Compassion Fatigue Is A Double Edged Sword


I recently had the pleasure of attending a casual drink with some NGO types from an organisation around the corner from my office. The evening began with a brief presentation from one of their field workers who had recently returned from South Sudan, which was interesting to see, before turning into a nice chance to have a chat and a pint with some other young development workers.

Discussions turned, as they so often do when development nerds and a few drinks convene in one location, to topics like international mandates, humanitarian assistance vs development aid, the importance of local stakeholders and partners in project implementation. Traditionally, that last issue is more likely to be discussed, through gritted teeth, by irritated local stakeholders and partners who feel undervalued by Western NGO types – it was heartening to see how many of those Western NGO types were concerned about this and were keen to improve the situation.

The next morning, I found that I had received the latest issue of the UN Asscoiation UK magazine, New World. I was, at first, skeptical of how interesting something as quaintly archaic as a quarterly print magazine could be. The cover prominently displayed the phrase ‘A sustainable future?’ complete with some slightly weak graphics – not a particularly auspicious beginning. But, inside, the layout is clear and modern and the theme is picked up, particularly in the opening two editorial articles, in quite a refreshing manner. In the second editorial article, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Chairman of the UNA-UK, makes the following point,

“Since 2000, the development agenda has been refreshed by two things: the Millenium Development Goals initiative and a growing sense among ordinary people that problems are shared, exemplified by both the financial and climate crises.”

Somehow, combined, perhaps, with my slightly drunken discussions on a similar topic the night before, identifying the second ‘refresher’ struck me as insightful. More than sharing the problem, it seems to me people are desperate to own them, even when they are the mistakes of others. From burgeoning regional political mechanisms to a desire for greater inclusion in global organisations like the World Bank to new, global south led approaches to development – inclusion and wider ownership of issues and solutions are all the rage. Take Project Diaspora, an organisation headed by Teddy Ruge who was recently honored by the White House, whose mission takes on the central problems of Africa that Western development organisations have taken on in the past,

We here claim our political struggles as our own; our short comings as our own; our unrest as our own; our dissidence as our own; our broken infrastructure as our own; our diseases as our own; our uneducated as our own; our corruption as our own; our unfed children as our own.

Recently, Chris Blattman and Ian Thorpe, prominent development bloggers, have written about the problems of simplistic narratives driving the development world, looking at how selling simple problems creates simplistic solutions, solutions that have failed too often. Now, there is an increasing backlash against NGOs and aid in the global north because of the ongoing expense of help that doesn’t seem to be helping very much – sometimes referred to as ‘compassion fatigue’. When it responds to the questions from donors about this issue (all of us who gave money to ‘Make Poverty History’ in 2005), it is called ‘donor fatigue’ – how long will people happily contribute money to failure? To quote the blog Aidspeak on this issue,

I don’t mean to say that the house of cards will come crashing down tomorrow. But the sea has changed.

The problems of compassion fatigue are also beginning to be shared. Even in an organisational sense, what was once the problem of fundraisers has moved to new areas of work, as those articles in New World show us – one was written by a Communications person, the other by the Chairman. Perhaps, as outlined by that first article, this signals a change from the idea that donor fatigue is the only or most significant problem that comes from being “left wondering if, not how, we will address problems” because “too many policymakers and activists continue to rely on a narrative of gloom”*.

It is not enough to want to change international NGO behaviour because donors are less interested – we should be focusing on how our end-users, the recipients, the local stakeholders are losing faith. Without the input of the people we are supposed to be helping we are risking not only wasteful, ineffective projects but a complete dismissal of the usefulness of development entirely. There are those who are already at there and more will follow. But it is combined that we are strongest because, like it or not, problems and issues do not affect one part of the world alone.

The decline of the West is being played out on the front pages of newspapers all over the world: the Eurozone debt, the rise of BRIC powers, the crisis of US party politics all coupled with ever rising unemployment and civil unrest. Contemporaneously, attention has increasingly turned to truly global issues. Climate change, corruption or economic inequality are all just as likely to be the subjects of mainstream broadcasting or parliamentary discussions in the UK as in Uganda. Globalisation has made everything about our lives close than ever before – we would be mad to waste that when it comes to designing and delivering solutions to the problems that, in one way or another, belong to all of us.

*Let’s add journalists to that list of guilty parties.

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