November 12, 2013

RITHOLTZ: Questioning the Role of Cultural Relevance in Relief Aid

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Last Friday, one of the most powerful typhoons in recorded history hit the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan traveled through the middle region of the country, causing great damage to the city of Tacloban. The unofficial death toll is currently 10,000, but many emergency aid workers are worried about the externalities associated with such natural disasters, including food shortages and the spread of infectious diseases. The government estimates that the typhoon has affected 9.8 million people and displaced 630,000.

Currently all the major news outlets are covering this story and are detailing the mass destruction caused by the storm. Picture after picture demonstrates how bleak the situation appears on the ground. These photos are paired with firsthand testimonials of aid workers, who are struggling to access those most in need of aid. While there is no question that the Philippines is currently facing a major crisis, international responses to crises often pose an ethical dilemma. In an effort to drum up the much-needed support for the people of the Philippines, news outlets and other aid organizations rely on the quintessential pull-at-your-heartstring stories and photos to get the reaction they desire and to allow audiences around the world a chance to connect with these populations in trouble.

We bleeding hearts on campus are culpable of these same measures as we try and canvass for our various causes and charities. However, when we do “this” — rely on the standard moral guilt measures to raise money — we belittle an entire people by trying to solicit funds for them by evoking other people’s pity. There are certainly more ways — respectful ways — of fundraising after natural disasters that don’t involve the use of pity and guilt.  I am not trying to say that we should cut all negative coverage of any natural disaster; it’s important to understand the severity of the situation and the facts on the ground. I am proposing, however, that we think critically about how we represent these people in the recovery effort.

An alternative model of fundraising that I particularly support is celebrating the culture of the people affected by this disaster in order to not only raise funds for them, but to raise understanding as well. In talking with the Cornell Filipino Association, I was excited to learn that this model will be their primary method of fundraising for their relief effort. On Saturday, Nov. 22 at Martha Van Rensselaer Hall the CFA will host “So You Think You Can Adobo” — an adobo cooking competition. Adobo is the unofficial dish of the Philippines and can be prepared in a variety of manners. The CFA invites students to come and taste the different adobo dishes and help judge the winner for a $5 entrance fee. In this setting, the CFA is directly providing Cornell students an opportunity to engage with Filipino culture, while also raising money for the cause.

The cooking competition will raise money for the CFA’s sponsored charity, Oxfam International. Currently Oxfam is fundraising to be able to support 500,000 people with access to clean water, sanitation, and shelter.  The CFA has decided to sponsor Oxfam because they have heard the most positive comments about this organization’s apolitical efforts from people in the affected areas. I applaud the CFA’s quick, yet well thought out response to this natural disaster and encourage anyone available to attend their event.

The challenge that we face as students wanting to help with the relief effort after learning of the devastation from the news is to find this balance between providing a spotlight for those in need and reducing them to a source of pity. We need these images, multimedia and stories to connect with these people, but we cannot connect with them totally unless we learn about who they are. Organizations like the CFA are making efforts to provide deep cultural histories to complement the images we see on the covers of newspapers. It’s up to us to support their initiatives, not as the exception to fundraising, but as the rule.