Choosing Your Words


http://www.wordle.net/show/wrdl/5367288/food_security

This is how one of the articles from the latest development newsletter by Devex begins:

Last year, nongovernmental organizations slammed the G-20 for prioritizing the European debt crisis over food security. Will world leaders put food security higher on the agenda at the upcoming summit in Los Cabos, Mexico?

In the original ‘slamming’ article there was a quote from World Vision Brazil’s spokesperson Maurichio Cuhna:

“Every night 925 million people go to bed hungry. G20 actions on food security and price volatility need to be based on the needs and perspectives of those 925 million people that don’t care much for Greek tragedies.”

No doubt, food security is a major issue all over the world. At the moment, we have an enormous example of just how important this is with the situation in the Sahel. It has been widely written about, particularly as increasingly irritated agencies get more and more desperate for extra funding to be able to cope with the problem. It is already a problem (if not yet a full blown crisis) but, apparently, people don’t care until the reports stop using words like ‘impending’ or ‘soon’ or ‘potential’. It has yet to prompt a media storm or to capture the conversations and donations of a harried and distracted Western public.

Those quotes from Devex betray part of why this remains a niche issue. They decided, for whatever reason, that the way to get people to pay attention food insecurity in the developing world, rather than the European sovereign debt crisis,  is to try and put it into perspective – ‘925 million people’ is used to trump the 11 million or so inhabitants of Greece. Yes – the European debt crisis does adversely affect millions of people but it isn’t that bad if you think about it comparatively…

What a ludicrous way of framing a problem. These are enormous, structural problems beyond the control of the normal people whose lives and livelihoods suffer as a result of them – the idea that these are in some way in competition is absurd. More than that: suggesting that paying attention to the Eurozone debt is in some a way a moral failing is disgusting behaviour. As Tom Waits would say, it’s tough all over – don’t denigrate people for choosing to focus on suffering closer to home, particularly when it relates to something that has the genuine potential to affect billions of people (to put it lightly, the Greeks aren’t the only ones at risk here).

But let’s put aside the morality, for a moment, and ask ourselves a question:

In what world does this ‘my crisis is bigger than yours’ bit make anyone feel more concern for these aid agencies that are so desperate for extra cash? Because I don’t think it’s the world which has seen the economic downturn noticeably reduce charitable donations as far back as 2009.

Charitable causes aren’t that popular in straightened financial times. Charities are very much aware of this – the number of times I’ve seen an article about ‘convincing people to do good in the recession‘ in third sector newsletters is testament to that. It’s a tricky business and I’m sure it’s meant a lot of good projects have suffered, which is a real shame.

But here’s my hunch: telling Governments or the public that the deep economics problems they are facing aren’t really that important is probably a pretty bad way to convince them to give more money to your cause. Choose your rhetoric wisely or risk falling out with people. You need a ton of allies to overcome an issue as huge as food insecurity. Being dismissive of other’s concerns isn’t going to earn you many allies.

This seems like a really obvious point to me. Not so?

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2 thoughts on “Choosing Your Words

    • They do, somewhat, but I don’t think this is necessarily a problem of format, more of thinking. It’s part of this whole industrial guilt system that some agencies seem to think is useful in the short term (I’m sure it brings in the money, at least for a while).

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