Starvation Imagery as Humanitarian Trump Card?


Anthony Judge – TRANSCEND Media Service


The increasing impact of winter in the Northern Hemisphere has obvious consequences for the hundreds of thousands in refugee camps lacking many facilities, or having none at all. Diffusion of images of those starving in camps in freezing temperatures — subject to embargos on delivery of foodstuffs — increases recognition of the dimensions of the humanitarian crisis and the urgency of a solution (Heartbreaking video shows starving Syrian children as true horror of war is unveiled, Mirror, 7 January 2016; Madaya, besieged Syrian town, plagued by starvation as winter takes hold, CBCNews, 7 January 2016; Families Facing Starvation and Famine in Madaya, Syria, Revolution News, 6 January 2016).

International institutions and agencies, which derive their income from associating themselves with those suffering, are clearly most articulate in the urgency of their appeals. Framed as a humanitarian emergency, the unquestionable need to act now is simply stated. Considered reflection is an irresponsible, luxurious indulgence when people are dying. The focus is on the short-term. Any case for long-term reflection can be brushed aside as a matter for the future — after the current challenge has been addressed. The message is: This is urgent. People are dying. Nothing else matters. Or, more simply: Don’t think; Just give.

Such urgency can be seen as a “trump card“, outranking all other considerations, through which starving children are used as a “humanitarian shield” obscuring other agendas, whether appropriate or dubious. Starvation is effectively exploited as a question blocker and a learning inhibitor.

This can be seen as a tactic of humanitarian hypocrisy. Such an argument is offensive, but necessarily so — for so are the images of the starving children, when no thought whatsoever is given to how their situation arose, nor to why it will continue to be repeated in the future. Images of starvation become a propaganda tool (Starvation as a tool of war in Syria, Al Jazeera, 3 Jan 2016).

There is however another consequence to dissemination of such images. People worldwide are increasingly aware of the probability of token response to humanitarian appeals. The numbers suffering from starvation, lack of shelter, and related illnesses continue to increase. Those making appeals place themselves on the moral high ground in doing so. Those who fail to respond are made to feel increasingly guilty. Those responsible for the situation evade all attention.

The defensive response by those to whom appeals are made in response to repeated crises of that kind is however poorly recognized. The response is one of increasing indifference, as may be variously recognized (Indifference to the Suffering of Others: occupying the moral and ethical high ground through doublespeak, 2013).

Repeated exposure to images of severe suffering engenders psychic numbing (Paul Slovic, Psychic Numbing and Genocide, American Psychological Associations, November 2007; David Hicks and Andy Bord, Learning about Global Issues: why most educators only make things worse, Environmental Education Research, 2001). Suffering somewhere is becoming the new norm with which all must deal on a daily basis. However suffering elsewhere can be more readily framed as an unacceptable evil for which others are responsible. As with universal condemnation of apartheid, however, it is especially convenient that it be a focus for attention on another continent — displacing attention from the challenge of discrimination and suffering in the immediate environment.

The increasing number of beggars in the streets of developed countries emphasizes the dilemmas, as with the arrival of refugees migrating from afar (Responding to begging: compassion, emotional blackmail and risk of being duped?, 2015). Why should starvation imagery from elsewhere evoke a response when daily exposure to local suffering is a matter of habitual indifference, however much it may be conscientiously deplored?

The question here is how to move beyond the unreflective emotional blackmail practiced by those making appeals — framed by images of the displaced, the starving, and the dying. Who learns from humanitarian disaster and what is it they learn? Why is there such systematic avoidance of what is to be learned from such situations in order to reduce their occurrence in the future?

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 11 Jan 2016.

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2 Responses to “Starvation Imagery as Humanitarian Trump Card?”

  1. George Kent says:

    Anthony, having worked on the hunger issue for decades, I must tell you I think you have constructed an unfair straw-man argument.

    I have never heard of any humanitarian agency saying anything like, “Considered reflection is an irresponsible, luxurious indulgence when people are dying.” Don’t put that words into their mouths. Yes, their focus is on the short-term, doing serious, intense work, work that most of in the “considered reflection” business will never do. If you were in an accident and taken to a hospital emergency room, I don’t think you would want the doctor to take time off for reflection. She leaves that to others, in other circumstances.

    I agree that hunger and poverty don’t get the attention they deserve. Let’s not blame that on the people on the front lines who do what they can under very difficult conditions.

    My essay on caring, indifference, and exploitation, available at might be of interest.

    Aloha, George

  2. Fair comment indeed to an unfair straw-man argument.

    Yet the questions do not get asked and indifference is getting massively engendered — and those in desperate need are multiplying fast in several senses.

    I pass many beggars in the streets daily. I meet those soliciting funds weekly. Where is the new thinking about that interaction? I endeavoured to collect it in:

    Confusion in Exchanging “Something” for “Nothing”
    Cognitive implication in the asymmetrical processes of begging and its surrogates

    The message is indeed as I indicated: Don’t think; just give.

    That is not good enough when there is never enough — a question I raised separately

    Is There Never Enough?
    Religious doublespeak on population and poverty

    There is no conversation about psychic numbing — only about the need to give. Yet seemingly most are content with the situation.