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.
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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…
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Stepping off soab-box… now.