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The sexiness of humanitarian aid
by Dr. Binoy Kampmark
2010-08-10 08:05:22
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The journey to work was characterised by cold winds, the usual dreary outfits of a dour morning scene in Melbourne, embellished by ‘Antarctic’ fittings.  But as the sun peaked briefly and the traffic lights were about to turn, two bright women, equipped with ‘literature’ signalled from a bench.  Flashing smiles you might be able to warm yourself on, they proceeded to insinuate themselves into your conscience.  They were, after all, the sexy symbols of the humanitarian market. 

And a market it is.  These girls work for Médicins San Frontières, an organisation so impressive in some ways, but very much committed, along with various other organisations, to dominating the market of hearts and minds.  And the stock and trade questions are ghastly.  ‘What is the most likely disease children are going to die from?’  Plead ignorance.  The blonde perkily says, ‘Cholera.’  Everybody knows that.’  Well, not everybody, but she was kind enough to dispel illusions.  ‘How quickly does a child suffering malnutrition recover once treated?’  The urge to leave this increasingly irritating company is getting stronger.  The feet are getting itchy.  The pockets are tightening. 

Such a question is bound to produce variable answers, but these warriors of humanitarian worth already have the responses packed neatly in their mind, a drawer to be opened at a moment’s notice.  (Damn that readily available drawer, with its insufferable, one-party answers.)  One is witnessing a sales pitch, but even more than that, one is reminded of the waiter’s formulaic ‘Our specials of the day are...’ 

There is little doubt that blanket dismissals of such advertising campaigns for donations should be avoided.  Tens of thousands of volunteers take to the streets of large cities across the globe on a daily basis, hoping to draw in the vulnerable, ‘caring’ citizen.  If you want to change the world, you either part with your loose change or take it from someone else.  But the person who is chasing you up the street is more likely than not strapping, lithe and quick, eager to ambush you with infectious enthusiasm and the cudgel of guilt.  Today, it is these ‘doctors without borders’ who have decided that fashion conscious, tightly dressed girls are the necessary tonic to dispel any apathy amongst the donors.

Weighing the effects of such acts in the final analysis, the brutal image of making human tragedy sexy, is a hard task. Making a blonde bombshell with pearly smiles incite the public to part with money is an act that brings out the inner whore of the compassion industry.  Feminists and social theorists will clamour about the manipulation of sex by Dior or Calvin Klein, but in terms of sheer tastelessness, the humanitarian marketing machine has much to answer for in its quest for caritas.  The emaciated child who might well already be dead on the pamphlet cover is a martyr to a parting of cash.  Blonde virility and healthy living meets near dead infant black, perishing from hunger.  This must have been what the veteran New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof meant by his idea of making people feel good that they might be able to assist an impoverished teen from Sub-Saharan Africa.  Humanitarian causes, like Pepsi, needed ‘savvy marketing’.

The final attempt to make a sell, to swoop in on the animal distracted, nay desperate to get away: ‘The amounts you give are small. The feelings are great and you get a hug from me.’  So this is how one sexes humanitarian aid? 


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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