Sande Ramage

Mediating compassion for Haiti?

By Sande Ramage
January 19, 2010

Facebook, Twitter, blogs, tv and radio news are full of the devastation. Our tears well unexpectedly as we watch heart rending scenes of the few pulled from crumpled buildings. Anxiety builds when we realise some will use force to get whatever they want in the chaos. Governments promise, armies mobilise and crisis teams are activated.

Do we care about Haiti? If we do, how long will that feeling last given that it is one of the poorest countries on earth and any solution, if indeed there is one, will be a long time coming? And what if our level of interest is, more or less, fuelled by what is shown on the national news? How will we justify out disinterest if we wake on some distant night and realise that unbeknownst to us, we have forgotten that Haiti exists because we have not been reminded?

That was the reality for this beleaguered nation a few days ago before the earthquake rumbled. No-one except the United Nations employees based there and a range of other aid agencies were the slightest bit interested in Haiti or its people. Yet now, because the media have brought vivid images into our living rooms, we feel compelled to act in the manner which seems to be demanded of us.

Tragedies come and go; indeed countless tragedies are unfolding around the globe but because we know nothing about them, we feel nothing and do nothing. Why then do we respond to calls for help in this situation? Is it just because we can't escape the image or the request? If we peel back the layers, perhaps we might see that the appeals are emotional blackmail. Give and you will instantly feel better yourself. It is, more or less, a self absorbed donation.

What if we recognised that these tragedies unfold within a web of complex interactions that are invisible to us at first glance? Haiti, like so many other small, poverty stricken nations, suffers from a load of impossible debt repayments. If we refused to give and instead demanded that wealthy lending countries forgo the debts owed to them and continued to give more, Haiti may have a chance. Without that kind of input, the existing level of poverty will increase, added to by the high levels of disability brought about by this disaster.

But more than that. What if we addressed our emotional need to 'do something' by focussing attention on changing our own way of living? What if we were prepared to stop buying endless stuff we don't need, lowered our standard of living and instructed our governments to give away substantial amounts of money to poorer nations like Haiti so they could build an infrastructure that at least gives a minimum standard of living to its people? No? I thought not.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, "I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of rights."

Compassion is about walking in the shoes of others, not biffing a few dollars at them when we are emotionally blackmailed. I suspect we don't care at all about Haiti, but a self preservation button has been activated by the media and aid agencies that are so practised at doing so. After all, targets are waiting to be met and audience numbers need to be maintained.


(c) Sande Ramage is an Anglican priest who explores spirituality in a way that is "not restricted by institutional religion". This article is republished with grateful acknowledgements from her blog: An Ekklesia partner, she previously wrote for us on 'Testing the tiger: Reflecting on military chaplaincy' -

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