Friday, 22 March 2013

The starving children in Africa - who really cares?

Before you berate me for the title, just hear me out:

I was walking home from campus a few weeks ago and behind me there was a guy and a girl having a rather heated discussion about foreign aid. It started with an obviously provocative statement from the guy: "I don't care about the starving kids in Africa."

As you might expect, there was disbelief and revulsion in the girl's voice as she exclaimed, "What! Why not? How can you say that?" - a reaction, I am sure, that most of you are having now. But the opinionated young fellow went on to explain himself, and the following exchange took place:

Guy: Well, no one really cares about the starving kids in Africa.
Girl: Yes they do; I do! Of course I care, how can anyone with an ounce of humanity fail to care?!
Guy: But where's the evidence for that? You can say you care but what do you actually do to show you care?
Girl: I give to charity!
Guy: Putting money in someone's bucket every so often hardly counts!
Girl: No, I give monthly to charity as well, I have a direct debit set up!
Guy: That's all well and good, but it doesn't show that you care. If you really cared, you'd be out there helping them!
Girl: I'm helping them by providing them with resources!
Guy: Yes, but it's easy to give money - you only do it to make yourself feel good.
Girl: But so what if it makes me feel good? It's still helping people so why does that matter?
Guy: It doesn't, but it shows that you don't really care. If you care about someone, you go and see them. I'm comfortable with saying that I don't care about the starving kids in Africa; it's the truth.

After this we unfortunately had to go our separate ways, but I found myself trundling sluggishly home as I contemplated what I'd heard. Do I really care? I mean, yes, I give to charity, but I also look away when they show pictures of starving children on TV - I can't deal with what their reality is in comparison with my own. So, am I just in it for the kicks, for some kind of sick altruistic high? I don't want to think so.

I'm reminded of a video that I was shown in a lecture a couple of years ago called "Inextinguishable Fire", a documentary by film-maker Harun Farocki. It's a documentary about the effects of napalm on its victims, made at the time when shocking press images were being released of napalm victims in Vietnam. A few lines in particular always really strike me: "If we show you pictures of napalm burns, you'll close your eyes. First, you'll close your eyes to the pictures. Then, you'll close your eyes to the memory. Then, you'll close your eyes to the facts. Then, you'll close your eyes to the entire context. If we show you a person with napalm burns, we will hurt your feelings. If we hurt your feelings, you'll feel as if we'd tried napalm out on you, at your expense. We can give you only a hint of an idea of how napalm works." And then he goes and stubs a cigarette out on his arm, saying, "A cigarette burns at 400°C. Napalm burns at 3000°C."

I think maybe part of the whole 'caring' situation is that we know that our feelings are constantly being manipulated by charities, who want us to give (and rightly so), which we do, and then we feel good. But we're aware of what's happening, and we know we can look away when we want. Perhaps we feel like if we give money, we can justifiably look away - we've done all we can. I'm not sure what I'm trying to say here, except that I think maybe Harun Farocki's perspective was right, and maybe charities need to consider that. I don't know. Here's the video, I'll let you decide:

[EDIT 01/05/13: I found this article on the BBC website today, written on a similar theme, about "gap yah" culture and the damage that it does. I found it quite interesting and relevant; let me know what you think.]


  1. I remember a guy at an old place of work who said "Why are we trying to help people in Africa when there's people over here we can help." but then when I pushed him on which UK charities he supported he had to admit that he didn't. It was just an excuse not to care at all.

  2. I think it's something in human nature to block out the things that we cannot rationalise. We can't make sense of the fact that so many are in so much pain and suffering when we're fine. We'll only go so far to help others because we see that our efforts will never be enough. And whilst if everyone went against this the world would arguably become a better place, we know that's not going to happen. We get into this emotionally tangled state where we feel guilty for what we've got, but really it's easier to forget it than do anything about the seemingly hopeless situation so block out adverts of children suffering and things like that.

  3. If we do send aid to 3rd world countries, it really must be for birth control first and food-help AFTER those issues are sorted out. The only way to get out of the loop of pregnancy = more people hungry = more to feed = more donations asked for.

  4. Any community that kills naughty kids for being "witches", and any community that sews up girls vaginas, and any community that kills animals by slitting their throats and letting them slowly bleed to death, all those communities I don't care about. I HATE all Africa and don't care if they all die of AIDS or starve.

    1. so any community that does bad things and allows people to suffer...? think you might need to re-assess your opinion there mate