Argument

Cards Against Humanitarians

How a satirical card game is skewering the international development industry — and raising uncomfortable critiques of the global development agenda.

Copy of ja_cards_main_image_3 cropped

On Friday, heads of state — along with Nobel Prize winners, Pope Francis, and Beyoncé — convened at the United Nations in New York to inaugurate a grand new agenda to improve human welfare. Known as the Sustainable Development Goals (or, supposedly catchier, the “Global Goals”), the scheme consists of seventeen objectives — from “ending poverty in all its forms” to “conserving and sustainably using the oceans” — that are supposed to be achieved by 2030. As is de rigueur for grandiose United Nations summits, the formal festivities were accompanied by a bewildering array of over a hundred side events hosted by national governments, U.N. bodies, and NGOs large and small. If there’s a nerve center for the hive mind that is the international development industry, this was it.

Needless to say, this very serious industry has its very serious critics. But few are as creative (or as hilarious) as three young development professionals who, in the last few weeks, have chosen to express their discontent by self-publishing a satirical card game. JadedAid is modeled on the popular millennial game, Cards Against Humanity, in which players compete to select the funniest (or most vulgar) answers to a set of “fill-in-the-blank” questions. Just a week since its opening, the JadedAid KickStarter campaign has collected nearly twenty thousand dollars — far ahead of its creators’ targets — and the game is well on its way to completion. As an example of the kind of decidedly un-pc satire the game provides, here is one possible combination of cards:

http://ja_cards_horz_4

Some of the card ideas were developed by the game’s inventors, who, all in their thirties, have extensive experience in the technology and communication side of the development industry. But the vast majority of the suggestions (nearly 800 at last count) were submitted by friends, colleagues, and anonymous development workers. One of the game’s co-founders, Jessica Heinzelman, 36, attributes the game’s immediate appeal to the need for development workers to “let off some steam” by subjecting their experiences in the field to mockery.

Judging by the submissions, that experience can be fraught with generational, financial, and above all, racial angst. Heinzelman calculated that the word that has appeared in the submissions most often was “white.” (One of the possible fill-in-the-blanks is “Foreign assistance was started to feed white people’s unquenchable thirst for ______.” Possible answers include “the perfect handicapped brown person,” “a sinking boat full of brown people,” and other sarcastic takes on racialized development tropes.) Outside of a room of semi-inebriated development workers, these answers would elicit uncomfortable grimaces — but getting them out there is part of the point. “If we can galvanize people to not be so uncomfortable about saying the things they’ve always wanted to say, maybe we can have much more nuanced, more honest panel discussions on development issues that I get to attend as the token African,” says co-founder Teddy Ruge, 39, a Ugandan writer, technology entrepreneur, and development critic.

For Ruge, the submissions point out not only an uncomfortable racial dynamic, but a deep divide between how development is perceived by the “developed” and “developing” worlds. “I have an entire village of people that have been resilient,” he says, “but now there’s a white van over there coming and teaching us about resilience. If it wasn’t for resilience, we wouldn’t have survived for a thousand years waiting for your SUV to come and rescue us.” Ruge wants the development agenda to be driven by developing countries themselves, not by well-meaning outsiders. Similarly, he suggests that the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals might look considerably different if the concept of development were not “defined by western organizations.” (As Ruge expounds on this topic, his co-founders joke that their game needs a new card: “An educated angry African man yelling at me.”)

For its part, the U.N. says that the goals were developed in a transparent process that represents “an unprecedented agreement around sustainable development priorities among 193 member states.” Many of the goals are focused on concrete targets such as eliminating hunger or reducing maternal mortality.

Judging from JadedAid’s enthusiastic reception among development practitioners, the game’s criticism has certainly hit a nerve. Beyond the fraught politics of development, many of the cards mock other ever-present industry complaints. Some cards (“What’s the best use for unpaid interns?” or “I can’t believe you just got a Western Union transfer from your mom to pay for ______”) make fun of the low salaries common in the field, particularly for younger workers. Other cards (“a photogenic rape victim,” “holding a child’s unwashed hands”) critique the way aid organizations sometimes exploit images of the people they’re meant to serve for organizational gain. Still others (“elderly chiefs of party,” referring to managers of aid organizations’ field offices) send up the generational gap between junior and senior development professionals.

But JadedAid’s third founder, Wayan Vota, 42, who describes himself as a “dot com refugee,” is careful to stress the founders’ optimism. “There are crappy parts [to the industry],” he says, “and there’s huge room for improvement. But we want to improve what we love, not to tear it down.” At the very least, if JadedAid’s crowdfunding success continues, attendees of the United Nations’ next development summit may pass some of their idle hours with these cards in hand.

http://ja_cards_horz_3

Images courtesy of JadedAid.

Correction, September 29, 2015: Wayan Vota is 42 years old, not 38, as the article originally stated.

Ilya Lozovsky is assistant editor of Democracy Lab. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he worked as program officer for Eurasia at Freedom House, providing emergency support to human rights activists and organizations across that continent. @ichbinilya

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