Tired of helping the Third World

I recently sponsored a friend of mine to go on a Rhino Run. This rather bizarre excursion involves jogging for many miles in a silly costume, all in the good name of improving the lot of certain long-suffering rhinoceri. It is, of course, all for charity. And this got me thinking about the nature of giving and, more specifically, the media coverage of ‘compassion fatigue’ in Britain. It seems that, bombarded with so many images of suffering humans on television and in the newspapers, the effort of actually feeling sorry for them wears us out. So tired are we of these emotions that God forbid we ourselves are caught in an earthquake or tsunami.The term ‘compassion fatigue’ was originally coined to explain the response of doctors, policemen and other emergency personnel to their daily experiences. When faced consistently with humanity at its worst, these people become more cynical in their outlook on their jobs, as a method of coping with the constant stress. The result of this is that they tend to view patients or victims in a abstract fashion, failing to connect with them on a personal level.However, by giving a name to this phenomenon, we are able to diagnose the problem and then set about solving it: counselling for these emotion-draining professions means that they can feel more empathy with those in their care. There is no such panacea for our more modern version of ‘compassion fatigue’ – while we can shun the troubling pictures of suffering children and bereaved wives, they will still stubbornly refuse to go away. So what does the term actually mean in its new incarnation, and does the reaction it covers actually exist?It seems to me that the problem is born from laziness. Not just the laziness of people who don’t want to donate money and who crave a semi-intellectual defence, but the laziness of journalists who can’t be bothered to get to the root of a problem. It is true that the response to the tragedy in Kashmir from the public has not been as swift, or as plentiful, as the response to the tsunami last year, but the reasons for this are much more varied than a simple two word phrase could ever encapsulate. The tsunami’s timing was impeccable from a journo-hack’s point of view; juxtaposing the holiday celebrations of the affluent in this country with the unmatched suffering of hundreds of thousands halfway across the world made for a simple moralising byline. While this inspired some poignant stories of toddlers’ donated presents, and was very successful initially by raising money for aid agencies, the overwhelming emotion it caused was guilt.It is the inevitable backlash of that quick-fix approach that we see now. People are not tired of giving, or unable to feel pity, but instead they bridle at the stream of pictures, carefully chosen to provoke maximum sympathy, which flood our television screens. Reports of corruption and waste in certain charities’ handling of the funds has also taken its toll: quite understandably, we don’t want to be manipulated into giving or have our hard-earned money used to line the pockets of bureaucrats. However, although this is an important factor in explaining why the flow of donations has dried up, I believe that the main difficulty lies elsewhere. The real trouble which faces us at the moment is not ‘compassion fatigue’, but rather a kind of ‘compassion confusion’. With so many ‘worthy’ causes available to donate to, we find it difficult to support those which matter most. People, being fickle creatures, are happier to sponsor a friend to sit in a bath of baked beans for an hour than to simply call up an automated helpline and hand over their credit card details; this inevitably results in more money for underfed rhinos, but also in fewer supplies going to Kashmir, Niger or New Orleans. This is not the time to turn our attention away from suffering; our front pages may be full of David Beckham’s latest folly or the university exploits of a privileged public school boy, but we must remember where our attention should be focused.The damage done by these disasters does not simply leave with the media coverage: the Kashmir earthquake alone is said to have wiped out an entire generation, so its effects will be felt for decades yet. We must act to alleviate the pain of those suddenly struck down, and not just for the immediate future but for the long term. Charities don’t need an occasional gift, but steady donations which can sustain their extended operations.‘Compassion fatigue’ is a catch-all term, a myth created to help people avoid guilt. The actual problems are much more subtle, but I hope that they are easier to overcome once they have been identified. With that in mind, my suggestion would be to find a cause you feel strongly about and get involved as soon as possible.ARCHIVE: 2nd week MT 2005