the asterisk is everything

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?


19 Comments on “the asterisk is everything”

  1. Saundra says:

    I very much agree that the CNN effect is a big issue. That some events get far too much money and some get far too little money. And I’m fine when nonprofits are very explicit about how funds will be handled – like MSF is. I think that’s great. It gets money where it needs to go and is upfront with donors.

    My issue is when it is far less clear. When it’s not explicitly stated that enough funds have now been raised for the current disaster and now we’re going to use the rest for other disasters. This way donors know up front, ok my money is not going to Japan, but I understand this and am happy to support this still.

    My concern is that if the donors feel deceived, if the organization isn’t very transparent about what they are doing, that this will further erode the public trust in the nonprofit sector. Instead of encouraging smarter donorship, it will lead to more earmarking.

  2. Alanna says:

    MSF does this, right? They don’t even have restricted appeals?

    If I was raising money right now for disaster relief, I’d be asterisking with the best of them. I don’t blame the marketers.

  3. Carol says:

    I first started studying this problem as a grad student at NYU in 2004, and even then it wasn’t a new problem. The conversation does not appear to have changed at *all* since then, and it is a bit exasperating that there hasn’t been some collective move to make the asterisk bigger, since it’s obvious that organizations are aware of the asterisk’s importance. Thanks for the post, I agree 100%.

  4. […] The effect of this is too much money for some disasters and too little money for others. We call these the “Forgotten Disasters” or “Neglected Crises.” Cynan goes into more detail on this in his post the asterisk is everything. […]

  5. Tom says:

    Good points. But I’m not sure the solution here is to accept this as sort of necessary evil — based on media inconsistency, human nature or whatever.

    The solution is perhaps to have all those interested in alleviating suffering examine how human tragedy is “marketed” by both NGOs and the media — and consider if it is perhaps time to re-frame the issue.

    Cheers

    • Saundra says:

      I agree that it is time to reframe the issue. And I’ve done about four or five media interviews this time around talking about the issue.

      We need NGO’s to start providing better information to their donors – I get so tired of them not doing that and then getting caught out in questionable actions and making the whole field look bad once again.

      But we also need people like InterAction taking a proactive lead on this as well. Educating the public and pushing their members to make this issue more apparent.

  6. […] donation for another purpose, like the dozens of under-reported, large-scale disasters that CNN isn’t featuring today. This entry was posted in Aid policies and approaches, Disaster relief and tagged Disaster […]

  7. Cynan says:

    Thanks for the responses all.

    @Alanna – yep, pretty sure MSF have just a simple, single unrestricted-donation-only mechanism. I applaud their tenacity with that.

    @Saundra – I think we’re basically on the same page. I think we both want the potential to use the funds elsewhere better foregrounded. Heck, make it the entire foreground in a case like this.

    But what really raised my ire was the view in the ‘ugly game’ post that using any remaining funds raised for one emergency during the next was somehow a cardinal sin regardless. And that including fine or not-so-fine print in order to do so, is the only ethical question here, not the massive counterweight issue around making sure you can do something about those unfunded/underfunded forgotten emergencies.

    Tom – Yes, agreed. But in the meantime?

    • Jane Hook says:

      Just a quick comment on the content of the news. I think the media could find a way to respond to many more news worthy subjects. I find it frustrating that the same pictures and story content gets replayed sometimes up to five times in a news hour (the “coming up next” and “here’s recapping” syndromes). They could use that time for more important news. It is redundant and infuriating. They could also focus less on pop culture – we are just so ego and ethno centric.

  8. Christine says:

    I refuse to direct funds when I donate. If I trust the group to do a good job with my money in the first place, I trust them to choose where it is most needed. I’d rather give more money now, than giving a smaller amount every time there’s a problem in the world. I was actually quite offended when a woman made a remark along the lines of “well we know everyone here donated to the Tsunami relief” after the 2004 tsunami, because I objected to the implication that I would be arrogant enough to tell MSF that I knew better than they how to spend funds.

    Look at what happened in Haiti – people ignored the media explaining that there was no way to distribute in kind aid, and insisted on donating supplies instead of blankets. Or they donated to Haiti relief organizations, rather than to a charity that already existed and was on the ground in Haiti before the disaster. Until people learn appropriate ways to give, and donate out of a desire to help their fellow humans, instead of from an imperialistic feel-good perspective, charities have to play tricks like that.

  9. Craig Lotter says:

    Hey, if there is ever a disaster in my country, I’ll be doing everything to get the attention of the big boys like CNN and Sky. Having those guys focus on you is pretty damn important if you want help/sympathy!

  10. […] then I was linked to here, which to understand their point I had to first read this blog, which further led me to this link, […]

  11. […] donation for another purpose, like the dozens of under-reported, large-scale disasters that CNN isn’t featuring today.” Tags: Japan, […]

  12. J. says:

    “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.”

    Who can qualify, let alone quantify, human suffering? Maybe this is where my frustration with aid marketing begins, whether that marketing is intentional or indirectly the result of media visibility. This is why I am now in the process of going against my *other* principles and arranging, basically, poverty tourism: taking marketers to places like the Punjab or eastern Congo; stripping them of their cameras and iPhones, and then plunking their asses down in a room full of survivors of gun-rape and making them listen to those stories for a day. Or two. And then asking them, “so, seriously? You *really* can’t find a way to “sell” a humanitarian protection program?”

    Maybe that’s trying to fight fire with fire. WTF.

    If I was to re-write the paragraph quoted above, it would begin something like: “The suffering in Japan right now is truly real suffering. But it is a small drop in the bucket compared to…….”

  13. […] and critical situation in Cote d’Ivoire, which no one seems to care about…. we should be thankful for the Asterisk, as Cynan […]

  14. Good Aid | says:

    […] a situation some have called, “The CNN Effect.” As blogger Cynan at La VidAid Loca, writes,”Media attention on an emergency is a significant driver of the general public’s interest […]

  15. […] a mammoth body of work of 14 posts over 12 months, the most popular posts were The asterisk is everything, The circle(s) of life, and Once I gave a man my shoes. I promise to continue providing some […]


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