So what are we to make of the interweb phenomenon of the FreeRice word game? It’s run by the same outfit that brought us The Hunger Site, ‘where your clicks give bowls of food to the hungry’, using much the same business model – sell ads and use the revenue to buy food.
On the face of it, surely, there’s nothing to find objectionable. If we believe the claims that 100% of sponsorship money at The Hunger Site is given to feed the hungry, or that FreeRice.com is being run as a non-profit, surely *that* should allay any fears of graft.
But there is reason for doubt, alas. One of the things you can do with FreeRice.com is run this wee bot, which plays FreeRice for you. Great! That means that you get to give rice even if you’re not clicking away at the site, finding synonyms.
The downside here is that in order to pay for the rice, the site uses advertising revenue. And advertisers aren’t likely to pay for ads that get read by robots.
There’s also the deeper issue here is in the issue of food aid itself. No one is, of course, suggesting that the poor should go hungry. But the way that the poor have been fed in the past, is through the dumping into their markets of below-cost agricultural surplus from the US and EU.
Sounds great, until you realise that some of the people most gravely affected by hunger are agriculturalists, who depend on being able to sell their crops in the open market. And they can’t do that if their country is being swamped by cheap food, and if no one is therefore buying theirs. It reduces working people to beggary, makes their land forfeit, and means that it’s that much harder to get back into agriculture after the crisis has passed.
There’s the further issue that clicking away for advertising revenue does very little to tackle the underlying causes of hunger — causes that have much more to do with land distribution, sexism and inequality and much less to do with learning vocabulary. And there’s no path to move from the simple and trivial clicking to a more political and engaged attempt to change the way the poor do and don’t eat.
In short, then — if you want to play word games, then FreeRice.com is a good deal of fun. But let no one think that it is a force for sustainable and dignified change for the world’s hungry.