Building Constituencies for Change: the Rise and Fall of Third-World Charity
Imagine three whales stranded on a beach, in desperate need of help. As soon as the word gets around, the whales are surrounded by crowds of people straining every sinew to keep them alive. Yet when the crisis has passed, the same people refuse to involve themselves in the international environmental movement. Sounds familiar? The biologist Daniel Suzuki tells this story to explain how our brains are insufficiently developed to trigger action in response to distant events, or threats that are diffuse. Like the whales, ‘we learn to love humanity not in general, but through its particular expressions,’ says the communitarian writer Michael Sandel.3 Life is lived through the smaller solidarities of friends and family, neighbours and colleagues – not according to the suffering of strangers. If children in our own community were being butchered we would intervene, but when it happens in Algeria or Rwanda we wring our hands, and then forget. It’s tragic of course, but what can we do? Sometimes the distance is so great that brutality simply goes unnoticed, like Demi Moore’s incredulous reaction to events in Bosnia. Unless there is a menace we can see and feel, we don’t react, but most of us will never live next
door to Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. Even when people do feel insecure, they are just as likely to retreat into isolationism as cooperate with others in finding solutions. The unholy alliance between right-wing ‘economic nationalists’ like Pat Buchanan in the USA and ‘new protectionists’ on the left of politics does touch a raw nerve among voters frightened by globalisation, despite the bogus nature of most of their arguments. Physical and psychological distance, ignorance and media manipulation, and the pressing priority of our own short-term problems, make international co-operation an unlikely option in all but the most pressing of circumstances.