8.30.2012

Failed Awareness: Adding to Ed Carr's Thoughts on Bad Campaigns

Ed Carr has recently had a series of intriguing blog posts over at his blog, Open the Echo Chamber, one of which is his newest post on celebrity endorsement in activist campaigns – a topic that interests me greatly.

His post focused on celebrity support for USAID’s FWD (Famine, War, and Drought) campaign that was launched to raise money during the Horn of Africa famine last year. Of course he has several great points throughout his post, which makes it difficult for me to pick and choose, so I will quote the section I found well-stated at length.

On Failed Awareness Campaigns
Carr’s main purpose of his post was to highlight what was wrong with FWD’s awareness campaign, which he explains:
There were all kinds of issues with this campaign, but for me the biggest was how the use of celebrity in the FWD campaign illuminated just how thin celebrity authority can be and still produce an “acceptable” message.
Fine – the celebrity experts aren’t really experts…But this matters a hell of a lot, especially when you consider the solutions people like [Anthony] Bourdain were supporting under FWD.  The interventions identified by the FWD website were narrowly technical means of addressing acute need, and did not in any way address the root causes of the crisis that brought about these needs, including climate change, rising global food commodity prices, and long-term political instability. Instead, in an effort to muster support for (much needed) relief efforts, FWD and its celebrity spokespeople once again reduced Africa to a site that has ill health and absence of well-being at its essence and therefore beyond addressing in a fundamental way…Those affected by the crisis become helpless objects of pity, a problem with a technical solution for the immediate crisis, but no hope for long-term resolution.
I agree with Carr on all points, especially that celebrities aren’t experts, that responses to crises such as the Horn crisis often serve only as mere band-aids to the immediate problem instead of addressing the deeply-rooted systemic problems, and that crises such as the one in the Horn are far too often diluted down to an easily understandable issue for an increasingly disinterested/impatient society.

Although I could expand on these points more, I know I’ll end up writing forever, so I’ll save those for another post. However, I would like to contribute some other issues that I saw with this campaign.


On Failed Tactics
Firstly, the main issue I have with the FWD campaign was that I think it was ineffective because, well, I had never heard of it until yesterday, thanks to Ed’s blog. I like to consider myself a pretty in-tune person when it comes to international crises – I read AlertNet and IRIN daily to stay in touch on issues in the relief and humanitarian field, so I knew about the Horn of Africa crisis last year, I knew the issue was far larger (thanks to those websites) than simply a drought and famine, but I never once learned about the FWD campaign.
However, clearly others did know about this campaign according to their website, so I guess they weren’t completely ineffective, right? Anyways, when you go to their homepage, there are 4 ‘facts’ about the famine and what your donation will do. I take issue with 3 of these 4 facts.
First fact: The crisis in the Horn of Africa is unlike any other: killing, starving, or displacing over 13 million.
Issue with Fact 1: I take issue more with the wording of this statement and the infographic. Yes, the severity of the Horn crisis needed to be stated and made known and, yes, it affected an incomprehensible and sickening number of East Africans (but for far more reasons that simply war or lack of food). But my main issue with this is that it compares the Horn crisis to the South Asian Boxing Day tsunami and Haiti’s earthquake, as if to say ‘Hey look, more people are dying here, so your donation should go here, not there’. I’m sure USAID didn’t mean it quite like this, but I’m sure many people looked at this graph and thought to themselves, ‘Whoa, my donation is more needed here than it is in Haiti or fill in the blank for other campaign/issue here.’ To me, each number of those millions represents a person, which is often lost in the statistics. And to me, in this ingographic, it compares the value of life between these crises. Just because 2 million people were affected in South Asia compared to the Horn’s 13 million people, it doesn’t mean that South Asian’s needs were any less dire than those in the Horn.
Second fact: 13 million Africans are in the middle of the worst drought in 60 years, the worst famine in 20, and nonstop violence.
Issue with Fact 2: Again, yes, the severity of the crisis needed to be stated, which this statistic does give. But this statement and infograph make it seem like famine, drought, and war are the only reasons 13 million East Africans were at risk and that your donation will fix the problem. Au contraire: the Horn crisis was the perfect storm of climate change, bad politics, bad aid, bad economics, all combined with food insecurity. The issues are far, far deeper than just war and lack of food, as Carr recognizes.
Third fact: In Somalia, one child dies every six minutes.
Issue with Fact 3: My first problem with this fact is that it is far over done. By this I mean, our society has far too many “Every second/minute/hour day ______ happens”, which makes this point lost on deft ears. There is something happening every minute/second that now I can’t keep the statistics straight [side note: I always think of the meme what I read a fact like this]:
Back to my point, the other problem I have with this fact is that it makes it seem like your $10 dollar donation will keep a child from dying. Let me say, this is not to discourage people from donating to such causes. It is needed, most definitely, and it most often does not go to waste (although I think there is a lot to be said for aid transparency and accountability). 

However, one person’s $10 donation will not address the problems that led to the Horn crisis. Sure, the $10 might be put towards buying food items for distribution, but who is to say that food supply isn’t diverted to a rebel group involved in the perpetuation of the crisis (which happened)? Those $10 dollars aren’t going to make a difference in the bad leadership in the region nor will it solve climate change. It serves as a band-aid to the systemic problems we ignore. We patch these problems continuously without ever addressing the deeper problems – we put off the problems for another day…but how long does this go on? We, as donors and relief workers, need to demand more from our donations.
I hope our campaigns of the future take better approaches than this for drawing attention to crises. But although they need much improvement, they should not disappear altogether – hell, we sure need one to raise awareness of the Sahel crisis now. Some awareness (however faulty) is better than none at all. But we should demand more of our donations and of the proposed solutions to these crises. We owe it to ourselves to know the real reasons, however complex they might be, behind such crises.

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