If giving up something as superfluous as your phone for ten minutes could provide something as critical as a day’s worth of drinking water to someone in need, would you do it?
That’s the premise of UNICEF’s new Tap Project, where millennials like me (and anyone else with a smartphone) can help those in poverty by putting down their phones for a good cause. The way it works: UNICEF’s donors – Giorgio Armani being the most notable of them – will donate clean drinking water to those who otherwise would not have access to it based on the amount of time you go without checking your phone.
I should start by saying that I’m including the link to the project for a reason: While this post is going to highlight some issues with the economic incentives that produced this project, there is absolutely no reason for you as an individual to not participate in it.
While I’m not unsympathetic to the “So they’ll provide less drinking water if fewer people down their phones?” criticism often levied against campaigns like this one, I certainly wouldn’t have donated directly to UNICEF on my own (and, to be fair, when you complete the project you are directed to a page where you can make a direct contribution), and I’d be willing to bet that a lot of smartphone users are in that boat right along with me.
This being the case, the project will not only result in more clean drinking water for those in desperate need of it than there would be otherwise, it will result in lack of access to clean drinking water becoming a salient issue for more people like me – one that we may actually act on instead of merely acknowledge.
But a part of me is a hair cynical, more of my own motives than of anything else. When I shared the link to this project on my Facebook page, I couldn’t help but think that I was doing so, in part, to show my friends how unplugged and civically-aware I was. Sure, I want to help people who don’t have access to drinking water, but I especially want to help them if it’s in my direct interest to do so. If it costs me nothing, and I get to look like a good citizen to my peers, I gain utility in purely economic terms.
And this phenomenon isn’t limited to me and my smartphone: Increasingly, businesses and causes alike have found it advantageous to capitalize on our moral and social aspirations. As Slavoj Zizek articulates this clip, this means that our good deeds have increasingly become swept up in our material conveniences:
Rather than working to create a society in which charity isn’t necessary, because everyone has enough to begin with, or even acting in ways that directly promote the general welfare of others, we have merged our good deeds with our consumerist tendencies. And now that we have done so, big businesses (Zizek uses Starbucks and TOMS shoes as his foils) operating in a loosely-regulated free market have taken it upon themselves to provide their consumers with the opportunity to, as he puts it, “buy [their] redemption from being only a consumerist.” And if it works, and helps people in the process, why not?
The problems charities often face is that we want to feel as though we’re good human beings, but our self-interest makes us want to give up as little as possible in order to do so. So rather than going out of our way to help those in need, or working to change the socioeconomic arrangement in its entirety, we satiate our inner anti-consumerist by buffering our conscience with more moral purchases. It’s as simple as moving one basket over in the supermarket aisle to buy certified organic apples instead of the regular ones, maybe even paying a little extra for them.
And by co-opting our self-interest, this aggregation of good-deeds-as-purchases is a form of charity that can’t be called selfless. After all, is charity supposed to be good business? When Whole Foods asks you to donate five cents per purchase to their microfinance program, is it out of the goodness of their hearts, or because it makes you feel good about shopping at Whole Foods? While the program has certainly done a great deal of good, that good is incidental and would not exist if it were not in Whole Foods’ direct interest. (And considering Whole Foods’ right-wing political baggage, it’s no surprise they’re trying to burnish their do-good bona fides.)
So, to restate the point made above, while UNICEF’s Tap Project may not result in the maximum possible amount of clean drinking water being provided to those who need it, it engages people like me who would not be involved if it required an actual donation that we couldn’t publicize on Facebook and, in doing so, will result in far more drinking water being provided than there would be otherwise.
We shouldn’t blame UNICEF or any of these businesses for cashing in on our slacktivist consciences; they’re merely responding to incentives. As Zizek points out, the problem is the system itself: a system in which businesses have a financial incentive to behave better is certainly better than a system in which big businesses don’t have such an incentive, but it’s not as good as a system in which charity of this nature isn’t necessary in the first place.
This leads Zizek to conclude that “It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property,” and that we should recognize that, while charity is better than nothing, and it’s better to be conscious of the impact of your purchases than it is to not be, transactions encouraged by companies like TOMS shoes – buy one pair; one pair gets donated to a child in need – come with some degree of hypocrisy.
This is all to say that the next time a business tells you that “x cents out of your purchase goes to y charity,” you don’t have to feel bad about it – it’s still a net positive over not participating. But you should also recognize that this is a self-interested band-aid, falling short of a best-case scenario for promoting the general welfare, one in which you need no incentive to do good.
Now, go put your phone down and give someone access to clean drinking water.