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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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!”)
- 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.