personal reflections on human rights...and other stuff

Why don’t people care more?

Upon the completion of a two-year stint in Malawi as a math teacher a very long time ago, I attended a debriefing for Canadians returning from overseas postings. The facilitator asked how many of us had gone through their first posting; most raised our hands. He continued, “I’m sure you’re filled with wonderful stories of having met tremendous hard-working, resilient, beautiful people who have led unimaginably difficult lives but have nonetheless held their heads up high despite the horrible conditions they live in. You’ll want to tell all your friends and families about all of these people and how they’ve affected you and ultimately made you a better person and more appreciative of what you’ve got. You have so much to tell people!” As he was speaking I thought Yes, this guy totally understands me.

“No one cares,” he said.

He was a downer, but for the most part he was right. My mother cared (in part because it was her default response to do so) and some of my best friends cared. No one else really gave a shit. My experiences in Malawi, and more precisely the people who changed my life, were of little importance to the people back home. They wanted to hear more about my stories of roadside mice snacks than the struggles of the poor living there.

It was a harsh but important lesson that repeated itself when I returned to Africa two years later and lived in Ghana. Life was so utterly different, poverty was so utterly everywhere, it was impossible to remain unaffected. And still, upon my return to Canada, it was a challenge to convey to others the importance of helping people elsewhere whose pathetic standard of living prevented them from living in dignity.

It begs a fundamental question: why is it so hard to care about strangers who live less fortunate lives? Here, I use “care” in a very broad sense. There are many ways to show you care. Of course you can give money. You can also become a slacktivist for your favourite cause, you can volunteer, you can Tweet your solidarity to those in need, you can learn about their lives and their struggles, you can raise awareness in your community, you can change your own habits, the list goes on. However one defines “care for others”, I believe there’s a tremendous shortage of it. No wait, that does sound pessimistic. Then let me say this: there should a whole lot more caring.

To focus on giving, and in particular giving money: giving is easy, especially now when you can go online and click away your cash in seconds. Giving leaves the giver with a sense of satisfaction and personal fulfillment, however it does little to strengthen their understanding of where their money is going and the change it is meant to make. While lots of people do give, again I say: there can be a whole lot more.

Maybe we’re just too selfish. Maybe our own problems, however trivial they may seem to others, effectively block out anyone else’s and don’t leave us room to care. Maybe our lives are too hectic to care. Maybe it’s too easy to change channels from the latest massacre in Syria to the next round of American Idol. Maybe the sheer enormity of the help required is too overwhelming for any one person to think they can make a difference. Nearly ten million children under the age of five die every year from preventable diseases, over a billion people live in slums, more than a billion live on less than 1,25$ a day. Millions of people are forcibly displaced every year from their homes due to conflict or environmental disasters, hundreds of thousands of women and girls die every year before, during, or just after childbirth. Around seventy million children worldwide are without access to basic education. It’s enough for the average person eager to help wonder, “Whatever I do won’t make a difference.”

This is not so: giving can make a difference in people’s lives. The language around giving has changed considerably since my stay in Malawi nearly twenty years ago. As such, the actions taken to make sure that giving is effective have changed as well. It’s much less about meeting needs as it is about realizing human rights; it’s less about giving and receiving and more about sharing and enabling (for everyone). It’s less about pity and gratitude and more about respect and dignity.

Twenty-odd years ago, the realities of the poor were not always well understood and often not accurately conveyed to those more fortunate. If you lived in a rich country, you saw images of poor Africans with distended bellies looking sorrowfully at the camera with a pseudo-celebrity (why do I keep thinking Sally Struthers?) asking for your help. Nowadays, messages like this and others are at times labeled as poverty porn, a term that gets its point across but with a regrettably vulgar choice of words. Effective nonprofit organizations have moved well beyond this oversimplified and misrepresentative vision of aid. Those organizations need to raise their profiles and share their good practices of using funds wisely and transparently while enabling people to claim and enjoy their rights. I think – I hope – people will give to something they know will make a difference.

Ultimately, someone wanting to help will have the empathy, the desire, the kind-heartedness and the will to find a way to give. Asking Why don’t people care more? I realize that the question could be phrased differently. I recently came across another way of asking this question from an unlikely source: my children’s comic books. DC Comics unveiled a new campaign where members of the Justice League (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the other usual superheroes) are “spokespersons” asking to help dying families in the Horn of Africa. It’s a fundraising campaign called We Can Be Heroes, in which DC Comics matches your donation to one of three partner organizations. OK, the use of the term “heroes” to designate people giving money to help others is patronizing to the extreme, but I’ll let it slide because these are comic book characters. At any rate, an awareness-raising video from the website asks the question, What do you do when someone needs help? It’s direct, it gets to the point, and it leaves room for only one answer as far as I can tell: “I help.” Doesn’t matter who needs help, where they live, or what they do: just help.



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