Thursday, January 13, 2005


Send the Marines

National Review's John Derbyshire misses an essential difference between the Congo and Thailand/Indonesia/Sri Lanka/India in his argument.

For all these differences, however, and with all proper respect to those who have selflessly given to the suffering people in south Asia, Orwell's remark is not quite truth-free. There is, for example, a capricious quality to rich-world charity. Our charitable impulses are mediated by, well, our media. We see an orphaned child or a weeping mother on our TV screen, and are moved to pity. Nothing the least bit wrong with that; but the world is full of orphaned children and weeping mothers who never make it to the nightly news. Here is a country that for five years has endured a horrible civil war, with fatalities guessed at three million. Must be lots of orphans and bereaved mothers there. Did you send any money to relieve their distress? No, neither did I.

There is nothing capricious about it. Sending money to help people in south Asia means donating it to a charity which is engaged in reconstruction efforts and/or distribution of food, medicines, etc. in countries where a natural disaster befell people, and where the government is welcoming assistance. Sending money to help starving people in the Congo, on the other hand, means trying to find someone who can brave the middle of a civil war (although at a much lower intensity currently than a few years ago) to deliver aid without being robbed or killed by either rebels or government-allied forces. The latter is a fool's errand, because we can expect that aid intended for the Congo will not actually do any good. Those people need armed troops to "convince" combatants to stand down.

There are more suitable examples of how the media chooses tragedies for our assistance - endemic serious diseases in countries such as Bangladesh are remediable by sending aid, but are almost ignored in the media. I still do not believe that the difference is capricious. A catastrophic event is far more newsworthy than a prolonged condition, simply because the former is changing markedly.

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