Tue 16 Aug 2011
David Reiff has a great piece on ForeignPolicy.com called “Millions May Die . . . Or Not.” It is hard to read, in some ways, because nobody really wants to criticize folks whose hearts are in the right place. At the same time, couching pleas for aid in ever escalating “worst disaster ever” claims, is risking the long-term viability of charitable contributions:
By continually upping the rhetorical ante, relief agencies, whatever their intentions, are sowing the seeds of future cynicism, raising the bar of compassion to the point where any disaster in which the death toll cannot be counted in the hundreds of thousands, that cannot be described as the worst since World War II or as being of biblical proportions, is almost certainly condemned to seem not all that bad by comparison.
I see this as akin to blizzard predictions – what one of my friends long ago started calling the “Storm of the Century of the Week” problem. I cannot take an apocalyptic blizzard prediction seriously anymore, because they are all apocalyptic. One day this will bite me in the ass, I know . . . well, unless I stay in DC and/or South Carolina.
But there was one thing left unexamined in the article that I wonder about – Reiff notes, quite rightly, that:
All relief agencies know that, where disasters are concerned, not only the media but the public as a whole practices a species of serial monogamy, focusing on one crisis to the exclusion of all others until what is sometimes called “compassion fatigue” sets in. Then, attention shifts to the next emergency.
Reiff does not tell us the origins of this syndrome – and the article seems to suggest that it “just exists,” a cause of the ever-escalating claims about the scale and scope of a given disaster. I wonder, however, if he has overlooked something important here – that perhaps the escalating claims are the very thing that has created this “serial charity/aid monogamy” by overwhelming our capacity to address the wide range of needs that exist in the world.
In short, has the competition for relief dollars created a cycle in which claims about the magnitude of the crisis will continue to inflate, further focusing the attention of the public and media into shorter and shorter cycles until it completely evaporates? Are we looking at a midpoint to the creative destruction of the relief industry? And what have the policy implications of this narrowing been – is there space to back up and think more holistically, and with greater perspective, to do a better job of assessing need and capabilities of meeting it?
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