the asterisk is everythingPosted: March 16, 2011
There is an “ugly game” going on at the moment.
But we know these things:
- Media attention on an emergency is a significant driver of the general public’s interest in giving to an emergency.
- Media attention on an emergency usually has very little correlation with the level of real unmet basic humans need in that emergency. There are “tent pole” appeals you can number on the fingers of one hand per year. Within the tent there are several dozen emergencies that need responding to each year, which will never make it to prime time. For example, right now the most recent estimates are that there are eighty thousand refugees (and counting) who have crossed the border from Cote D’Ivoire into Liberia.
So I ask these things.
Do you think the response to what’s going on in Cote D’Ivoire/ Liberia has been adequately funded? How about the DRC? Do you think right now that any appeal for humanitarian action in Cote D’Ivoire will attract enough attention to garner more than a few thousand at best, not the millions it needs? Can anyone bear to watch as west Africa slides towards chaos… again? Do you want to hear about the La Nina crisis unattractively unfolding day by day in east Africa? How about a boring exposition upon all the gaps in the early recovery phase in Pakistan, all the places the that all the NGOs never got to?
Or would you switch back over and watch the coverage from Japan with all its happening-now novel nuclear horror?
So when NGOs who learned the lessons of the Tsunami (no, the 2004 one – how strange it is to have to qualify that) put “an asterisk” that the funds raised for a particular emergency might be used to fund their humanitarian work elsewhere in the world, whose fault is that?
The NGOs who have an appreciation of some of the places trapped in human misery that never see the light of day in the western media? The media that yawns at the same old same old images of yet another chronic emergency in Africa? The public antipathy or boredom about last year’s flavour of horror? Human psychology that draws us to feel empathy for the “blameless” victims of the “simple” natural disaster, over the complex and messy human-made crisis?
Imagine you’re a fundraiser with responsibility for all of these disasters. What are the professional and ethical dimensions for you of failing to find a way to resource these forgotten emergencies?
The answer here is not to complain about the existence of “the asterisk”. The answer is not to delete “the asterisk”.
The answer is to make the asterisk bigger. And to put the asterisk first.
I’d love to see on every website appeal in the world right now words like:
“The suffering in Japan is immense. But today, right now as you are reading this, there is immense suffering not just in Japan alone. If you are moved by this tragedy, now is the time to donate to our global emergencies fund – and be a part of our disaster response work worldwide.”
Look, this doesn’t apply just to what’s happening in Japan today. And I’m certainly not saying that I defend the actions of every big, medium or small NGO out there and what they’re doing at the moment, that would be foolish. And maybe right now is the wrong timing to say this.
But perhaps this instance is just a particularly egregious example of a question that must be answered. Because the righteous indignation doesn’t just run one way on this. Because it is not black and white, morally. Because media attention and human sympathy simply do not correlate with objective assessments of human suffering, nor do they always correlate with the requirement and capacity of civil society actors to respond.
So: how do you respectfully approach and legitimately engage with the natural outpouring of human sympathy around an emergency that might not need all the money people want to give? Do you simply close up the drawbridge? Do you say thanks but no thanks, knowing there are socks-for-Japan shysters out there?
Or can you communicate clearly and respect donors’ autonomy, but at the same time find a way to direct that sympathetic response (and its physical expression in money if you’re lucky, socks if you’re not) towards other disasters elsewhere, where it can have a much greater impact?
Shouldn’t we celebrate that?
Wouldn’t that be… smart aid?