GC Blog

Speaking Truth

MSF/Doctors Without Borders is one organization that doesn’t mince words -- they call it like they see it, often taking stands unpopular or unheard of in the world of non-profits. In an editorial this week in the Globe and Mail, MSF/Canada’s director spoke out about one of the world’s most pressing crisis -- the Horn of Africa drought and famine. The following excerpts need no interpretation:

"Since the media renewed their interest in the decades-old crisis in and around Somalia, we’ve seen a surge of advertisements from aid groups, featuring starving children with visible ribs and staring eyes. The subtext to these ads is that, if you don’t donate, you’re abandoning these children and they’ll die. It’s that simple.

Médecins sans frontières is one of the international aid agencies struggling to respond in Somalia and refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. We’re also struggling to define responsible fundraising within a discourse that relies on guilt and superficial messages. Fundraising experts warn us that offering a more complex picture of the difficulties of delivering aid will lead to cynicism and donor fatigue: It’s shock value that works…

Aid is difficult. Things go wrong all the time. In war zones particularly, non-governmental organizations continually fall short as we face massive challenges in accessing people who need us most. We’re always overwhelmed, always facing painful choices that involve doing the best we can with what we have. It’s never enough, even in the most straightforward emergencies.

Of all the places I’ve seen, Somalia is among the most complex emergencies. Working there requires an understanding of local political players, a capacity to constantly negotiate with warlords, and the drive to keep projects running despite security threats…

At the risk of losing some donations, MSF believes we must realistically represent what Somalis are facing, and our limits in assisting them. Simplifying the message may boost revenue, but if it comes at the expense of presenting a realistic picture, then the cost is too high.

Ads and headlines that label this crisis Famine in the Horn of Africa or East Africa Drought reduce the plight of people struggling to survive decades of the harshest circumstances on Earth, brought on by political chaos and military agendas, to something that can be solved with food and water.

Giving to save the life of the starving child in the photo, to alleviate your guilt, won’t take Somalia very far. That’s not to say that donations are not important; rather, that there’s more to the story. Your generosity will save lives; there’s nothing more important. At the same time, let’s be honest in admitting that humanitarian aid won’t solve Somalia’s problems, beyond keeping people alive for better times in the distant future. Aid is a temporary measure until more permanent solutions can address root causes, and the downward spiral can be reversed.

Donors can handle this complexity. Aid organizations, all of us, need to confront the story behind the tragic, if successful, fundraising images… If aid organizations were bolder about the realism of our communications, we could foster groundbreaking levels of transparency and accountability."

“Bolder in our communications” -- that’s one thought, among many, that resonated with me after reading the entire article (which I really encourage you to take the time to do). If organizations were less preoccupied about fundraising for resources that they may/may not be able to spend effectively, and more concerned about educating donors about the enormous challenges of working in places like Somalia, maybe we would all understand each other -- and the world-- a bit better.