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"We are happy to be perceived as partners to the solution, rather than as just needy people."
– Belkis, volunteer preschool teacher at a refugee camp

Unicef needs the needy

"We are happy to be perceived as partners to the solution, rather than as just needy people," said said Belkis, a volunteer preschool teacher at a refugee camp in Turkey. She was quoted on the Unicef website.(1)

To call people "needy" is a way to focus not on their potential, but on their perceived helpless — generally as a way to raise money.

But perhaps Unicef wasn't listening. More than 5,000 pages on their website refer to needy children, needy women, and needy families, and needy anything else, generally in the context of "Here's why you should write a check to Unicef." For example:

Albania: "...providing equitable and quality services to needy young Roma children ..."

Bolivia: "[Unicef] gives priority in everything it does to the least protected children and to the most needy countries..."

Egypt: "In view of a large number of needy women..."

Ghana: "...scholarship for needy girls..."

Japan: "...assistance and protection for needy children..."

Kenya: "...by offering scholarships to bright but needy children..."

Kyrgyzstan: "...education and social services to support and protect the most needy families and children..."

India: "... needy physically challenged students..."

Malaysia: "...needy single mothers..."

Myanmar: "... transfers for needy mothers..."

Somalia: "...scholarships... to orphaned and needy girls."

Serbia: "...the number of needy children amounted to twenty million..."

South Africa: "...assist 175 needy schools in disadvantaged communities to adopt the Safe and Caring Child Friendly Schools programme..."

Sri Lanka: "...greater access for needy women and children...."

Sudan: "...special emphasis on needy populations..."

Thailand: "All donations to Unicef are first and foremost used to support our programmes for poor and needy children in Thailand..."

Uganda: "...promotion of the rights of vulnerable children and young people especially the needy girls."

Vietnam: "...we will focus our assistance on the most needy..."

Zambia: "...take care of other needs for the needy..."

We could go on, but you get the point. Neediness seems to be a female trait, in Unicef's eyes. There are no references to "needy men" and only once is the term applied to boys: In Gambia, Unicef "mobilized resources for scholarships for girls and needy boys."

Is our grievance against the word "needy" a real issue, or is it just a quibble, an effort to create a new politically-correct pothole to trap the unwary? That's for you to judge. Here's our position:

We find the word "needy" to be particularly dehumanizing. It reduces people to one characteristic, and usually to raise funds so someone else can help them, or claim to help them.(2)

Is it worse than saying "children in need" or "children who are hungry"? (Or, in the case of Toms Shoes, which will give a pair of shoes to "a child in need" if you will buy a pair for yourself) "children without shoes"?

Perhaps it's just a matter of tone, and others will not find this demeaning. But there's another reason the terms "needy" or "in need" are popular. They tug at the heartstrings of those who might give, yet they are meaninglessly vague.

"Needy child" allows you, the reader, to conjure up a picture of a bedraggled child, then reach for your credit card. If you one day discover that the child who got the benefit was neither hungry nor poorly clothed, you can't accuse the INGO of actually lying. Of the 1492 children who got a pair of Toms Shoes in a study commissioned by Toms, 1490 already had a pair of shoes and most had two pairs. But "Give shoes to a needy child" might make you open your wallet; "give a child his third pair of shoes" will not.

True "empowerment" means seeing that people have the potential to do many things, perhaps even everything, for themselves. To describe them as "needy" is to deliberate look away from that fact.

The preschool teacher quoted above had the right idea. Yes, there are people in need of various things. True "empowerment," that word so overused by INGOs trying to do the precise opposite, means seeing that in nearly every case, these people have the potential to do many things, and perhaps even everything, for themselves. To describe them as "needy" is to deliberately look away from that fact. Unicef and the aid industry create an ethos which encourages potential donors to see poorer people as merely a passive receptacle waiting for help.

Unicef has been around for two generations. By now, they could have figured that out. If they wanted to.

[In Pygmalion and Golem we look at the tendency for people providing aid to underestimate the populations they wish to help. In Toms Shoes, we see just how eagerly the "needy" appellation is used as a merchandizing tool by businesses and INGOs alike.]

Notes and Sources

1. Unicef website. Google showed more than 5,000 pages on the Unicef site with the word "needy." (back)

2. This got us curious. Is the word "needy" used much more in connection with Africa, for fundraising purposes, than with other locations? We googled: Of all the web pages with the word Africa, what percentage also have the word "needy"? Then we did the same for another location not considered poor, randomly picking Japan simply because a book about Japan happened to be on the desk at that time. "Needy" was twice as likely to be used on a page for Africa — a clear difference, but less than we had expected. Then we did a double-take as we looked at the results. For Africa, 8 of the first 10 pages were seeking donations to help those needy people, just as expected. For Japan, 7 of the first 10 pages were for pornography; none were fundraising sites. We have discontinued this line of investigation. (back)