The United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF), works to improve the lives of children living in poverty by providing health care, clean water and sanitation, and emergency relief. New this year to UNICEF is the Tap Project, an initiative that seeks to provide children world-wide with safe drinking water through an app that purports to save lives if the user is willing to go ten minutes without using their phone.
Providing safe drinking water is essential to the health of adults and children. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1.8 million people die every year from water-borne diarrhoeal diseases such as Cholera and Giardia. Waterborne illnesses are the leading cause of malnutrition and the second leading cause of death in children under five. A person who dies from these infections has suffered from severe dehydration and fluid loss caused by diarrhoea. Those most at-risk for this type of disease are undernourished children and people living with HIV. Up to 88% of diarrhoeal diseases can be prevented through access to potable water and adequate sanitation and hygiene.
Diarrhoeal diseases disproportionately affect those living in extreme poverty in developing countries. The WHO quotes the following as the primary issues behind the high rates of illness. Addressing each of these is necessary to lift the burden of disease in the developing world.
- lack of priority given to the sector
- lack of financial resources
- lack of sustainability of water supply and sanitation services
- poor hygiene behaviours
- inadequate sanitation in public places including hospitals, health centres and schools.
Since 1990, UNICEF has been working towards providing over 2 billion people with access to clean drinking water. They began a project in 2007 called the UNICEF Tap Project, which strives to provide children worldwide with clean water. This year they have developed an app that supporters can download onto their phone. When running, the app records how long the phone remains unused. For every minute the phone is left untouched, this year’s UNICEF partners, Giorgio Armani and UNICEF’s Next Generation (a group of young professionals), will individually donate $.0025 to the project. Giorgio Armani has also committed to donate $5 from every Acqua di Giò and Acqua di Gioia fragrance purchased in the United States.
At first blush, users might rally at the idea that by not using their phone for a measly ten minutes, they can provide enough water for a child in the developing world. The great thing is, aside from downloading the app and turning it on, they don’t have to do a thing. In a recent Huffington Post article by Carina Kolodny, entitled Ditch Your Phone, Save a Life, the author discusses the benefits of turning off your cellphone. She comes to the realization that although going without a phone all day caused her anxiety, this discomfort is nothing compared to living without having your basic needs met, like access to clean water or medical care. What is misleading about the article and the project itself is a sense that by turning off your phone, you have saved someone’s life, when in reality you have done nothing. The donations provided by the sponsors already exist. The money is not raised by turning off your phone, it does not magically appear from the ether as each minute goes by. The third party “fundraiser” that the app user becomes is essentially unnecessary. Giorgio Armani and UNICEF’s Next Generation have committed to donating $175,000 to the project, and could imaginably donate this money without someone downloading an app on their phone, and the money and time spent on developing the app could have been put directly towards the project, or towards sending skilled volunteers overseas.
UNICEF does have an option for individuals to donate to the project, and volunteer positions are available, but this information is overshadowed on their website with the attention paid to the app. While turned on, the app does spit out facts (although it is unclear in Kolodny’s article the subject, context, and depth of these facts), but the phone must remain untouched and unmoved for the app to keep running. What are the potential repercussions to this kind of feel-good project? Will it encourage people to become more active in development work and more knowledgeable about issues facing a large portion of the world’s population? Or will it instead further ingrain the passivity of Facebook era activism, where people feel they have made a difference by liking a photo, or by turning a real social issue into a meme to be shared on the internet?
It’s wonderful that UNICEF and its sponsors are working at public engagement and raising funds for a very real and serious issue that affects millions of people in the developing world every year. This is not in question. Rather, what effect does this kind of advertising have on the general public? Kolodny’s article contains a few self-reflexive sentences in which she realizes what she expects from her daily life is not universal, and perhaps not even the norm, but what she finds most enjoyable about using the app is the feeling of “saving” someone else and finding a new antique store in downtown Manhattan.
Note: The WHO referred to the type of infection as one disease (Diarrhoeal), but other sources refer to it as a classification of infection.