Unicef needs the “needy” — who benefits from that?

“A focus on weaknesses hides talent and potential.”
–Mauricio L. Miller in The Alternative: Most of What You Believe About Poverty Is Wrong

by Sasha Alyson

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

But Unicef wasn’t listening. Thousands of pages on their website refer to needy children, needy women, needy girls, and needy families, and needy anything else, generally in the context of “Here’s why you should donate to Unicef.”(2)

Egypt: “In view of a large number of needy women…”

Ethiopia: “…on-lending to other needy women…”

Ghana: “…scholarship for needy girls…”

Iran: “…identify the needy families…”

Kenya: “…normal but needy families…”

Kyrgyzstan: “…improving access by needy families to social security programs…”

Somalia: “…bursaries for 452 needy girls.”

Sri Lanka: “…greater access for needy women and children….”

Sudan: “…special emphasis on needy populations…”

Uganda: “…hearing aids to 1,000 needy school children…”

Yemen: “A lifesaving mechanism for the needy people in Yemen…”

Zambia: “…take care of other needs for the needy…”

Zimbabwe: “…coverage of the needy children and their families…”

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. That’s in Gambia, where Unicef “mobilized resources for scholarships for girls and needy boys.”

Is my 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 my position:

I find the word “needy” to be particularly dehumanizing. It reduces people to one characteristic, almost always so someone else can raise funds to help them, or claim to help them.(3)

Is it worse than saying “children in need” or “children who are hungry”? 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.

The preschool teacher quoted above had the right idea. Yes, there are people in need of various things. Genuine “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.

It is not only donors whose views are shaped by this attitude. Above, I quoted Mauricio L. Miller, whose work at an anti-poverty agency led him to conclude that most such programs had everything backwards. He writes: “Sadly, even the families participating in these programs start to question their own competence as they promote themselves as needy.”

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

Notes and Sources:

1. “In Turkey, teachers learn how to work better with their Syrian refugee pupils,” on Unicef website, viewed on 31 July 2020.

2. On 31 July 2020 Google reported “about 1,390” pages on the Unicef site with the word “needy” while another search engine, Bing, counted a walloping 12,500. Some of the discrepancy probably comes from different ways of counting situations when an organization uses computerized systems to put identical text onto dozens or even hundreds of pages, thus trying to drive all eyeballs to them, and crowding out other voices. All examples here were found on Unicef.org, in July 2020.

3. This got me curious. Is the word “needy” used much more in connection with Africa, for fundraising purposes, than with other locations? I Googled: Of all the web pages with the word Africa, what percentage also have the word “needy”? Then I did the same for another location, randomly picking Japan. “Needy” was twice as likely to be used on a page for Africa — a clear difference, but less than I had expected. Then I studied 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. I have discontinued this line of investigation.

Top photo: Unicef’s needy families. Unicef used this picture to describe its research concerning “needy families” in the Kyrgyz Republic. (c) UNICEF. Used for purposes of comment and criticism under Fair Use provisions of copyright law.

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