OxBlog

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

# Posted 10:38 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

"THIS NICKEL COULD SAVE A CHILD'S LIFE!" That's what it said on the outside of an envelope I got from UNICEF earlier this evening. Lo and behold, an actual nickel was visible through the window on the front of the envelope. Yes, a child's life was in my hands. Buwahahaha!

As you might guess, OxBlog is not fond of such melodramatic stunts. If a nickel can do that much good, don't send it to me. Send it to some kid in Africa. But UNICEF anticipated this sort of skeptical response. When you take the card out of the envelope, you see a small message that says:
As a sign of your support, please return this nickel with your contribution -- it might be enough to save a child's life!
Well that's just another stunt. The minimum suggested donation is $25, or 500 nickels. Sending back the one they gave your is irrelevant.

But I didn't put up this post just because I feel like taking cheapshots at a UN agency. (That's what all my other posts are for!) Actually, I'm sort of curious whether you really can save a life for a nickel. Here's how the UNICEF letter to potential donors begins:
Dear Friend of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF,

Imagine that your daughter was deathly ill and your doctor said it would take little more than 5 cents to save her life...

or for just 50 cents, your son could be immunized against a deadly disease that kills hundreds of thousands of children each year...

or you could protect a niece or a grandchild from a variety of childhood ilnesses for just 3 cents.
However, many parents in the developing world don't have that option:
All they can do is hold their sick child in their arms...

...watch the despair the dying toddler's innocent eyes...

...feel the tiny body go slack as the final heartbeats become weaker...

...and realize that a young life has forever slipped away.
I'm sorry. All I can think of is Sally Struthers crying. This letter is a parody of itself.

But what about the real issue here? If kids are dying, shouldn't we forgive a little melodrama on the part of the fundraisers?

Personally, I'm a little skeptical. Even in the poorest countries in the world, where citizens live on the equivalent of just one dollar a day, parents should be able to afford 5 cents to save their children's live or perhaps even 50 cents to immunize them.

Something here just doesn't add up. Here's how the UNICEF letter explains one of its numbers:
Your gift of $25 could provide over 400 packets of Oral Rehydration Salts to families in areas with unsafe water supplies. And each one of these ORS packets -- costing only 6 cents could save a child's life.
As a disciple of the free market, I have to wonder why, if these packets only cost 6 cents, some indigenous entrepreneur hasn't already marketed them to desperate parents for 7 or 8 cents.

Yes, my language is cold-hearted. But only to make a point: that UNICEF isn't telling us the whole story. Something is preventing parents from taking care of their children. A civil war? A dictatorship? Widespread corruption? All of these are fairly common in the developing world and, I suspect, probably raise the actual cost of delivering hydration salts to far in excess of 6 cents per packet.

Speaking more broadly, UNICEF's rhetoric encapsulates what is wrong with old-school thinking about development. The experts used to think that if had enough money you could solve any problem. Yet social pathologies often defy economic medicine. Now the challenge is to understand how the system as a whole operates.

But I'd like to hear what you think about UNICEF. Do you give them money? Do you know of any reports or articles about the accuracy of their advertisements? Have they accomplished as much they say? I'm curious.
(4) opinions -- Add your opinion

Comments:
Did you really just spend 650 words questioning a UNICEF-Save a Baby ad?
 
I wonder if the return on their nickel mailings is greater than 1 in 500?
 
when I worked in Africa, the government helped in the cost of measles vaccine. It cost $1 a dose, and they sold it to us for 30cents. We split it in three and gave it and asked the moms to contribute five cents. Some didn't have the five cents (they could work in our hospital garden, or brew beer and sell it, or do odd jobs, so it wasn't poverty.) So yes, five cents could "save" a child' Five cents would buy a yeast extract that when mixed with sugar and vitamins and let sit for 24 hours would result in a high protein drink for malnourised children. We "sold" it at baby clinic, and the schools gave a drink of it to their students.
The problem with the five cents is overhead. If you want to check the money gets to the poor, it takes a lot of honesty and supervision.
And supervisors, even if they are nuns with vows of poverty, have to eat and drink and drive a car.
 
Well, if five cents is all it takes, then Warren Buffett's contribution alone has saved the whole world many times over.
 
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