“In order to stop rape, I had to make rape funny,” Firdaus Kharas said. The 57-year-old social entrepreneur was seated across from me in the gaudy dining hall of a cruise ship off the coast of Italy. The bustling tuxedoed waiters and prim musicians formed an incongruous backdrop for Kharas’ stories of human suffering: children dying of AIDS in Africa, battered wives in India, a Cambodian village where the women draw lots nightly to determine who will be raped by the Khmer Rouge. As a philanthropic producer of public service animations for the developing world, Kharas insists that humor is the most effective means to convey his message.
I joined Kharas in his cabin several days later, as the bucolic coastline of Turkey scrolled by, to discuss his humanitarian work.
How did you get into public service?
I grew up in Calcutta, and there were huge disparities between rich and poor. I went to school every day in a rickshaw with a guy pulling me. I grew up being aware of my privileges, but at the same time, because of that, you have social responsibilities. My mother taught me that. She was the head of this NGO, and she would take me along on the various projects she was involved in. In high school, I taught in a slum every Saturday. I went to a very elite school—today a lot of my classmates are billionaires—and we taught in the slum essentially what we were learning in our elite school. Whoever wanted to come would come.
Can you explain the idea behind your company?
I started Chocolate Moose Media back in 1995 as a social enterprise: a hybrid organization split between doing for-profit work and non-profit work. I use the one to subsidize the other.
How would you describe your non-profit work?
We make animated media that deals with social issues around the world in order to influence individuals to change their behavior.
Why do you use animation?
The main thing is that animation gives you a sense of disbelief. You know what you’re seeing is not real. So, in the case of HIV/AIDS prevention, for example, we have “The Three Amigos,” three animated condoms. They have arms, they have faces, and they talk. You know what you’re seeing is not real, therefore you’re not offended. If I made a campaign with real condoms, it would have been thrown off the air in many countries. But we got condoms on the air in conservative Iran, in conservative Hindu India, in multicultural South Africa, precisely because they are animated.
What has your reach been with that campaign so far?
We’re up to 45 languages now, so we can reach 85 percent of the world’s population in their own language. NGOs play them on laptops when they go out in the field, they’re played on Jumbotrons in soccer stadiums, in cinemas before movies, on mobile trucks that go into villages. It’s hard to get an exact figure, but I’m safe in saying that the campaign’s been seen by more than 1 billion people. Apparently, you can walk into any pharmacy in South Africa, ask for an amigo, and they’ll give you a condom.
So, with your audience as multicultural as it is, how are you able to design one spot that appeals to everyone?
Animation is universal. I can make universal characters. You saw in our domestic violence campaign “No Excuses,” that the characters are blue. Nobody is really blue. Obviously if we had made white characters, or black characters, or brown characters it would have denoted some kind of ethnicity and therefore my audience would have been limited.
But naturally, you’re going to have to make some culturally-specific choices, aren't you? Clothing for instance?
Actually, originally, I wanted no clothing at all. Clothing was very hard to do because it’s so country-specific. We decided to come up with this neutral clothing.
What about head scarves?
That was an issue for us in “Hind and Hamza.” It's the 46-episode series on values we did on the Al Jazeera Children's Channel, beamed via satellite into millions of households across the Middle East. Each episode promotes a different value, things like: eagerness to learn and explore, kindness to animals, moderation… Anyway, the Hijab posed a problem. We talked about it. Are we going to have the girls covered? No, none of the girls are covered. Are we going to have middle-aged women covered? Sometimes. Are we going to have the older generation covered? Yes. We went through this kind of thinking in terms of finding middle ground.