Those ubiquitous blue backpacks: Who’s helping who?

by Sasha Alyson

It’s a common sight in the global South to see children walking to and from school with UNICEF-branded backpacks. One’s first thought may be, “They’re lucky that UNICEF is helping them get a better education.” But do these giveaways really improve the quality of education for children? Or do they just promote the UNICEF brand — with children as free, walking billboards?

I’d say the latter. It is wrong to send children the message that their families and communities cannot support them — especially when that is simply not the case.

This self-promotion goes against every ideal that UNICEF claims to hold dear.

Aid should offer temporary help, to do necessary things that people couldn’t do otherwise. It should not consist of giving away things just to advertise yourself.

There’s no reason to believe children are getting a better education because of these backpacks. None.

Children don’t need backpacks to carry their books. Past generations did not. Children have hands. Their family surely has, or can make, a bookbag – perhaps with local fabric and designs. If it’s needed at all. The children’s backpacks I’ve seen typically contain one notebook and one pencil; or they are empty.

The money could be better used. Reporting on vaccines, UNICEF states that “across West and Central Africa, just 66% of girls and boys are fully protected against common infectious diseases.”(1) But it has the funds to shower Africa with UNICEF-branded knapsacks, instead of vaccinating more. What are the priorities here?

Free goods undermine the local economy. In life-threatening circumstances, free goods may be appropriate. A free-backpack program doesn’t pass the bar.

Free goods encourage dependency. They send the message “You’d be helpless without us.” For years, Toms Shoes told buyers in the West: Buy a pair of our shoes for yourself, and we’ll give a free pair to a child in need, which will improve foot health and increase school attendance. Toms commissioned an independent evaluation of the program, expecting to prove both points. As it turned out, the free shoes achieved neither of these things – but they did increase children’s sense of dependence on outside help.(2)

This symbolizes UNICEF’s relentless focus on form over function, style over substance. UNICEF seeks to impress with big, pseudo-precise numbers. For example: “15,020 learners and teachers benefitted from school-in-a-box kits” in Zimbabwe in 2017.(3) But that assumes everybody at a school that got a kit is sure to have received a benefit. Life’s not so simple. Did the students learn more? Nobody knows; UNICEF isn’t trying to find out.

From those who defend the knapsack program, I’ve heard three arguments:

“They can’t afford a knapsack.” While there’s no way to be certain, the children shown above appear to come from families that could afford a knapsack if it was needed. But it’s not needed, so the argument is irrelevant. (Click arrows on left and right or dots below the picture, depending on browser, to see three pictures, all from UNICEF promotional materials. And in the first picture, why are two students in the back both hiding their giggles? What do they know that we don’t know?)

“The knapsacks come with school supplies inside.” Some (perhaps all; UNICEF isn’t clear) packs are delivered with a few notebooks, pencils, etc., inside. The contents appear to have less value than the knapsack; are they merely an excuse to give away branded knapsacks? The notebooks also carry the large UNICEF name on the cover. UNICEF’s criteria for school support seems to be whether something has a flat surface on which to print its logo.(4)

“Giving out knapsacks increases school enrollment.” Parents want their children to learn. The U.N., on the other hand, is infatuated with the notion that getting children in the South to merely enroll in school is the end in itself. The U.N. won. Today we have more children in school but learning less; children finishing primary school but unable to read their own name; high school and college graduates unable to find a job because they have no skills that an employer needs. We must stop acting like this ill-conceived enrollment goal is worth chasing.(5)

UNICEF promotes its brand. It spreads good karma: Everyone’s happy to get something free, and superficially, the ubiquitous blue backpacks seem helpful. The harm is subtle and easily overlooked – undermining the economy, creating a sense of dependency.

This is a propaganda campaign. UNICEF wants us to associate its name with education. But in most developing countries, evidence shows that education quality has plummeted in the quarter-century that the U.N. has been shaping policies. Even UNICEF finally admits this. And of the actual cost of schooling, other sources (mostly government and parents, sometimes other donors), pay for the big items such as teacher salaries and facilities. UNICEF is after a low-cost branding opportunity.

This is karma colonialism in action.

Notes and Sources

Photographs: All photos showing UNICEF backpacks are from UNICEF’s website and promotional materials.
1. Tweet from @UNICEF, 21-7-2020
2. You won’t find this evaluation mentioned on Toms website. You’ll find it on ours, however, at Toms Shoes Needs Needy Children. What Do The Children Need?
3. UNICEF Annual Report 2017 for Zimbabwe
4. UNICEF invites donors to buy backpacks and supplies, showing these contents:

5. A New York Times story used the title “More in School, but Not Learning.” Time magazine reported: “More Children Are Going to School in India, but They’re Learning Less.” More documentation is in our story Schools in the global South are getting worse. We need to ask why. And in a recent (2022) twist, UNICEF and others now exaggerate the problem, without asking about the cause, see Cooking the Numbers.

Comments from Twitter

We announced this story on Twitter, where readers made these comments. Please add your own comments at the bottom of this page.

Panford, @Pan_Phord: This analysis is eye-opening. It proves that no one, no organization, and no country helps Africa to develop the capacity to be competitive and independent.
I don’t know why our leaders don’t see it that way. Indeed, Karma Colonialism is real.

Abdisalam Yassin, @AbdisalamYassi1: Remember branding animals? That’s what these international agencies do. They put their brands in high visibility everywhere and anywhere they offer some help. So ostentatious! The alms of the rich North to the poor South! Better to keep their alms. We won’t perish.

The Last OG, @BlackSqript: I love your think pieces on foreign aid & how they adversely affect African countries, exposing the real reason behind it all, but would love to hear what are your solutions to this, reparations perhaps, complete pullout of western/asian/ European influence?
[Sasha replies: I think reparations are certainly due, and should be paid directly to individuals as cash transfers. Beyond that, rather than ‘giving’ more, the West should take less. Getting rid of tax havens would be one step. I’ve written more in Better Ways To Help.]

kudakwashe marazanye, @KMarazanye: Aid dehumanizes recipients. Takes away their dignity. When your family’s needs are met by the man next door you lose respect as family head in your family’s eyes.

gone, @WilLSOwN: Don’t trust UNICEF EVER.

Marsella Ariso, @MarsellaAriso2: That’s the image of Africa portrayed to the world and taught to generations!

Robert Taylor, @rwtbkk: Ariana Medical in Geo for years, we did the work then they showed up and did the photo ops.

B S HARIHARAN, @bshariharan: Yes. This should be stopped. They beg and take contributions from us and distribute as if they are doing it. Nonsense. Many have stopped their contribution seeing the malpractices in them.

ParapindaParapinda, @PParapinda: Spot on. Promoting the dependency syndrome. It’s colonialism in disguise.

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