Part 3 of 3: Cause. And also Effect (or not)

21 Dec

It’s not that I mind so much the experts and the celebrities being experts and celebrities.

I’m not necessarily against books like Half the Sky or causes like the One Campaign in principle. The fact that more people in the developed world know more now than they used to about the issues in the developing world is something that I see as a good thing.

And so I try very hard to have an open mind when I see famous journalists or rock stars or actresses going on about “Africa” this or “refugees” that. These people can and often do self-educate about whatever issue or cause they’re passionate about to the point that they may even become legitimate experts in the subject matter in their own right. …Much as it may at times pain me to admit (although staying clear on the difference between “expert” and “professional” helps). In many cases I totally agree with the issues that the celebrities and famous journalists raise. Who in the world would be outspokenly against research on muscular dystrophy, not care at all about global warming or favor the oppression of Kurdistan?

But too often, at least in modern Western popular culture, awareness raising stops at just that. Ann Curry can tell us all about how bad women have it in different parts of the world, and she may be absolutely right. Bono and Angelina may have a higher hill than almost anyone else from which to shout their messages of awareness-raising on HIV/AIDS or non-refoulement, and they may be perfectly justified in doing so. They are all in their own ways very adept at getting their messages into the public sphere and stirring deep emotional responses within us.

But where they consistently fall short is in telling us what to do about any it. In the absence of some commonly understood means by which the ordinary citizens of [INSERT NAME OF SMALL TOWN IN A DEVELOPED COUNTRY] can be part of the solution, we’re left with causes.

And for the non-aid workers reading (I know there are some), I hate to be the one to break this to you, but supporting a cause is not the same thing as supporting a solution. Having a “COEXIST” bumper sticker on your car or wearing a “Save Darfur” T-shirt or re-watching “Beyond Borders” do not result in people being less prejudiced, the Janjaweed voluntarily disarming, or an end to oppression, respectively.

A couple of months ago during happy hour I saw the words “FREE TIBET!” grafittied on the wall in the men’s room of a grungy/trendy pub near DuPont Circle. And in that moment it struck me that that was probably far more apt than whoever wrote it knew. As often as not, at the end of the day there is no effective difference between buying the “awareness edition” of someone’s CD, boycotting a particular brand of athletic wear, slapping a catchy, liberal bumper sticker on your hybrid Civic or just writing your message on the wall above the urinal.

While the increasing emphasis on awareness-raising on a range of social issues the world over during the past few years is not a bad thing per se, it has all basically been foreplay without follow-through. A generation of Oprah-watching housewives and regular guys alike are left flustered and frustrated, believing that their best options include things like: buy yet another book, buy U2 CDs, start your own NGO or movement, send a bunch of shoes to another country…

I’m not down on anyone for caring. But it has to be said: there remain massive logical gaps between knowledge and passion and action that actually does help.

* * *

Where does this leave us?

Sadly, I have no incisively brilliant end-all sage advice to give. I think that intentionally weaning ourselves and our Third Audience constituents off of development porn is an important first step. We need to treat them like they’re intelligent and stop just assuming that pictures of cute kids with big brown eyes are going to pull at heartstrings and purse strings alike. Part of this will also involve us being able to think past fundraising as the key/only purpose of public communication.

I think that another would be countering some of the “yes, you can make a difference in the world” rhetoric out there with a dose of reality: yes, surely enough, you can make a difference. Blogspot and Paypal and Travelocity make that all possible for pretty much anyone to have their own NGO and change the world, literally. But what kind of difference? It’s not just that aid is increasingly a professional field (it is), but also that it is very possible for the motivated but uninformed to do some real damage out in the field. Maybe we can’t prevent them from going out and making that difference, but hopefully we can at least persuade some.

As unsexy as it is, we have to make the point that for those who want to help internationally, the very best course of action is to donate cash to organizations that are actually doing something. Everyone wants to wear a T-shirt or “speak out” on this or that, or graffiti the bathroom wall. But if you really want to help the earthquake victims or the child soldiers or malnourished mothers, support the work of credible professionals financially. Here again, insh’allah, we can help to educate those supporters about what good, effective interventions look like and which are worth supporting.

Perhaps most importantly, I think that as in industry we’ve undersold the importance of local activism on local issues. In our international work we talk about the critical importance of local knowledge and local participation. But we forget to remind our Third Audience that they are themselves local experts in their own communities. You may not be able to directly affect the prevalence of rape as a weapon of war in DRC, but you can most certainly petition, lobby, talk to city council members, write to congressional representatives, etc. about issues related to making your own community a safer place.

Books like Half the Sky tend to raise awareness about the horrible things that are perpetrated on women in other countries. And they are terrible things. But it’s too easy to read a book like that and the take-away be that it’s the awful “Pakistanis” or “Africans” or whomever that do those things, and to totally forget that awful things happen to people in our own “civilized” countries as well. We’ve said it so many times that we’ve forgotten the essence of “Think globally, act locally.”

It’s time to reconnect ourselves and Third Audience with what that means.

My New  Year’s Resolution this year is to take the time to patiently explain humanitarian aid work to non-insiders…

* * *

Stepping off soab-box… now.

10 Responses to “Part 3 of 3: Cause. And also Effect (or not)”

  1. Vasco Pyjama 21 December, 2009 at 7:23 pm #

    Thanks for this post. You have extremely articulately describe what I have been feeling for over a decade now. Agreed on the ‘logical gaps’ and agreed on the difference between supporting a cause vs a solution. I wish I had those words to use when friends have hinted that I have sold out. I have these words (plus ‘text bitch’) to thank you for.

    • J. 21 December, 2009 at 7:33 pm #

      Thanks for that comment, Vasco. It means a great deal coming from you. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’ve sold out… And refer friends to any of my posts any time it suits you to do so.

  2. Mona 25 December, 2009 at 5:27 am #

    There are a lot of great points in this series of posts, which deserve a larger (some might say Kristof-sized?) audience. Have you thought about writing a similarly-themed column or guest op-ed for the NYT or Washington Post? Or at the very least, Huffington Post? The average aid blog reader is likely already among the converted and would love to see these thoughts reach non-aid types, who are often looking for ways to help but haven’t had the time, inclination or resources to think critically about what steps to take beyond simple awareness.

  3. Martha Cook 26 December, 2009 at 10:31 am #

    I understand the impatience with celebrity endorsements, the big eyed children on parade for donor heartstrings, and bumper stickers that don’t accomplish a single thing. Except that awareness-raising has its own merits. Here in suburbia I am raising the next generation of aid workers. You have to come from SOMEWHERE. So teaching my kids and their friends about global issues is an incredibly important job. Sometimes T-shirts can start a conversation that leads to a shift from thinking small to thinking all. We also need to have an educated electorate so that when the opportunity arises to vote, we elect those who are engaged in the kind of global thinking necessary to solve big problems. We need each other, so thank you for taking the time to patiently explain humanitarian aid. It’s what gives all of us purpose.

    • J. 26 December, 2009 at 2:30 pm #

      Martha – I agree with you: it is incredibly important to teach our children about global issues. It is also much harder to actually do than it seems at first from a distance. In my personal observation, although it’s somewhat variable across at least the US, the educational system in America is getting better on this point. Keep fighting that good fight.

      In my personal opinion, two things that could be improved on the “teach your children well” front, at least in the United States, are:

      1) As I’ve said in this post: building the value of local activism, but linking it to international issues. “We care what happens in ‘COUNTRY X’, and so we will promote ‘Y’ in our home community…”
      2) In higher levels of education (high school and college), the need to provide information about careers in international aid.

  4. Daniel O'Neil 28 December, 2009 at 8:15 pm #

    I suspect that your work does not involve direct fundraising. I’ve spend over twenty years managing donor-funded projects (USAID, World Bank, IDB, etc.). It is easy to focus on the technical implementation and to turn our nose up at the gift catalogs sponsor-a-child programs. However, I’ve also grown tired of implementing someone else’s program–something that an aid bureaucrat dreamed up to please his headquarters and put out to bid. I get the impression that your work focuses more on humanitarian relief rather than longer term development (my area). Perhaps it is different for you. A year ago, we began to try to educate the third audience and generate interest in our work. We deliberately did not seek out celebrity endorsement in the belief that our work should be the “celebrity”. I am very proud of our blog (, but our biggest donor is still my parents! We’ve hardly raised enough funds to cover our hosting costs, much less the cost of developing content or supporting our actual work. I wish we had more people wearing our t-shirts in the hopes that it would drive more visitors to our website and eventually help us raise funds.

    This is one of the reasons that I am looking to switch to domestic non-profit work. I want to work on issues that impact potential donors. I agree that we have a lot of problems back home. I’m tired of trying to help other people solve their problems and ready to try to solve of of ours–I even renamed my personal blog to highlight this search!

    Good luck with your New Year’s resolution.

    • J. 28 December, 2009 at 8:39 pm #


      Many thanks for reading and for your comment. You’re correct that at the moment my job is exclusively focused on rapid-onset and also complex humanitarian emergency response. In the past, though, I’ve been more focused on long-term development. I do not do direct fundraising (unless you count grant writing for USAID and PRM, in which case I can claim to have done fundraising throughout my entire career in aid, or since 1991). But I do interact daily with a very large private fundraising team, in part as their technical liaison for all matter related to emergency/humanitarian response.

      I completely agree that in an ideal world “the work” would be celebrity. Actually, it kind of is… times were, aid work was something that people got cajoled into or did because they had no other options or things were running amuck at home. Now people aspire to it…

      All the best with your non-profit work on the homefront!


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