Popular online ads for famine victims, like this commercial for one.org featuring Bono, don't benefit actual famine victims.
Popular online ads for famine victims, like this commercial for one.org featuring Bono, don't benefit actual famine victims. - 

Bob Moon: This holiday season, you're no doubt bombarded with ads from charities on TV, online, on Facebook.

Perhaps you heard George Clooney talk about famine in Africa? Noble cause. But here's the thing -- a bunch of people find them misleading.

Marketplace's Scott Tong recently returned from the Horn of Africa. He came back and filed this report.

Scott Tong: You may have seen this nifty public service ad from One.org about Somalia's famine. Celebs talk to the camera, but they're bleeped out, because they all say the F-word. George Clooney, Jessica Alba, Kristin Davis all bleeped.

And then comes Bono.

Bono: Famine is the real obscenity.

The real F-word -- you get it.

But here's what has many aid workers actually cussing. After the ad, One.org wants you to sign a petition to support a federal program that doesn't feed starving Somalis. It's called Feed the Future -- more F-words.

Bronwyn Bruton: Feed the Future does not operate in Somalia. It is not delivering emergency food relief.

Analyst Bronwyn Bruton is with the Atlantic Council think tank.

Bruton: It's probably unintentionally misleading but I don't think that that's an accurate statement.

One.org's Tom Hart says what's it's trying to do is stir two ideas into one campaign.

Tom Hart: We believe it was clear.

As in leveraging Somalia's disaster, to push disaster prevention. In countries next to Somalia –- that's what One.org really cares about.

Hart: What One focuses on is on is on long-term systemic and policy change. We also focus on trying to have the U.S. government provide that emergency assistance.

If it's sleight of hand, consider it noble. Development pros agree long-term investment is the ounce of prevention East Africa needs.

Take this irrigation program in Ethiopia. Programs like Feed the Future pay for water pumps to spread out river water and help farmers produce more.

Adams Koons is with the relief group IRD.

Adams Koons: Now instead of just addressing the emergency, we address the causes of the emergency. You increase their capacity and make them less vulnerable.

Fact is, these programs are hard to raise money for.

Koons: And we still have donors and situations where people say 'No, we can't fund that, it's not emergency-oriented enough. It's too developmental for us, we're in the middle of an emergency.'

An emergency the Feds are piggybacking off, too, with this ad from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Uma Thurman: Thirteen million people are affected by famine, war and drought in the Horn of Africa.

Uma Thurman steers you to a message promoting -- yes, Feed the Future -- which the site says provides "emergency food aid."

Hmmm. Joel Charny of the aid coalition InterAction advised the campaign.

Joel Charny: The idea that Feed the Future is a humanitarian response, I would say that's a misrepresentation.

Nancy Lindborg: We're always sorry if people are confused.

Nancy Lindborg is USAID assistant administrator.


Lindborg: Feed the Future is an articulation of our commitment to provide both emergency food aid and connect it to those longer-term solutions.

What's missing from all these ads and websites is a separate U.S. government program -- that actually save lives in Somalia. And supporters of that program are privately fuming.

Joel Charny at Interaction chalks it all up to bureaucratic infighting. Everyone wants attention and funding.

Charny: USAID does feel under pressure to kind of prove its relevance, to prove its effectiveness and so on.

The key for the viewer is watch these ads carefully. Now if you're a sports fan, there's another on the way, starring NFL players. Clever idea, so for Africa's sake, pay attention.

But pay attention.

In Washington, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

“I think the best compliment I can give is not to say how much your programs have taught me (a ton), but how much Marketplace has motivated me to go out and teach myself.” – Michael in Arlington, VA

As a nonprofit news organization, what matters to us is the same thing that matters to you: being a source for trustworthy, independent news that makes people smarter about business and the economy. So if Marketplace has helped you understand the economy better, make more informed financial decisions or just encouraged you to think differently, we’re asking you to give a little something back.

Become a Marketplace Investor today – in whatever amount is right for you – and keep public service journalism strong. We’re grateful for your support.

Follow Scott Tong at @tongscott