I heard John Humphreys on the Today programme interviewing Clare Akamanzi, the chief executive of the Rwanda Development Board, about its decision to sponsor Arsenal Football Club to the tune of about £30m (although she said the figure was much lower than reported).
Mr Humphreys sounded appalled that a country that was given about £60m in aid by the UK last year had made this decision. Ms Akamanzi replied that Rwanda was determined to move away from being aid-dependent (surely a laudable aim) and a core part of its strategy was to boost the tourism industry.
She pointed out that to do that it needed to advertise and with this sponsorship deal, for a relatively small sum, Rwanda will reach about 34 million people every time an Arsenal shirt is worn. The RDB estimates that this could generate something in the region of £300m for the Rwandan economy. In effect, a fantastic return on investment. And isn’t that what development aid is for?
I think this is an act of marketing genius. In fact, it is so clever that even the controversy about it is having an effect because, despite the generally negative reporting, which appears largely to have overlooked the sound economics behind the action, Rwanda has suddenly appeared in the nation's consciousness as a place to visit.
Reluctantly setting aside the unattractive whiff of patriarchal colonialism in some of the commentary about Rwanda's decision, I must acknowledge that John Humphreys is a professional journalist, not a qualified marketer, so his ignorance of the basics of marketing is understandable. And it is entirely right that non-experts should ask questions: blind acceptance of expert views certainly isn't healthy. However, problems occur when people believe that their not terribly well-informed opinions about the best ways to, for example, redevelop a nation's economy are as valid as those of the experts.
This sort of thinking can cause problems in our sector too. It sometimes feels as if we are beset by people who do not understand how charities work but nonetheless tell us how we should fundraise, how we should pay ourselves and how we should serve our beneficiaries.
For instance, there are some folk who complain about charities sending gifts in their direct mailings. Their argument is that it’s a waste of money and it doesn’t work. Except that they’re wrong. It does work. It’s based on the reciprocity principle (which you know if you are expert in psychology, behavioural economics or marketing). That’s why charities do it.
Unfortunately, in this keyboard-warrior, anti-expertise, all-opinions-are-equal world there is a very real danger that folk’s opinions about something they don’t actually properly understand will derail an important idea or action that could bring tangible and life-changing results. We need to bring back the notion that experts know what they’re doing and are worth listening to.
Until I heard the story about Rwanda and Arsenal it would never have occurred to me to consider Rwanda as a holiday destination. I'm certainly considering it now! So it's already working!
Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change