I have a positively jam-packed travel calendar shaping up, starting in mid-January… from then you can expect more tales from my own hood, somewhere in CentralSoutheastAsiaMiddleEast Until then, you’re stuck with rambling pontification.
Here’s a bit about raising awareness:
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A number of people have commented, DM’d me or sent me email about raising awareness. “Yes”, they say. “Of course awareness-raising isn’t an actual solution. … but still, isn’t it a good thing?”
Of course it’s a good thing. I’ve said so before, and I’m almost positive I never said it’s a bad thing. But as we know it up to now, at least in the United States (although I suspect in other Western developed countries as well), it is an incomplete thing. And very often it is a badly managed thing.
In case I’ve been unclear up to now, I am not patently against The Journalist or the Rock Star or The Actress (and if you’ve been following this blog for very long, you know exactly who I mean) running the flag up the pole on HIV/AIDS or Afghanistan. I’ve pointed out before that this kind of awareness-raising stops short of actual solutions. Which is true. But as I think about it, even more than that, what’s missing in all of the awareness-raising that I see going on around me is any kind of meaningful attention to the concept of solutions more broadly.
After getting all worked up about Darfur or some other complex humanitarian emergency, most people do not really want to hear that the honest-to-god very best things they can do are send money to active implementing agencies that don’t suck and vote Democrat. Okay, maybe that’s putting it a bit simplistically, but it’s not far off.
As Martha Cook (here’s her blog) has commented, these situations are complex and complexity tends to turn people off, and I’d agree with her. I’d add/expand that in the vast majority of cases, the terrible situations around the world did not come about quickly, but rather are simply the result of years – perhaps decades or even centuries – of trouble brewing. And by the same token, there are no quick fixes. Solutions also take years, and even then are by no means guaranteed. And that, too, is a very difficult message for Western people, perhaps particularly Americans, to hear. We’re used to Jiffy-Lube and Taco Bell and broadband and problems that get sorted out in 30-45 minutes while we browse Barnes & Noble across the street.
And that, in my opinion, is where awareness-raising as such has really fallen short. The celebrities do the inform-people-about-the-over-the-top terrible things that happen bit very well. But they’re considerably less adept at getting across that complexity – specifically the notion that there are no quick fixes. We want to send the Marines to sort it out; vaccinate everyone – problem solved; They got no water? Easy, drill some wells. All done.
I think for Americans as well, there’s the myth of our own political and technological greatness that has to be though through. We eradicated malaria from Mississippi, for goodness sake – why on earth is Uganda so hard? We build GPS units that come pre-programmed with Nordstrom locations nation-wide, but we can’t seem to pin-point a few donkey carts smuggling heroin around Central Asia. From the comfort and safety of homes in North America the Israel/Palestine issue can feel like a no-brainer.
This is where aid agencies, NGOs, the professionals have quite simply fallen down. We’ve addicted our Third Audience to happy, one-paragraph stories about how $30 saved little N’bmbwe from a life a sweatshop slavery in Ouagadougou. Thanks to us, they’re hooked on factually accurate, but also hyper-simplistic soundbites about bednets and birthing kits and heifers.
Not every “ordinary citizen” has to be a student of the nuanced complexity that is international aid. But we most definitely need to do a better job at educating our constituents and supporters about the reality that it is nuanced and complicated. They don’t have to bone up on the details of situation X (although it’s certainly not a bad thing if they do), but we do need them to understand that there is no magik bullet; that there is no one intervention that fixes everything; that we don’t just hand out the NFIs in the disaster zone and that’s it, situation returned to normal; that solutions take time.
Nicholas and Bono and Anglina have got the public’s attention. Good for them.
Now we, the practitioners need to do a bit of awareness-raising of our own.