What Matters to Us

June 1, 2015

On April 25, I was sitting at the local pool watching my children’s swimming lessons class when I happened to glance at my phone and see the news about the earthquake in Nepal. My brain quickly jumped into gear. I knew that I had a precariously small window in which to encourage people to respond before their attention turned to something else.

I work for a disaster response and community development organization and have been blessed to play a part in responding to major disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 South Asia tsunami, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and 2013’s devastating Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. These experiences have taught me that not only are North Americans overwhelmingly generous when we see our brothers and sisters in need around the world, we are also amazingly quick to forget about them.

When the media turns its attention to something new, so do we and our opportunity to extend Christian love and mercy to those most in need often goes with it.

The type of disaster matters:

When a disaster strikes suddenly – such as an earthquake, volcano eruption, or hurricane – it provides great visuals for our media-obsessed culture. We are drawn to our computers, tablets, phones and televisions and feel compassion for the people who used to live in those flood-filled streets or completely demolished houses. What we see and hear inspires us to action.

But what about those disaster that are less obvious? In the summer of 2010, for example, a severe drought hit the Horn of Africa and lasted for more than a year. By mid-2011, the drought had caused a severe food crisis in Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya affecting nearly 10 million people.

We could see this disaster coming. In fact, early-warning systems first forecast a likely emergency as early as August 2010. Non-profit organizations sounded the alarm, but at that point the situation wasn’t a very compelling news story. It wasn’t until children were dying and families were fleeing to refugee camps in mass quantities in July 2011 that the media began to talk about this disaster. By then, thousands had already died.

The same phenomena holds true in many other situations of need around our world. Take Syria for example. The media is enthralled with the scenes of ISIS attacks and expresses concern for the loss of historical sites, but what about the innocent civilians living in these cities? There are more than 8 million people desperately in need of humanitarian assistance as a result of conflict and violence in the region, yet their stories are rarely told and we tend to forget about them.

And in the Central African Republic, rebel groups have been fighting for control and carrying out a series of near-genocidal violence for more than two years. An estimated 900,000 people have been displaced from their homes and 2.7 million are in need of humanitarian assistance, yet the world has hardly taken notice.

Our interest follows the media:

The truth is, what matters to the media, also matters to us. When the media picks up on a disaster story, we are compelled to action. We give. We pray. We encourage others to join us. When something isn’t picked up by the media, we are much less likely to do something to respond.

Brendan Nyhan wrote about this in the New York Times recently. He cited research by economists Thomas Eisensee and David Stromberg who described the public reaction to two storms that hit India in 1998 and 1999. Each storm killed around 300 people and left 40,000 others in extreme need.

The first storm received media attention. An American ambassador declared it to be a disaster, the US government provided financial aid, and North Americans soon began to send in their donations. The second storm, hit the same day as a school shooting in Georgia. The media was more interested in this domestic disaster and public interest – as well as donations – for the second storm suffered as a result. There was no US foreign assistance and very little was given in private donations.

It makes sense that we can only care about what we know, but our reliance on the media to inspire us to action also makes us subject to the media’s short attention span.

Our short attention span:

We live in an information age where we are constantly bombarded with tweets, facts, stories and shares from all across the globe. This has fueled in us a desire for more – more news, more celebrity gossip, more funny cat videos. As the media works to feed this desire, it has less time to dig deep or stay long on any one topic.

At best, a major disaster that captures the world’s attention may have 10 to 15 days of prime media coverage.  It is much more likely, however, to be replaced within a day or two with something new. When that media attention goes away so does our desire to help.

The world’s long need:

But the needs of disaster survivors aren’t over after 10 or 15 days. When World Renew responds to a disaster, for example, it expects to spend an average of 2.5 years helping communities rebuild. When funding and other resources permit, World Renew might work for five years or more to help people truly get back on their feet. That’s because it takes time to meet people’s needs.

Abraham Alonzo is a great example. The 68 year-old fisherman lived in a makeshift shelter for nearly 17 months before he finally received a new home following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.  While it was relatively quick to provide him with a tarp, it took time for World Renew to identify people who needed new homes, ensure that they had legal title to their land, develop a design for new homes that would meet people’s needs, and train local people to do the construction.

Taking time to carry out this work means that Alonzo now owns his house free and clear without any risk of a landlord coming to take it from him.  It also means that the house was built to earthquake and hurricane-resistant standards and can be trusted to withstand future disasters. What’s more, local men and women have been given a construction skill that they can use for future employment.

Despite having to wait 17 months for this home, Alonzo recently told World Renew, “Our life is far better now compared to before Typhoon Haiyan. I am earning from the boat that World Renew gave me and my youngest daughter can go to school. They also built us a typhoon resistant house that I would never have been able to afford to construct. Please tell the donors that we are so thankful for all these blessings.”

Despite this progress, Alonzo and his children and grandchildren are still recovering from the trauma of what they experienced. That will likely continue for some time.

Following the Haiti earthquake in 2010, it took Maryse Joseph two years before she would allow herself to sleep inside a building. While she had a strong house, she worried that another earthquake would happen and the building would collapse. It was only through trauma counseling and spiritual support provided by World Renew that she eventually felt safe enough to sleep inside.

The needs of disaster survivors last far longer than our attention span for learning about them.

Nepal earthquake

With all of this in mind, you can understand the sense of urgency I felt when I read about the Nepal earthquake on my smart phone that Saturday April morning. It was imperative to raise enough money to allow World Renew to work in Nepal for the next few years to help people meet their needs and build back better. The window for raising this money, however, was very small.

It turns out this sense of urgency was not unfounded. Later that same day, demonstrations were organized in downtown Baltimore to protest the treatment of a young man by the police. The Nepal earthquake story was soon bumped from its “front-page” status. When a baby was born to Prince William and Princess Kate a few days later, Nepal got pushed even further from the headlines.

I’m pleased to say that fundraising for Nepal has gone well and people have been very generous. The question remains, however, have we done all we can and cared enough about the hundreds of thousands of people impacted by this disaster?

The old saying asks the question, if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound? I wonder if the modern equivalent might be, if people are hurting in our world and there is no television crew there to film it, do we still have an obligation to care?

About the Author
What are your thoughts about this topic?
We welcome your ideas and questions about the topics considered here. If you would like to receive others' comments and respond by email, please check the box below the comment form when you submit your own comments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

There are currently no comments. Why don't you kick things off?