So, given the twitter/blog/social media/whatever response to my post expressing shock at my students’ lack of awareness of the Horn of Africa drought, I did a little follow-up with them today.  This was the first day of real lecture content in the class, and as it happens one of the first examples I hit on (while trying to demonstrate the concept of interdependence – how every part of the world is inextricably linked to other parts of the world, for better or for worse) was the food price spikes of 2008 and 2011 (and the imminent spike coming this fall as a result of the drought that has devastated the US maize crop).  Since we were on food insecurity, I pivoted a bit and decided to just talk to them directly.  A summary, for those of you interested in how the hell a bunch of college students/college-bound high school students could have missed a crisis of this size:

1)   The crisis was horribly branded: I think talking about the Horn of Africa confused the few people who did know something had happened.  When I started casting about (around this time last year, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, starving African babies…) a few students did remember seeing something on the news.  As one student put it, he saw it on a major network, but the anchor wasn’t reporting.  I suspect more of the students were briefly aware of the crisis at the time, but it has since been lost to time because of the sheer volume of calls for help/mentions of crisis to which they are exposed (see point #2).

2)   In general, the students disliked most current “disaster messaging.”  Yes, it grabs their attention…and then it overwhelms them.  First, there are a lot of bad things that happen, and therefore a lot of news stories/PSAs/etc. coming down the line all the time.  They become hard to differentiate, such that students just tune out the PSAs entirely.  Second, the messaging largely seems to be a competition to horrify people even more…but the explanations for the problem are simplistic or, worse, nonexistent.  The students don’t understand why the crisis is happening, and they are turned off by “solutions” that amount to “send me $5 and I will fix it.”  These are young, idealistic, energetic people – this particular constituency has a greater interest in acting directly than many others.  To summarize: screaming “IT’S A DISASTER!!! SEND ME MONEY TO FIX IT!!!” is rarely going to generate deep interest and engagement (and we need both, for a lot of reasons – see below).  Most messaging around the Horn was of this genre, and as a result it quickly receded into the daily noise of news feeds and celebrity weddings.

3)   Students (or at least some students) don’t need to be spoken down to – they can handle hearing that a crisis has complex causes, that it is often difficult to identify anyone who is to blame.  In short, they are looking for the opposite of the FWD campaign, which shied away from the really complex, big causes of the Horn crisis.  Complexity, unto itself, will not scare students off.  Instead, if you can get people to give clear, concise, interesting reviews of the complex causes of the crisis, this group of people will get more engaged.  Think about it – not everyone is into Africa, or into food security, or into relief work.  So when we yell “African famine!”, we are yelling to a small but dedicated fanbase.  If, however, we unpack the causes of the Horn crisis, we find out that we have to address climate change/climate science, global markets, the politics of failed states, the regional geopolitics of East Africa, the workings of the US Government, the international politics of aid, etc., etc.  In short, when we engage complexity, we find there is something that can draw in almost anyone on their terms.  After the conversation with the students today, it seems really clear to me that they would like to be engaged in this manner – stop treating them like apathetic idiots who just don’t/won’t understand.  Why?

  • Crowdsourcing: folks, there is a big world outside the aid and development community, and some of those people actually have interesting ideas.  Maybe those ideas can only address part of one of the many causes of the crisis (i.e. adjusting a market’s function for one commodity in one part of the world), but with a lot of people acting in this manner, it becomes possible to identify a wide range of potential options to address a given crisis/prevent its recurrence.
  • Politics: not one person in my classroom, or really any person anywhere who has a clean bill of mental health, wants to see 100,000 people die for any reason.  I believe that the vast majority of them would support spending tax dollars to prevent this from happening.  But when we fail to explain what needs to be done, in all its complexity, we are turning off a key constituency that can be mobilized and can make its voice heard – they have something that all politicians want. Votes. I can’t guarantee that my students would use those votes to shape policy, but they can’t do this until someone gives them a reasonable, actionable explanation for the events in the world that we would all like to address.

4)   Message management is anathema to social media: let me state the obvious – in the social media era, controlling the message is only possible if the message is so insipid that nobody cares about it at all.  A lot of the Horn messaging was about controlling the message, which is the equivalent of lecturing people via social media.  Ugh.  One student who wrote to me after class argued, more or less, that our role should be a catalyst for social media – we light the fire, but count on the fire to catch and build in its own way once it is started.  Social media that tries to message top-down, instead of evolving with a viral situation, will fail…it will be ignored.  I just realized what I am going to assign my students to do in my absence next week – I am going to make them follow a few official twitter feeds and critique them…oh, the horror!  This will be fun…

5)   Explain why the crisis at hand is important to their self-interest.  Yes, this sounds crass, but self-interest is a broad thing that can be mobilized with decent messages.  To pull an example from my own work, I can sell using development dollars on forest conservation because it has an important impact on the functioning of ecosystems that limit the pace of climate change – climate change that is raising sea levels along the South Carolina coast and producing drought across the state, and eventually will negatively impact the tourism industry in South Carolina (one of the few sectors here that is going well).  The students got that right away.  But nobody really did this for the Horn.  Which is pathetic. Hell, I did an off-the-cuff 2 minute explanation of why they care about the failed state in Somalia in terms of piracy in class today, by referencing the various ways in which piracy is raising shipping costs and therefore commodity prices…which hits their pocketbooks, impacts job growth, etc.  From there, it is easy to get into a reasoned conversation about the relative cost of the development and aid work that could change things in Somalia and end piracy as a viable livelihood versus doing nothing and bearing the cost of piracy.  It is all about entry points and catalysts, folks.

There were several other points that the students made – the one that sticks with me now is one student’s observation there is real experiential distance between their lives and what is happening in a famine that limits their engagement.  While we cannot bring students to a food crisis, we need to start thinking about how to create this experiential engagement.  For me, this happened when I became a parent…I will never again be able to objectively stomach an infant mortality statistic, because I flash to one or more of my children lying dead on the ground and I start to get the shakes.  I’m not sure what would do that for an 18-22 year old, but that sort of visceral connection spurs action.

To summarize: I think I was right in my initial post.  My students’ failure to recall the Horn of Africa crisis was not really their fault.  The messaging went awry in all sorts of ways because it assumed a lot about the audience (they had no interest in the issue, and only wanted simple stories with simple solutions) that was simply wrong.  Not everyone is going to care about every crisis – everyone has limited bandwidth – and so bad messaging just fell back into the everyday noise of social and old media, another data point among many, but nothing new or engaging.  Good messaging won’t make everyone care about every crisis, but it could engage enough of the right people each time to get us different outcomes, and fewer crises in the future.  That alone should make the effort worthwhile – so I guess I am disagreeing with J over at AidSource. Or the hopelessly realistic optimist in me is just winning out again…