the important and the not-so-important, horribly conflated.

The Message

In RANT on November 14, 2010 at 11:00 pm

When I worked with the non-profit Children Now, an advocacy group that pushes for improved children’s healthcare and education legislation, I noticed that an inordinate amount of time was spent crafting our Message. The Message had to be 1) targeted and 2) reproducible.  It had to pull at a specific legislator’s heartstrings—“20% of kids in CA lack health insurance” was too broad; “Orange County ERs spend $10 million per year on treating uninsured children, the majority of which are from working-class families” was spot-on (note: a. the local flavor, b. the scary budget stat, c. the mention of every politician’s friend, the middle class). You could not talk about “opportunity rights” or “under-insurance” or, god-forbid, “illegal immigrants”; all things philosophical, subtle, scientific were banished—even though every lunch room conversation at Children Now centered on these issues.

We chalked up our dumbing down of the Message to “reality of Politics,” as if our work was somehow outside the big P, un-dirtied by questionable donations or unconcerned with self-preservation.

Humanitarian groups and advocacy NGOs, as Philip Gourevitch explains in The New Yorker (I posted his article a week ago here), seem convinced that their work is above (if not a pointed questioning of their methods) an interrogation of their core principles. These values usually include something along the lines of “we do not engage in political activities.” Gourevitch debunks this myth quickly and completely:

The scenes of suffering that we tend to call humanitarian crises are almost always symptoms of political circumstances, and there’s no apolitical way of responding to them—no way to act without having a political effect. At the very least, the role of the officially neutral, apolitical aid worker in most contemporary conflicts is [that] of a caterer: humanitarianism relieves the warring parties of many of the burdens (administrative and financial) of waging war, diminishing the demands of governing while fighting, cutting the cost of sustaining casualties, and supplying the food, medicine, and logistical support that keep armies going. At its worst—the Red Cross [offered] its services at Nazi death camps, while maintaining absolute confidentiality about the atrocities it was privy to—impartiality in the face of atrocity can be indistinguishable from complicity.

The common reply—and I’m guilty of making this argument in conversations about my own international service—is that Aid groups are cognizant of the hypocrisy of impartiality, and integrate these concerns into organization discussions and strategy development. That’s a cop-out. Think back to Children Now and the Message: the second stipulation was that it had to be reproducible—we would send out press releases and policy pamphlets completely aware that the Message was crafted to create the most noise among Sacramento insiders or the media, not the most cogent argument for a specific piece of policy. The self delusion was that we were arguing for Universally-accepted and Morally-responsible policy: we were, instead, simply creating something universally-heard. It was the moral equivalent of what Gourevitch opens his piece with—“Stick-limbed, balloon-bellied, ancient-eyed, the tiny, failing bodies of Biafra had become as heavy a presence on evening-news broadcasts as battlefield dispatches from Vietnam.” Children Now went the pictures-of-healthy-and-adorable-kids route, but the Message maintains its equivalency: If you do not help these kids Now, you lack a conscience.

That insults an intelligent individual’s concept of conscience. It lacks any sense of temporality—the idea that the urgency of humanitarian disaster excuses us from questioning the politics of the crisis’s origin or weighing the effects of supplying acute care against a long-term presence. It lacks a concern for scale or proportion—is stopping 200 isolated, but brutal deaths really of greater importance than providing schooling and shelter for hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people and preventing future turmoil by empowering young refugees? (I don’t intend to suggest a purely Utilitarian metric should be applied to aid decisions: such a metric is inherently flawed precisely because it ignores the fact that personal values bias determinations of equivalency. My point is that the Message is created, and propagated by the press, to completely exclude possible assistance of other at-need groups from the discussion). And it lacks any self-interrogation:  Does it matter where aid money comes from? What is the end-goal of humanitarianism? (Read this profile on economist Esther Duflo if you want to explore measurable objectives in foreign aid more) What exactly is a “human right”?

I wish Gourevitch had discussed this last question further. He mentions that the humanitarian movement and “the human rights lobby” were introduced to the world at the same time as the pictures of children from the Biafra famine lit up American TVs, and this seems apt: What’s better for the self-preservation of a movement than the simultaneous establishment of incontrovertible, universal Truths that just happen to align with your movement’s goals?

I want to write about the concept of Human Rights in greater depth in future posts, so I’ll begin throwing together a sloppy  working thesis here: I’m suspicious of any idea that is deemed sacred and inarguable, but my suspicions aren’t systemically important—instead, I think humanitarian groups and at-need populations would gain mutually from an acknowledgement by aid workers that their personal (religious/political/economical) values, not the false pursuit of Rights and Moral Obligations, can both positively influence and detract from the needs and expectations of a community in crisis.

And the best way to do that is to 1) let the at-need population decide which groups will help them, 2) create an international body that could prosecute groups for breaking from their aid commitment or failing to factor in the costs of externalities incurred by their care, and 3) do away with the UN Human Rights charter. (Gasp!) Why?  Because  the idea of “crisis” would then cease to exist—and the media and aid NGOs would be forced to trace or address socio-political battles as what they truly are: an ongoing clash of individual values. Because we should be having arguments about the political process in struggling countries, and dispersing aid to those nations that demonstrate a measurable and fixable need, not defining or discussing the relative importance of Woman’s Rights vs. Food Rights vs. Education Rights. The Message will continue to be the life blood of aid groups as long as the media and donors unquestioningly accept it as Truth—but policy papers or NGO billboards don’t need to defend Truth; they need (and the recipients of their care need) Honesty.

  1. I too felt that this article stopped short of proposing/exposing/espousing possible solutions to the problems it poses. Nice to hear the viewpoint of someone who’s been there and can evaluate how Nightingale’s ideals could be translated to modern times & actual action.

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