Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Telescope Effect

I've alluded to the Telescope Effect--a cousin of the better known compassion fatigue--in recent posts about the earthquake in Haiti. I remember debating it in grad school--how could Amnesty International, some people asked, justify making such a big deal out of individual people. Which is a different issue, because a regime that incarcerates a political prisoner tries to break his or her spirit, which includes his or her sense of self, individualism, etc. AI's impact in making sure those individuals are not forgotten is much bigger than the individuals themselves.

There's also something about events like earthquakes that tugs at the heartstrings. Is the earthquake more tragic than the ongoing humanitarian clusterf* in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Are its victims more deserving of relief funds? I'm not implying they're less deserving. Remember when the Red Cross infuriated donors by appealing for funds under the guise of disaster relief, and then using those funds for other, arguably no less important causes? Now, they have an obligation to use donor funds as directed, and to be transparent about how they do it. Relief agencies are going to use natural disasters to solicit donations, as well they should. And in an ideal world, should they find themselves with more funds than can be spent onsite, they should be able to take that money for relief work elsewhere (or development work there and elsewhere).

I'm not immune to the Telescope Effect, or to other skewed emotional responses, but emotion is one thing and action, response is another. It's wonderful that people open their wallets whenever something like this happens--and many people open their wallets anyway--but investing in prevention and resilience goes a longer way than cleaning up the mess.

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