The Rusty Radiator Awards highlight the dim, patronizing worldviews of some international aid organizations.
Image courtesy of the Rusty Radiator Awards
If you are a human on earth, chances are you regularly come across ads for international charities featuring sad, starving African children with flies in their eyes being ministered to by saintly foreign volunteers. Such images of a benighted continent whimpering for salvation from the beneficent West have been around (often unchanged) for decades—in part because they work. These calls to action inspire millions to give a few cents a day, contributing to necessary relief efforts and inefficient, dependency-building aid programs alike. Yet, no matter how effective you might argue these ads are, they’re troubling as well. Instead of showcasing African promise and ingenuity, or helping local partners overcome the hangover of colonialism’s centuries of systematic abuse, they encourage a pervasive, bleak, and demeaning view of multitudinous cultures as incapable, indigent, and eternally invalid.
The harm such ads can pose is fairly clear by now, but until recently there was little concentrated conversation on the issue and how to overcome it. But in 2012, the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH), got so sick of these ads that they decided to do something about them. The group created a satirical film flipping the concept on its head, sparking debate on the insult and absurdity inherent in these fund-seeking cultural depictions. In their fake fundraising music video, “Africa for Norway,” young and idealistic Africans sing about the need to help the bleak and depressed Norse survive their brutal winters by collecting old radiators to send over as aid.
Almost immediately the song was a hit—and it inspired a good deal of very public conversation about the issues that had been bugging SAIH and others for so long. Capitalizing on this success, the organization decided to take things a step further and in the fall of 2013 they launched a new global award, the Rusty Radiator. The SAIH decided that each year they and a panel of cultural and development world figures from Africa and Europe would compile a short list of the best and worst relief ads in the world, and then publicly praise the most respectful and useful ones with a Golden Radiator. On the other hand, the worst organizations would be castigated, critiqued, and shamed with a Rusty Radiator prize.
After a successful round of awards in 2013, SAIH gained some traction with the event, but the gala really picked up in 2014. In part, this was because of the press around a new parody video, “Who Wants to Be A Volunteer,” released in the run-up to the second awards ceremony. But it was also due to the absolute absurdity of some of the worst-ad nominees. (And the compelling candidates for best.) The South African aid organization Feed A Child took home the Rusty Radiator for an ad featuring a white woman feeding a black child scraps under the table like a dog, an image so offensive it sparked international outcry. The incident prompted a non-apology apology from the ad agency and organization heads responsible. Meanwhile, the Golden Radiator went to Save the Children of the UK, for its depiction of a British child suddenly subjected to inexplicable war and turned into a refugee. The ad highlighted the visceral reality of life for refugees in Syria, whose experiences had often been abstracted to an aloof or unengaged Western audience.
The ruckus SAIH created by highlighting these videos has successfully moved critiques on the presentation of aid organizations and missions from a niche debate to a major public discussion. It’s prompted people to talk about the dangers of using stereotypical images of a blighted Africa and pushed for creative ads that give local peoples a voice, use less emotional manipulation, and promote a complex understanding of issues. There are some who argue that SAIH hasn’t gone far enough in dismantling the assumptions and biases inherent in the international aid complex. But even these hardline critics are happy to see the rise of self-awareness and self-critique amongst a usually complacent and disengaged public. Hopefully, even if imperfect, all the uproar caused by these new awards will help to permanently shift views on what can and can’t fly in aid advertising. Maybe within our lifetimes we’ll see an end to those annoying, disturbing fly-in-the-eye billboards and the rise of an introspective relief world that employs complex, respectful, and effective outreach.