February 25, 2006

How to Market Your Suffering

I came across this great article via Idealist which discusses the reasons why some humanitarian crises get more attention than others. I've always wondered why we suddenly become so concerned about Darfur for example, and then a week later, when it slips off the tv screens and the newspaper headlines, it's as if nothing ever happened there. That is part of the problem, as the author points out: the role of the media in publicizing the large numbers of human suffering around the globe. He also focuses on the role that NGOs play and the pressures they face in seeking to help millions of people around the world afflicted with disease, famine, war, and other humanitarian crises. The article is based on a book by the author, Clifford Bob, entitled "The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism."

I like the way the article was introduced by YaleGlobal,
In an era of human rights accords and global benefit concerts, international tribunals and rubber wristbands for any cause, attention to humanitarian crises seems both pronounced and profuse.

Clifford Bob quotes under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland who told The New York Times:
I don't know why one place gets attention and another not. It's like a lottery, where there are 50 victimized groups always trying to get the winning ticket, and they play every night and they lose every night. I myself have said that the biggest race against the clock is Darfur, but in terms of numbers of people displaced, there are already more in Uganda and the eastern Congo.
He goes on to add,
Even cursory observation shows that many of the world’s worst problems remain off the international agenda. Civil and inter-state war in the Congo since the mid-1990s has scarcely registered overseas, notwithstanding millions of deaths. For much of the 1980s and 1990s, Sudan’s North-South confrontation, with similarly horrific casualties, also remained little known. In recent decades, smaller-scale conflicts and human rights violations from Mauritania to Indonesia to Colombia, have likewise remained relatively invisible outside their home states despite large human losses.
It's really disturbing to know that one has to dig through the news headlines to find anything about the drought crisis in the Horn of Africa that threatens the lives of millions in civil-war-torn Somalia and neighboring countries. The situation is getting worse by the day, and immediate action is needed to stem the possibility of millions of deaths, with some people already forced to drink their own urine to stay alive!

The author continues,
The main reason is that resources devoted to international issues are simply too small to meet the needs of the world’s poor, diseased, and conflicted. Even the largest NGOs complain of too few funds – and constantly campaign for more. For its part, the United Nations annually highlights a handful of “forgotten crises.”
We don't have enough resources devoted to these crises at the moment, but that does not mean that the nations of the world are incapable of devoting large sums of money to help these millions. In 2004, for example, the United States was ranked #22 in the world for its "Official Development Assistance", with 0.17 PERCENT of its GNP going to development assistance. Countries such as Greece, Italy, Spain and others ranked way above the most economically powerful country in the world in terms of their contributions to development assistance. More recent figures will show that the US has contributed larger amounts, although this money will by and large go to reconstructione efforts in Iraq, as well as to "allies" in the war on terror, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Jordan, and Israel. Indeed, much of this "aid" that the US gives goes to benefit its military and economic interests rather than to assist in humanitarian crises.

And Bob concludes,
In sum, the allocation of international activism has logic. But, contrary to the despair of Jan Egeland and the optimism of NGO cheerleaders, it is grounded in vast differences in power between NGOs and the needy groups they selectively assist. In this context, local groups are far from helpless. Marketing matters - but only a fortunate few will gain major support.
[Read full text here]

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At 2:07 AM, Anonymous Dana said...

Hello again. Thanks for bringing our attention to this article. Have you noticed how a lot of Jewish and Zionists groups on American and Canadian university campuses suddently decided to take on the issue of Darfur? Last year, that was the focus of Hillel at my university. Interesting stuff -- especially when the reasons for the fading interest are self-serving at best.


At 7:52 PM, Blogger moi said...

Dana, I did notice that trend, and I still wonder about the intentions. Unfortunately these days, we are forced to question everyone's actions, even if they seem benevolent at first.


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