When good intentions are valued over effective change, resources that should be used for effective change are diverted to create an image of moral goodness or greatness.
In the article, Raising the World’s I.Q., Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times suggests that a worthwhile initiative for positive change in the world is often overlooked because of its image problems:
Travelers to Africa and Asia all have their favorite forms of foreign aid to “make a difference.” One of mine is a miracle substance that is cheap and actually makes people smarter.
Unfortunately, it has one appalling side effect. No, it doesn’t make you sterile, but it is just about the least sexy substance in the world. Indeed, because it’s so numbingly boring, few people pay attention to it or invest in it. (Or dare write about it!)
It’s iodized salt.
Almost one-third of the world’s people don’t get enough iodine from food and water. The result in extreme cases is large goiters that swell their necks, or other obvious impairments such as dwarfism or cretinism. But far more common is mental slowness.
When a pregnant woman doesn’t have enough iodine in her body, her child may suffer irreversible brain damage and could have an I.Q. that is 10 to 15 points lower than it would otherwise be. An educated guess is that iodine deficiency results in a needless loss of more than 1 billion I.Q. points around the world.
Development geeks rave about the benefits of adding iodine and other micronutrients (such as vitamin A, iron, zinc and folic acid) to diets. The Copenhagen Consensus, which brings together a panel of top global economists to find the most cost-effective solutions to the world’s problems, puts micronutrients at the top of the list of foreign aid spending priorities.
“Probably no other technology,” the World Bank said of micronutrients, “offers as large an opportunity to improve lives … at such low cost and in such a short time.”
Yet the strategy hasn’t been fully put in place, partly because micronutrients have zero glamour. There are no starlets embracing iodine. And guess which country has taken the lead in this area by sponsoring the Micronutrient Initiative? Hint: It’s earnest and dull, just like micronutrients themselves.
Ta-da — Canada!
While the United States’ tripartite motto is the rousing “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Canada’s corresponding tripartite motto is relatively boring and matter-of-fact: “peace, order and good government”. Relative to the United States, Canada is lacking in drama, which is arguably a good thing. While very few Canadians are incredibly wealthy, we have a cost-effective public health care system and a higher life expectancy. While Canada has more restrictions on free speech, white supremacist organizations are diminished by the illegality of hate propaganda.
Nevertheless, very few Canadians are aware of Canada’s Micronutrient Initiative. We are more likely to be aware of the U.S. non-profit organization One Laptop per Child. Providing the world with micronutrients is solidly effective but boring, while providing laptops to children in developing countries is creative but of questionable value. Kid-sized green-and-white plastic laptops are both visually appealing and concrete, while micronutrients are invisible and intangible.
When the “activist” chooses romantic imagery and symbols of change over change itself, he improves his own image in the eyes of his peers. “Feel-good activism” feels good to “activist” only; it is self-indulgence disguised as altruism.