all universal joys of childhood anyone can appreciate.

    But furthermore, this universalism is grounded in a particular local context. The video begins with his aspiration to be a Masai warrior! The whole one Earth “we-are-the-world” mentality that is commonplace with NGO-speak can trivialize the local and historical context that shapes development. So extra props for this. I

    Man, that music. Let’s watch it again.

  2. Love the commercial, really dislike the water straw. Its pretty much useless – no one actually uses the straws to drink water, from a puddle or otherwise. It is a development trinket you should scorn. I had a running debate with the Lifestraw folks on Twitter last year. Never could show a un-staged photo of lifestraw usage or stats to show actual usage.

  3. I like it. If I really wanted to quibble I’d mention that a 4-year-old’s likelihood of surviving to 5 is not the same as a 0-year-old’s, and that most of the risk is concentrated in the first year of life… but I don’t want to quibble so I’m just writing that here and will spare my friends and family the mini-rant when I share it. 🙂

    • It’s not a quibble. It’s pretty serious.

      They’re lying to us to manipulate us in a good cause. They are willing to disregard facts. They are unable to think clearly.

      That’s the first thing I noticed about the video and then we find out that they are promoting an approach to preventing waterborne disease that appears to have a very low ROI.

      I don’t think it’s an unrelated quibble at all.

      (but yes, if you disregard the premise it’s a nice video)

  4. Given the horrors of female circumcision practised by the Massai, I wonder how many of those 4 year old girls don’t reach their 5th birthdays because of infections etc brought about by this procedure. No wonder they used a boy for this, a girl might not have been able to walk. Videos like this make me angry, they divert the attention of the watchers from real issues.
    My opinion: Stop glorifying your ‘work’ and start helping those in need.

    • This, right here, is exactly why so many nonprofits fail miserably. “We don’t need money, we just need to do good work.”


  5. I love the switch from suffering/misery/passivity to active, engaged, achieving of potential. However, the whole premise – that a kid growing up in a village aspires to all these wonders of the slick industrialized, commercialized world – makes me kind of sick. Soccer, yes. First kiss? ugh!

  6. All other things aside, this is a great ad. The sector routinely creates advertising and comms that portray people as victims and helpless receivers – this ad shows that there’s another way to do it. It’s warm and hits the right emotions.

    It reminds me of this Mamahope ad:

    • @Jeremy – yes, I totally agree, the ad is touching. Warm.
      And certainly moves away from the negative – pitiful – imagery often used within aid communications.

      Still, I have great doubts about the (brand) promise they make by the ad and what they stand for as an organisation. And how it fits within their brand and communication. Their story is their brand.

      Using stills out of the video and with a traditional copy of ‘no child of 4 should have a bucket list’ actually devalues the strength of the video itself. Too bad.

      On thing that makes the campaign of MamaHope stand out is the core message, their willingness: to stop this ‘bloody’ pity. And unlock the potential. Raising awareness for this issue – and with success.

      But similarly to Water is Life – this video campaigning became leading in their communication, while their work is different…

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