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On boat refugees, the Nepal earthquake and the “feel good” factor

By Kristof Decoster
on April 28, 2015

Even if you don’t watch ‘The Newsroom’, you know the 24-hour news cycle goes fast. Too fast, more precisely. Last week the boat tragedies in the Mediterranean were on all screens, this week it’s the earthquake in Nepal that is dominating the news (well, there’s still the Greek hero on the beach for the romantic ladies). Both are horrific stories and all possible support is welcome, no doubt about that.

However, you can’t escape the nagging feeling that professional media and politicians in Europe aren’t all that unhappy with the fact that a new major humanitarian tragedy has occurred on the stage, replacing the previous one. Even if there are the usual background articles on the deeper origins of the disaster in Nepal  and why it had the horrendous impact we’re seeing on tv, still Western policy makers find it way nicer to send support along the familiar frames of ‘Generous West helps needy innocent people in the South’  and ‘natural disasters just happen’ (with the caveats mentioned above, but hey,  that’s more something for experts, and anyway, this time, unlike in Haiti, the West can’t be blamed much)  than to answer all the tricky (and even more complex) questions  around boat refugees in newsrooms. (As for journalists, most are always hungry for something new to feed the audience, having exhausted all possible angles on the previous tragedy. )

But it’s not just decision makers and journalists, even common citizens in Europe feel a lot more comfortable opening their wallets for Nepali victims – especially if they are children – than facing up to the (explicit or implicit) racism in themselves, which is part of the reason why we currently have the decision makers we have in Europe, and witnessing these horrific scenes in our backyard. It’s the politicians we voted for, who carefully assess, together with their spin doctors, whether the tragedies on our shores are seen through a ‘humanitarian’ rather than a ‘migration’ lens by their voters. They mostly want to be seen as ‘doing something’, tackling symptoms, rather than addressing the causes of the problem, in spite of all the rhetoric. (Sounds familiar to the global health community)

We don’t want to argue here that Europe (and its decision makers) are responsible for all the casualties on the Mediterranean, that is obviously not the case. As we like to say in global health, it’s ‘shared responsibility’. As for ‘global solidarity’, ahum.

The current (huge) pressure on our decision makers to limit migration to the European continent has in no small part to do with the perception by many ordinary citizens that globalization hasn’t worked for them. Recent austerity policies have added even more fuel to this – probably accurate – perception. Our leaders did have something to say on globalization and austerity policies in recent decades and years, there’s no way they can wash their hands like Pilate. It’s more like dirty laundry they prefer not to talk about. So let’s put it bluntly, many people in Europe feel their leaders have betrayed them, and they’re not entirely wrong. That sort of resentment, we know from history, tends to be fertile ground for seeking scapegoats and raising some of the more ugly instincts in human beings.

No, rather have Nepal then dominating the news, our decision makers think, a relatively small and far away friendly country we can all relate to – as many of us have done some trekking there, or know people who have climbed mountains, and hey, aren’t they buddhists over there? There’s also little risk that the victims of the earthquake will end up, one day, in Europe (although you can’t be sure of anything anymore nowadays with all this organized traffic, as Farage and co will no doubt point out). How wonderful that we are once again able to show our goodwill and generosity! (We only tend to call humanitarian aid  ‘soft diplomacy’ if it comes from the likes of Pakistan, China and India. )

Nevertheless, I hate to break it to European leaders and citizens, but the boat refugees will keep coming. It’s a bit of a sad irony that some of them are currently ending up on idyllic Greek islands that tend to be visited by European tourists throughout the year.  This issue  will continue to haunt European citizens, media and policy makers and will be on our plate for years, perhaps decades, to come (if one also takes into account the increasing impact of climate change). As an American friend of mine who lives in China said some months ago, if you just look at the map, you know that Europe just can’t afford to ignore Africa and the Middle East. The Arab Spring and its aftermath were a first warning that Europe can ill afford not to pay attention to our backyard.  If we didn’t know then, we sure know now.  And yet, we still want to tackle this enormous challenge “on a shoestring”.  “Austérité oblige”, if you want.


Global health

A similar mechanism can also be seen in global health. We feel  far more comfortable, for example, contemplating a ‘Grand convergence’, to bridge the health gap between the North and the South (tackling symptoms, if you want, even if this gap is hugely important), than  addressing some of the key problems with the global economic system, and going to the roots of the problem. Because for the latter, we have to answer some more tricky questions, with starring roles for ourselves, not necessarily/exactly in the role of heroes this time.

We also feel a lot more comfortable talking about techno-fixes to deal with global health inequities elsewhere than with global health inequities in our own countries, that at least partly have to do with the economic system we have.  Why is it, by way of example, that a big part of the global health community doesn’t take a clear stand in the fight for decent wages in the US, for example? Why is it that only Jocalyn Clark seems to care about work conditions in Bangladesh which continue to be bad, a few years after the massacre in Rana Plaza? For (too) many people in the global health community, it’s just another Human Rights Watch report, which is duly noted, but let’s quickly go back then to our core vaccine and Ebola business, then.

I sincerely admire the commitment and attention span of Bill Gates. His sustained interest for global health inequities and eye for detail are admirable and all lacking very much in most of our media, and thus among our decision makers. Yet,  I wish he’d also start talking about the fact that globalization as well as our economic system are in dire need of  “a revamp”, both for people in the South and in the North, as they clearly haven’t “delivered” the way technocrats and the global elite in general still want us to believe.

I understand why Gates favors positive, optimistic global health stories, that show impact, and make people feel good, hell, I even get his ‘Global Citizen’ campaign. In secular societies, people still want to give meaning to their lives by contributing to a bigger cause, something bigger than themselves.  As one of my colleagues said over lunch, you don’t just run city marathons these days together with thousands of others for the sake of it, no, you run them for a good cause. To ‘fight cancer’, ‘end poverty’, or whatever. There are many other examples of this, and global health keenly capitalizes on this deep need of human beings to be part of a positive story. There’s nothing wrong with that, obviously.

However, there will always remain a need too for blunt criticism and sharp analysis of why the world got in this global mess in the first place, and what precisely our own role has been in it. Otherwise, you risk to tackle just the symptoms, chasing one challenge after another, with no end in sight. That sounds more like “The Road”, if you ask me. In case you wonder: not exactly a feel good movie.

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