Nobody is a bigger fan of helping children in third world countries get access to clean drinking water than I am. Well, except for Matt Damon, or the tens of thousands of international NGO employees working to bring potable water to impoverished communities, or the millions of people who have donated any sum of money to the cause. I guess what I’m really trying to say is that even though I totally support people in third world countries getting clean water, I’m not going to play that UNICEF “don’t touch your phone” game everyone is posting on Facebook.
Back in college I ate a fair amount of Yoplait Light, both because it was extremely cheap and because it was one of the few dairy products I could trust to not give me digestive shenanigans in class. I soon noticed that around Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, Yoplait would put pink foil tops on their yogurt containers instead of the ordinary silver ones. The text on the packaging encouraged customers to mail the pink foil lids back to Yoplait, because for every lid they received they would donate 10 cents to Susan G. Komen.
My grandmother was a breast cancer survivor, and for a little while I gave some thought to hoarding my yogurt lids and mailing them to Yoplait to cure cancer, even if it sounded kind of like the sort of thing Howard Hughes would do in his later years. I assumed that General Mills would donate 10 cents per lid to breast cancer research until the charity drive ended, the only limit to their altruism being how many people sent in lids. If they got two lids in the mail, they’d donate 20 cents – if they got 300 million lids in the mail, then they'd have to donate $30 million, right? This seemed like a good way to contribute money to a good cause without, y’know, contributing money.
What stopped me was the fine print on one of the lids:
"General Mills will donate 10 cents to Susan G. Komen, up to $1.5 million."
General Mills had decided ahead of time that $1.5 million was all the money they wanted to donate to breast cancer research in a given year. And that’s great – good for them for wanting to use some of their money to help people! But here’s why I spitefully threw out all of my lids:
If you’ve already decided that you’re willing to donate $1.5 million, why don’t you just donate the fucking money up front and forget about the whole pink lid thing? Why is your charity incumbent upon my willingness to mail you garbage!?
That brings me to the UNICEF Tap Project – a slick social media program where UNICEF donates money for clean water projects in impoverished countries based on how long participants can go without touching their phones. 10 phoneless minutes, for example, is enough to provide a one-day supply of clean water to a child in need. In theory, the longer we fortunate first world people go without our electronic luxury goods, the more humanitarian aid gets delivered to less fortunate third world people.
The statements made on this app are for illustrative purposes only. For every minute a user refrains from touching his or her phone, she/he will unlock a small portion of a sponsor’s donation.
And then, at the bottom of the legal page:
Subject to the pledged limits from our generous donors and sponsors.
The project’s two sponsors have pledged a combined total of $175,000. If you and me and everybody we’ve ever met locked all of our phones in Fort Knox for a year, theoretically racking up hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pure water, the communities in need would still get $175,000.
And while I don’t have any evidence to back this up, between you and me, I feel as though that $175,000 is going to get donated whether people touch their phones or not.* I mean, I find it kind of hard to picture a UN employee yanking a bottle of water out of a Pakistani child’s hands just because a systems administrator in Wichita started playing Angry Birds before his ten minutes was up.
*One of the sponsors, Giorgio Armani Fragrances, is already going to donate $500,000 no matter what.
I’ve been wrestling with whether or not to write this update for a couple of weeks now, because what the hell am I really trying to accomplish here? Blow the lid off UNICEF’s insidious plan to give children water? Shame my friends for being compassionate? Suggest that $175,000 somehow isn’t going to help a whole lot of people in need?
What UNICEF is really trying to do here is raise awareness about water insecurity – a noble goal which they seem to be succeeding at, based on the number of Facebook and Twitter posts I’ve seen about this project over the past month or so. If you’ve taken part in the Tap Project, you’ve contributed to a good cause. I guess I just want to temper some of the stronger enthusiasm I’ve seen from people gearing up to save the world by going phoneless for extended periods of time.
When all is said and done, the only person who really benefits from you not touching your phone is you. If you feel so strongly about this issue that you want to abandon your phone for a week, that’s your choice – but you should know going in that what you’re really doing is controlling the distribution of a pre-pledged donation, two and half tenths of a cent at a time. If you want to help that badly, you could do more, faster by making a direct donation through UNICEF’s site.
Much respect to UNICEF and everybody involved for raising awareness for a worthy cause - I just want to raise awareness about how they're raising awareness.
Truman Capps is waiting for the UNICEF program where every time a person in a third world country drinks a glass of clean water, a person in America gets a new phone.