Giving & Morality – Part 1


At a training event last month I watched a particularly heated panel discussion in which several development do-gooder types argued about what was or was not useful when it came to trying to help people. While much of this was pretty dull or hilariously petty, one question has really stuck in my mind,
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“Would you use a film of a child dying of starvation to get people to donate?”
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Obviously, we often see films of children dying of starvation on television adverts but this panelist meant actually dying, a film that showed a child going from life into death because of starvation or disease or thirst. Naturally, the response he received was no; this was also my immediate reaction. Then he said,
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“Why not? Personally, I think something as powerful as that – actually witnessing the death of a child, the preventable death of a child – would compel me to get involved: I’d have to do something if I saw that.”
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I’ve recently written a couple of posts about the involvement of celebrities in advocacy work – something that is deemed extremely distasteful by many – which reflect the fact that the media is very much celebrity driven: to ignore celebrities or distance your cause from their influence is probably quite a bad way of campaigning as it seems like it’s just about the best way to draw attention to what are, essentially, niche interests. Would millions and millions of people know about the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s if it weren’t for LiveAid, Bono and Geldof? Probably not. (It should be noted that simply increasing press coverage of a cause is not the same thing as achieving positive social change with that cause – but that distinction is a whole different debate).

The reasons people might not want to link charity campaigns to celebrities, it strikes me, are quite similar to why they wouldn’t use the death footage:

  • It simplifies the issue in an unhelpful way.
    • How seriously can you take anything Angelina Jolie says? She’s an actress, not development professional – if she’s got the answers to the problem then how bad can it be?
    • People see someone die, feel bad for that person and are compelled to try and stop that particular problem. Sending disaster relief is an extremely limited reaction and almost never a solution in the long term.
  • People will focus on the wrong thing
    • What do you remember most about Live 8 – the G8 meeting or the fact that Snoop Dogg swore on the BBC?
    • People always remember that one child: they won’t think about the structural reasons for the lack of food, the importance of education, democracy and sustainable development models for avoiding such deaths. It will be the effect not the cause that sticks.
  • It’s exploitative and patronising
    • The image of a wealthy, beautiful famous person ‘being the face of’ any kind of suffering is incongruous. Some would argue that celebrity campaigning are cashing in on the goodwill of the cause, using their image in place of the people who really matter.
    • Making such an arresting image of suffering so visible will go even further to forever condemning all news coverage of the developing world to be a constant carousel of misery – it’ll continue to be outsider dominated, negative and unrepresentative.
Many would ‘draw the line’ at the prospect of using footage of death. They’d see it as far too sensationalist, too exploitative, their consciences would object to forcefully. One of the buzzwords I often hear at conferences on charity communications is ‘pragmatism’ – if people give more money, we can help more people and things will be better; does it matter how that process comes about? Do the ends justify the means?
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Misery is a long standing and seemingly ever present trope of charity campaigning. The stories and narratives surrounding the developing world in general and Africa in particular – as has been eloquently noted by the novelist Chimamande Adichie – and, as such, the problems seem to big for people to deal with. A post on GOOD put it this way,

“sometimes seeking to bring about this type of ‘social good’ feels like an elusive, unreachable goal—too big and grand to be within reach. ‘Change the world? Sounds a bit out of my league. I think I’ll just get back to checking my e-mail.’”

Showing terrible images can put people off – but is that an acceptable reason to ignore it? Perhaps the problem comes from how common these images are, how similar, which leads to so-called ‘compassion fatigue’ – much like the ‘voter fatigue’ theory which says that familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it breeds apathy.

But people still give money don’t they?

Yes, emphatically yes – take a look at these figures.

But why?

Give me your thoughts and come back on Monday for Part 2
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