Cover image courtesy of Nothing But Nets
–by Meghan McLeod and Adella Kuster–
This podcast analyzes mosquito net donations from the UN organization, Nothing But Nets, as a form of humanitarianism. The goal of Nothing but Nets is to distribute large quantities of mosquito nets to people at risk of malaria in Africa, and the organization accomplishes this mission with the assistance of donations and support from well-known celebrities. Nothing But Nets targets all areas in Africa at risk of malaria, but this podcast focuses on individual countries’ experiences with the disease and the humanitarian organization. Although commonly assumed to be an act with strictly positive outcomes, such as reduction in deaths from malaria, this is not always the case. It is necessary to understand both the positive and negative impacts of mass mosquito net distribution on a broader scale. Research suggests that insecticide-treated nets have resulted in an adaptation in mosquitoes that makes them immune to these measures. Additionally, the mass distribution of any product, with no cost to consumers, will inevitably disrupt the economic system of a society. This podcast aims to objectively study Nothing But Nets and critically evaluate the common assumptions surrounding the subject. We find that the organization’s approach suffers from oversimplification, lack of follow-up, lack of research into mosquito biting patterns, and ignoring local opinion. Most crucially, because it doesn’t incorporate the voices of local residents, Nothing But Nets is not only ineffective, but the organization is harmful.
Meghan: From the University of Oklahoma
Adella: This is the Urge to Help podcast. I’m Adella Kuster, a junior environmental engineering major.
M: And I am Meghan McLeod, a senior international studies major, and we’re students in Dr. Andreana Prichard’s honors class, “Africa and the Urge to Help.” Our podcast is titled “Beyond the Netting: An Analysis of Nothing But Nets.” Nothing But Nets is a campaign under the United Nations Foundation that fundraises for mosquito nets to prevent malaria in Africa. The organization mentions Africa in a general sense but narrows its focus in its impact stories.
A: Throughout the podcast, we follow a critical investigation of the campaign’s urge to help, observing the initial founding and the motives for donors’ participation. We will discuss the tactics used by Nothing But Nets to attract donors and examine the appeal of such an organization. Then, we will explain the complications that can occur when a humanitarian organization oversimplifies complicated issues, and we will analyze the weaknesses of the organization. Nothing But Nets donates mosquito nets but does not conduct many follow-up investigations. We show that donations are not always used for protection against mosquitos and that even when they are, they impact more than the prevalence of malaria. Finally, we discuss possible steps Nothing But Nets can take to create a more effective organization.
M: This analysis is important because of the current misinformation and lack of education surrounding humanitarian aid and mosquito net donations. Our conclusion, and what we hope to help listeners realize, is that local residents understand their needs better than people half the world away. Nothing But Nets fails to incorporate local opinion, and this results in collapse of local markets, wasted goods, and unfulfilled necessities. To create a truly effective humanitarian organization, Nothing But Nets must include local voices.
A: So here’s a little background on malaria. It is a disease transmitted through bites from mosquitoes that creates flu-like symptoms and kills an estimated one to three million people of the three to five million cases each year (Sachs and Malaney 680). People at the highest risk are the elderly and young children, and malaria remains in an affected person’s body forever, so it can be reactivated at any time, making it a life-long chronic disease (Sachs and Malaney 680). Tropical regions are most severely impacted because of the year-round hot, humid climate that attracts mosquitoes (Sachs and Malaney 680). Unfortunately, these regions are often some of the poorest, with Africa alone accounting for 90% of malarial deaths (Sachs and Malaney 681).
M: Since these are regions with high poverty rates, weak infrastructure, and low health care accessibility, a treatable disease like malaria has more implications than it would in other regions (Sachs and Malaney 681). It is the cause of 20% of childhood deaths worldwide (Turner and Robinson 1067). High infant mortality rates cause families to bear more children, which has been shown by a correlation between infant mortality and fertility rates (Sachs and Malaney 682). Through this correlation, malaria further perpetuates the role of a woman as a child-bearer in developing regions (Sachs and Malaney 682). Infant mortality due to malaria also creates a loss of capital that was invested into the infants during pregnancy and prior to their deaths (Sachs and Malaney 682).
A: Malaria is also common in school-age children and can lead to absenteeism, shown by a study in Kenya that found students miss 11% of school days per year due to malaria (Sachs and Malaney 683). This then leads to higher school drop-out rates and a decrease in human capital because children are not as well-educated as those in developed countries (Sachs and Malaney 683). These domino-effect implications make malaria a perfect target for humanitarian efforts because a simple fix, such as mosquito nets, could have huge results if effectively implemented.
M: As stated before, Nothing But Nets is a campaign under the United Nations Foundation that hopes to eliminate the prevalence of malaria in Africa. It does not specify what areas, but it hopes to target those that need the most help. Ultimately, the goal is to eradicate the disease on the continent. It seeks to accomplish this through the mass-distribution of mosquito nets.
A: To work towards elimination of malaria, Nothing But Nets emphasizes that $10 is all it takes for an individual to save a life (“Director of…Urges Continued”). The organization makes their campaign as simple as possible in order to create accessibility for the general donor population. Laura Seay expresses an understanding of simplifying narratives; she explains that without simplification, organizations would likely fail (Seay 118). However, she also criticizes oversimplifying at the risk of leaving out important factors which we address later in the podcast (Seay 119).
M: The effectiveness of this simplicity is further shown by the substantial amounts of money raised by seven-year-old Katherine Commale. In just two years, she was able to give Nothing But Nets $43,000 courtesy of church fundraisers. She handmade gift cards that people gave others as presents to show that they made a donation to Nothing But Nets in their name (McNeil). In addition to simplicity, Nothing But Nets uses celebrity endorsements to increase donations.
A: In a press release from Nothing But Nets in December 2017, it was announced that Steph Curry would release a basketball shoe with Under Armour to benefit Nothing But Nets. For every pair sold, he will donate a net (“Stephen Curry and Under”). Steph Curry has previously partnered with Under Armour to design a shoe that sold out almost immediately and significantly boosted Under Armour’s profits for the quarter (Harper). This shows that a shoe designed and endorsed by Steph Curry sells very quickly, so many people likely bought the Nothing But Nets shoe simply because of Steph Curry’s involvement. Through this process, Nothing But Nets may gain donors who may not care, or even know, about the cause, but just want shoes designed by Steph Curry.
M: Nothing But Nets has also used social media to encourage donations. Turner and Robinson describe Nothing But Nets’ use of Twitter as a platform for donations (1067). A buzzing mosquito appears on the organization’s page, and if a user clicks on that, it will allow them to make a $10 donation to Nothing But Nets through their cell phone bill (Turner and Robinson 1067). Another new method of donations is via text. A donor can text a certain word to a certain number and a donation is automatically made through their phone bill (Turner and Robinson 1067).
A: This makes donations much faster and more likely because it removes a few steps (Lieber). As Ron Lieber puts it, for typical online donations, “you’re fumbling with your credit card and typing numbers, often on a tiny screen. At that point, it’s easy to lose your will and put off the donation until a later point that never actually arrives. The moment is lost precisely because it takes so much longer than a moment,” (Lieber). Nothing But Nets uses these fast mobile donations as a tactic to collect more small $10 donations.
M: Another tool used by Nothing But Nets to elicit increased donations is a platform called plyfe. This partnership enables the organization to access donors through the gaming universe and creates incentives for participation. Those who use plyfe are encouraged to play the game to earn prizes and save lives at the same time. The ultimate prize: tickets to see The Lion King on Broadway (“Game Over, Malaria”). This involvement with fundraising through gaming is an increasingly popular tactic. CNN’s Christopher Dawson tells of several different charities such as Child’s Play that have raised millions of dollars by partnering with gamers (Dawson).
A: It sounds like a win-win situation. However, is telling users that their participation in a game creates radical change on a different continent drastically oversimplifying reality? Concrete research concerning psychological effects of combining gaming with donations has not been conducted. Nothing But Nets itself is also guilty of publishing incomplete data.
M: The organization boasts large progress towards the elimination of malaria. The director explains that instead of a child dying every thirty seconds due to the disease, now the rate is only every minute (“Director of…Commends Steep Decline”). The website shows that, since 2000, there have been nearly seven million fewer deaths due to malaria than would have occurred without intervention. The organization also claims that nearly ninety percent of those with nets use them (“We’re Winning the Fight”). However, none of these facts state the actual individual impact of Nothing But Nets. It combines net donations as a whole instead of presenting data specific to its organization, and this is concerning for both donors and recipients. There is little to no data concerning Nothing But Nets alone.
A: Testimonials constitute the remaining portions of the website’s “Our Impact” page. Someone visiting the site can read the physical and psychological impacts of mosquito nets on individuals from South Sudan, Tanzania, Central African Republic, and Uganda (“We’re Winning the Fight”). A more detailed view of the impact comes in the form of a virtual reality film produced by the organization. Titled “Under the Net,” the story follows a young girl named Amisa and her family’s journey in relation to malaria (“Under the Net”).
M: The film shows that the family originally lived in the Congo but are now refugees in Tanzania. Viewers watch as Amisa explains the violence and fighting that saturates the area. Since her father is still in the Congo, Amisa tells viewers that malaria is even more of a concern. With the help of Nothing But Nets, Amisa and her family were given the chance to live (“Under the Net”).
A: This short film plays into multiple stereotypes and tactics to create more donor involvement. The emphasis on violence affecting innocent children does not immediately seem relevant to the issue of malaria, but it causes people to react. Those who watch “Under the Net” see that with their donations, they can also prevent a family from suffering from malaria on top of structural violence and poverty. Donors are motivated by the images of poor, needy people, so they are more likely to act when they see the struggles of a family affected by violence. In fact, Andrea Freidus explains that for voluntourists in the orphanage sector in southern Africa, “…the imagery of a needy, poor third world country requiring intervention is a central motivator” (Freidus 2).
M: Simplicity and the image of creating real change are only part of the motivations behind the urge to help in Nothing But Nets. Many cited BBC documentaries as introductions to the issue of malaria (McNeil). Rick Reilly notes that he was inspired to build the campaign itself due to one such documentary he happened upon while in a hotel on vacation with his daughter. This same motivator spurred the passion in the seven-year-old humanitarian (McNeil). People see those in need and are told that it is up to their individual contributions to help.
A: Especially with the testimonials found throughout Nothing But Nets’ website, people also maintain an urge to help because they can see concrete results. They build connections with children like Amisa, even though they will likely never meet. It is near impossible to imagine that Amisa would ever even know the names of the donors. However, those doing the donating can imagine this personal relationship because they DO hear the names. Or, at least the names of a few.
M: With mosquito nets specifically, donors are also more assured that their contributions will not be wasted. They are able to set a conditionality on their aid; the $10 will be spent on a mosquito net. Rick Reilly excitedly stated, “It’s not like we’re betting on some scientist somewhere coming up with a cure. And it’s not like warlords are going to hijack a truckload of nets” (Reilly). In his eyes, the fact that there is a physical net acts as security for donors’ money. Studies show that donors prefer to give to tangible causes where they can see that they are heroes (Cheney and Rotabi 12). This same concept is evident in the supposed orphan crises in Africa. Instead of donating towards a child protection system or something to that effect, people prefer to give money for a Western family to adopt an African child (Cheney and Rotabi 12).
A: Conditionality is difficult to avoid, but it’s necessary to eliminate it in order to create more effective aid. For example, GiveDirectly is an organization dedicated to giving aid in unconditional straight cash donations to the poor. The nonprofit found that even though they did not require recipients to spend the money on specific items, people still used it mostly for necessities, and spending on temptation items did not increase (Haushofer and Shapiro 2026). The organization was able to lend this assistance without imposing any conditionality.
M: Another motivation for the organization and its donors is a good public image. As we mentioned earlier, Steph Curry once addressed his urge to help by saying, “As a father, I can’t imagine a world where kids are still dying unnecessarily from a preventable disease like malaria” (“Stephen Curry and Under”). While this is probably part of his motivation for working with Nothing But Nets, he may also be working on his public image.
A: Through working with a humanitarian organization and donating mosquito nets that save the lives of poor, needy African children, Steph Curry creates an image of himself as a caring person who uses his fame and money for good. On the Nothing But Nets website, there are pictures of Steph Curry with African children, portraying him as a hero and a do-gooder.
M: Ashton Kutcher also worked with Nothing But Nets to bring the organization publicity and donations (Turner and Robinson 1067). Donors and those working with humanitarian organizations always have ulterior motives, and one of them for these celebrities may be creating a good public image.
A: Oversimplifying mosquito net donations through celebrity endorsements can have unexpected consequences. People ignore many complications relating to the nets. Ranson, et al. describe mosquitos’ development of resistance to pyrethroid, an insecticide used in mosquito nets. The article gets very technical, discussing types of resistance and methods of the resistance spreading, but the important part is that resistance is spreading very rapidly and is likely accelerated by mass distributions of mosquito nets (Ranson, et al. 92).
M: Uli Beisel also explains that framing mosquito nets as a purely humanitarian good removes them from the political economy of local areas. The way the nets themselves are produced seems unimportant, and people often forget the hindrance of local economies by mass donation. Specifically, in Ghana, local net weavers are pushed out of the industry by the promotion of imports (Beisel 147). The production of the nets financially benefits the wealthier countries by allowing them to make profits along the way to humanitarian goals (Beisel 147).
A: Other on-the-ground stories show that mosquito nets are not always used for their initially intended purposes. In Zambia, some recipients of the aid use the nets for fishing instead of repelling mosquitoes (Gettleman). Gettleman argues that this results in a lose-lose situation. The two losses, he claims, are not reducing the effects of malaria and harming the environment with insecticide-covered nets in the water (Gettleman).
M: This observation is incredibly surface level and does not even question the reasons behind the locals’ actions. If people are so desperate for food that they are forced to use a net that could protect them from malaria, the real question should be: how do we help alleviate the biggest problems in a community? In the Bengweulu Wetlands of Zambia, that biggest threat clearly is not malaria. This leads to another important aspect of this podcast: major weaknesses in Nothing But Nets.
A: One weakness of Nothing But Nets is the lack of follow-up in the communities that receive the nets. A study conducted in Tanzania on mosquito net coverage and use between mass distributions of mosquito nets every few years found that mosquito net quality and use greatly decreased between distributions (Mboma et al. 11). Organizations, like Nothing But Nets, that distribute nets but do not study what happens after the distribution are fairly unsuccessful based on this study (Mboma et al. 11).
M: After a net is given to a family, it is used for a year or so but will eventually rip and be ineffective or will be used for another purpose that the family believes they need more. One returned Peace Corps volunteer recalled seeing mosquito nets used “as dress detailing, as head wraps, as diapers, as seedling covers, as fishnets, as ant collecting nets, as toys and as loofas” (Matejczuk). When Ugandans were surveyed and asked why they don’t use them, one responded, “I don’t sleep under a net as I haven’t had malaria in over eight years, so it’s like I am immune to it,” and another said “Western companies are putting drugs in these nets to prevent our people here from getting pregnant,” (Matejczuck). These are just a few examples showing the miscommunications and lack of local presence in many mosquito net organizations.
A: Another issue in the organization is oversimplification. Rick Reilly’s earlier praise of the simplicity of nets and the fact that donors do not have to rely on science is actually a major red flag. Without constantly striving to do better, complacency will result in inefficiency and potential loss of life. The scientific solution, or any solutions that look for new and innovative ways to eliminate malaria, could be the best ones. This desire for simplicity also allows people to forget the structural inequality that results in these situations in the first place. There is a fine line between making a campaign understandable to donors and creating an oversimplified solution that results in more problems than it solves (Seay 119).
M: Nothing But Nets has also so far failed to acknowledge any local net weavers. Instead, businesses are squashed, and there is no chance for locals to compete with mass-produced Western donations (Beisel 147).
A: Admittedly, independent local mosquito net industries would charge for their product, and even this fee could be too much for some of those most at-risk for malaria contraction. A free donation allows the most vulnerable to receive help regardless of their financial situations.
M: Some might argue that free mosquito nets reduce the usage of the product and increase waste compared to paid products. However, a study conducted in Kenya found that women who were given mosquito nets for free were no less likely to value and use the nets than those who purchased them (Cohen and Dupas 21). In fact, women who received free nets tended to spend more time in prenatal care and repeated visits to clinics, so they were healthier than those who were required to purchase them (Cohen and Dupas 21).
A: Another aspect it seems Nothing But Nets ignores is the fact that mosquito biting patterns are changing. They are not always biting at night (Beisel 152). Daytime risk is not remedied by a net intended for bedtime use. The previously mentioned mosquitos’ development of immunity is also a cause for concern. By creating an insect that is not harmed by repellent, the organization renders other methods of protection unhelpful.
M: One final important critique of Nothing But Nets involves its propaganda and use of stereotypes. All too common in pictures are the faces of children and women, but it is rare to see an adult man. One might assume the communities had no men at all. James Ferguson explains the harm of these types of depictions in his book Give a Man a Fish. He shows that narratives like the ones displayed in Nothing But Nets’ campaigns perpetuate the assumption that men who are not disabled should always be able to provide regardless of circumstance. In contrast, women, children, people who are disabled, and the elderly are understandably helpless (Ferguson 41). These views are incorrect and limiting, and they lead to ineffective aid (Ferguson 42). Other stereotypes include the emphasis on rampant violence in “Under the Net” and Rick Reilly’s claim that luckily, warlords will not desire to steal nets.
A: Donors’ knowledge of different areas in Africa is often limited by the testimonials and the occasional BBC documentary. Some traveled to Tanzania, but each experience resulted in the feeling that without Western donors, no one in Africa could survive. Rick Reilly’s own visit ended with him sending soccer balls and nets. Reflecting on this action once he learned about malaria, he laments, “I kick myself now for that. How many of those kids are dead because we sent the wrong nets?” (Reilly).
M: Local opinion and power are largely missing from Nothing But Nets’ campaign. To push the organization into a more productive direction, they would need to work more closely with community members themselves. It is not right to be upset about a mosquito net being used as a fishing net when locals did not ask for the mosquito net dump in the first place.
A: As far as local opinion is concerned, women are important because they are often the ones who care for the ones most at risk of contracting malaria: children (McDonnell). Because of these factors, they are crucial pillars of knowledge for what actions need to be taken to reduce the prevalence of malaria. Like many other organizations, Nothing But Nets could improve by asking women and other community members what they need and how mosquito net distribution could be improved. Studies specifically in Nigeria found that women already had good experience with and understanding of malaria (Eugene-Ezebilo). This fact makes them a valuable resource for organizations aiming for malaria reduction.
M: Another method of improving the organization would be providing follow-up with communities and families that received nets. Previously mentioned studies show that shortly after distribution of nets, they are torn or repurposed. With follow-up discussions with mothers and children, the program could be much more effective.
A: If donating nets is still used as a solution for the spread of malaria, the community involvement could go a step further; instead of sourcing mosquito nets from outside countries, Nothing But Nets could give the $10 per net to local net weavers who could then distribute mosquito net donations throughout the community. An example of incorporating local interests can be seen in Japanese company Sumitomo Chemical. Their net production occurs in Tanzania where they declare they have created 7,000 jobs (“Nothing But Net: Fighting”).
M: However, as stated before, it is still crucial not to assume that a net is the best treatment for malaria that humanity will ever create. Sometimes investing in the scientific research is the most helpful thing that can be done. Krezanoski discusses that both policy and technological innovations need to occur to improve the production and distribution of mosquito nets in order to increase local operations and decrease mosquito resistance (Krezanoski 42).
A: So that concludes our podcast, “Beyond the Netting: An Analysis of Nothing But Nets.” Writing and recording courtesy of me, Adella Kuster, and of Meghan McLeod with a special thanks to Dr. Prichard for editing.
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