At least we fed the hippos…

The title of this blog  is one of the memorable quotes from Ernesto Sirolli in his 2012 TED talk ‘Want to help someone? Just shut up and listen’. Without ruining the whole talk for you (which I really recommend you check out), the hippos in question ate a huge field of beautiful Italian tomatoes which Sirolli and his colleagues had overseen the growing of, as part of an agricultural project. They were working in Zambia in the 1970s, full of white saviour complex and, according to Sirolli himself, grateful to themselves for having turned up to save the Africans from starvation. One night their prize crop was decimated by an unexpected hippo herd who ate up the tomatoes and the agriculturalists’ confidence in one (or two) hours of feasting. For Sirolli, this was one of many failed projects, all connected to the top-down, planned, neo-colonial development practised at the time, not just by Italians but across the nascent ‘development industry’.  

The description of Sirolli’s talk reads: ‘When most well-intentioned aid workers hear of a problem they think they can fix, they go to work. This, Ernesto Sirolli suggests, is naïve. In this funny and impassioned talk, he proposes that the first step is to listen to the people you’re trying to help, and tap into their own entrepreneurial spirit. His advice on what works will help any entrepreneur.’

His solution? (for every TED talk must glide seamlessly from the problem to ‘the big idea’…) is locally-initiated, locally-led development initiatives where the starting point is listening and supporting, not planning and imposing. Here we see the neo-liberal, small government, entrepreneurial approach to development depicted in opposition to naive large-scale institutional aid.

Put in such stark contrast, who would disagree? No one, I imagine, who doesn’t want to be accused of latent (or actual!) colonial tendencies…And it is here we encounter TED’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. In 15 minutes it is nigh-on impossible to rehearse both sides of an argument. TED’s strapline is ‘Ideas worth sharing’ not ‘Debates worth spending lots of time working through’. That is less catchy.

But the debate which Sirolli has opened up for his audience is one of the most enduring tensions within development theory. It’s about power and it’s about working out where that power needs to lay in order to see real change. It’s Easterly versus Sachs. It’s micro-finance versus direct budget assistance. It’s the power of the individual versus the power of the state.

On the one hand, I am grateful to Sirolli for his passionate, engaging and easy-to-follow introduction to another way of looking at development and dealing with the ever-present question of why we have not seen more change. Why are so many people still living in slums? Why are safe and clean latrines still out of reach for millions? Why are women still needlessly dying of childbirth? I have these questions and I want a solution too.

But on the other hand, I have sympathy with Thomas Frank who tells us straight that ‘TED talks are lying to you in his 2013 Sadler article. Sirolli appears to have an answer to poverty: allow people to be the entrepreneurs they are inside and local solutions will emerge.

‘Who is going to invent the technology for the green revolution? Universities? Forget about it! Government? Forget about it! It will be entrepreneurs, and they’re doing it now.’ he almost shouts.


This is probably music to many TED conference attendees’ ears. And it is a popular talk, approaching 3 million views and with subtitles available in 35 languages (note that none of them are local languages from the global south but you can watch in Hungarian). And yet the fact that there are thoughtful, dedicated practitioners and academics on either of side of this debate is lost in the skilled presentation of Sirolli’s case; his hippos and his passion and his call to an entrepreneurial revolution.   

TED is spreading ideas and I regularly join millions in the wide global audience ready to be stimulated, challenged and entertained by people sharing their visions, their solutions and something of themselves. I am glad that they are doing what they do. But engaging my critical faculties a little more with the underlying affordance of the TED format has reminded me how one-sided a talk can be. I am thinking of introducing a pop-up window which will keep me safe from uncritical consumption each time I click on the side. It will read ‘They will claim it’s simple. It never is.’

And with that, I will leave you. I have some more talks to watch…


Prefer to listen? We have created an audio version of this blog post. Enjoy!
Reference: Denskus, T., Esser, D. 2015: TED Talks on International Development: Trans-Hegemonic Promise and Ritualistic ConstraintsCommunication Theory 25: 166-187.


Do you watch TED talks? What do you think their strengths and weaknesses are?


  1. Thanks for an excellent article, Alice! I really enjoyed reading it!
    The fact is that I had quite a few TED talk experiences, although none of them within the scope of development (until now), but rather in regards to business. All I could see and hear, back then, were speeches about passionate individual entrepreneurs with wonderful ideas and ‘magic formulas’ about saving/saved companies, economies, etc.. Each talk was usually about the presenter’s glowing side of the story. In the cases that it was not, it was about how the other side failed to achieve and therefore there is, finally, a need for something new. In any case, there was never a dialectic relationship between the multiple (not just the either/or) sides of the (hi)story.
    As I see it, there are not many differences in how the two subjects, business and development, are presented in TED talks. The individual entrepreneur is key in both disregarding anyone else, as you highlighted yourself. Also, in most times the individual entrepreneur is understood as one from the private sector, as Sirolli’s excerpt clearly shows. Innovation makes the world go round, that is true. But this is exactly what Prahalad’s bottom of the pyramid concept suggests. So it is nothing new. On the other hand, if the individual entrepreneur is so central (almost a messiah) for development, what space is left for the community to identify its needs and act on them? Finally, if the need is a close relation between entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial spirit of local communities, then again, we talk about Prahalad’s ideas or the ‘talk of the town’ nowadays: participatory development.
    In any case, TED talks seem to offer much to the discussion and to bring many new faces to the conundrum, yet their ideas are usually already applied (most often from the talkers themselves), they are ‘brilliant people’ with ‘amazing success stories’ and not just ideas for a better …. (you name it). But if these are the success stories, why success is still missing?

    PS: So sorry for the long comment, I cannot behave myself.
    PS2: Thanks again for a mind-evolving article 🙂

  2. Great article, Alice. Your narration was cheerful and insightful. I really enjoyed it. It touched on an essential aspect of development, that which presents it not as a one sided affair, but something where both sides gain (even those giving the support stand to gain knowledge and experiences shared by the locals). It was also interesting to hear your view regarding the philosophical stance of such platforms as TED, which are apparently, big opinion-shapers in development and in other fields. I agree with you that such powerful platforms could do more service to the development field (which is already similar to a basket of entangled wool thread), buy moving away from the image of having “easy solutions” , to the life-long challenges in the global south. Not only does this tend to remove agency from the locals in solving their own problems, it promotes that view that solutions have to come from some foreign place -that which is now captured by TED cameras. The development fields need different and diverse stories, capable enough of projecting how complex development is. If it was that simple, the challenges of the developed world would have been conquered with each Talk and NGO vehicle hauling up a dust trail behind it. Great article.

  3. Enjoyed it! Short and sharp.

  4. Outstanding article, I enjoyed it and liked the way you presented the ideas.
    Reading this article reminded me with the neoliberal theory of development. One solution for everything, it worked somewhere else then it should work here as well. I’m sure I will be giving more attention to TED talks now..

  5. I know form having tries community based rehabilitation projects in my work in South Africa that the listen first approach is advocated – and I also know that what is suggested in TEC talk referred to is not simple! And not necessarily what the community in question want, expect or support. Or are capable of taking on board, yet. So bravo for pointing out that it really is not as simple as TED talks often claim.

    The teacher TED talks I have listened To in my teacher training have really made me feel ‘I can do this’!’ But in their one sided nature they don’t not allow for my ‘but how….? , but I….. , but what if…..?’ Questions.

    Thank you for helping me realise tha the value of a TED talk is often that motivation lift, that rocket, that ‘wow’ moment but , the ‘how’ hours and days of thought struggle and toil are not mentioned. They are great to get you started and impassioned …. but as the starter in a 12 course Chinese meal perhaps?

    • I like your analogy, Catherine, TED talks being like a starter in a 12-course Chinese meal. Thanks for commenting!

  6. I like your analogy, Catherine, TED talks being like a starter in a 12-course Chinese meal. Thanks for commenting!

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