All Too Human: Is There Room for Compassion and Conscience in International Relations?

By North, James | UN Chronicle, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

All Too Human: Is There Room for Compassion and Conscience in International Relations?


North, James, UN Chronicle


A few years back, a survey by a group at the University of Maryland found that three quarters of Americans felt the United States was spending "too much" on aid to the third world. Sixty-four per cent of those questioned wanted foreign assistance cut. Only 11 per cent felt it was fine to spend "too much" helping the poorer parts of the planet.

At first, the Maryland survey sounds depressingly familiar, more evidence of a supposedly inward-looking, self-centred attitude in the American public. Over the past couple of decades, this attitude has come to be called "compassion fatigue", the idea that Americans are tired of giving. It can be cited to partly explain why the United States Congress has continued stalling on paying America's dues to the United Nations, which are now some $1.69 billion in arrears.

But on closer examination, the survey (published in 1995 by the University's Programme on International Policy Attitudes) is far more ambiguous - and intriguing. The survey asked Americans how much of the budget they thought their country was presently spending on foreign aid. The average answer was 18 per cent. In fact, the United States was spending less than 1 per cent of its $1.5 trillion budget on the third world, including military aid (a questionable inclusion in the total).

The Americans said, on average, they thought 5 per cent would be an appropriate spending level. So even though they said at first they wanted to cut spending, they were actually comfortable giving more than five times the actual existing rate.

Some commentators said this confusing set of responses showed once again that Americans were notoriously under-informed about world affairs. There is at least some truth to this observation; but by itself it is insufficient.

A closer look at the facts over the Last 20 years or so, along with a profound insight from a great 19th century American novelist, provides a much more complicated, interesting, and potentially encouraging interpretation of American attitudes.

The first part of a more complete explanation can be found in an excellent new book by Susan Moeller, an American academic who has thoroughly delved into how the United States media cover tragedies in the third world and how the American public reacts. One of her most interesting case studies in Compassion Fatigue is of the drought and famine that cut across wide swaths of Africa in 1984-1985. At first, she notes, there was little reporting in the West, and no public response. Western Governments were offering inadequate amounts of emergency aid.

Then, on 23 October 1984, the British Broadcasting Corporation ran some shocking television footage from Ethiopia and the American network NBC replayed the story. Moeller describes what happened next. "The phones at NBC, like the phones at the BBC in London, began ringing off the hook. Thousands wanted to know what they could do to help . . . In the 36 hours after the NBC broadcast, more than 10,000 people called Save the Children [one of the non-governmental organizations active in the relief effort]. By November 2, Save the Children was receiving 2,000 pieces of mail a day."

An Irish rock musician named Bob Geldof watched the first televised report and had trouble sleeping. The next day, he started calling his friends in the business. The Band-Aid Christmas record in the United Kingdom, followed by "We Are the World" in the United States, prompted some skeptical sneers about egotistical rock stars overstepping their zone of competence.

But Geldof and his friends ended up changing history; the musicians raised millions of dollars themselves, but, even more important, they helped create a wave of publicity that shamed the Reagan administration and other Western Governments into greatly increasing help. In the end, relief came too late for hundreds of thousands of Africans. But hundreds of thousands more were saved.

This was not the last famine in Africa. …

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