Fri 7 Jan 2005
Out of the otherwise horrific news reports of the Indian Ocean tsunamis disaster, perhaps the most optimistic news was found in the headlines of Wednesday’s Globe and Mail. Above the fold, in XX point type, Canada’s national newspaper declared that “Donors Swamp Charities”. Within the body of the story, readers were told of the “phenomenal response” of Canadians. Rarest of all, a spokesman for Medicins sans frontieres declared the amount of money they had received had exceeded their ability to deploy it.
There is no question that the shear magnitude of the catastrophe – upwards of 150,000 lives lost, untold devastation of once arable land and an escalating risk of disease and water shortages – at least in part, accounts for this outpouring of generosity. But this “phenomenal response” goes beyond the disaster itself and reflects the times — and the place — where we live.
At bottom, the public’s engagement with this event and their empathy with the victims can be explained by the nature of media today. In 1976, even more lives were lost in an earth quake in China. But this was before 24 hours news television, digital cameras or the Internet. Accordingly, the ramifications of this calamity were largely out-of-sight and unknown. Today, we are inundated with real time accounts of virtually every grisly detail that occurs, as they unfold.
Similarly, the Internet has facilitated charitable giving with an ease that was previously not possible. In the same way Amazon.com has proven that many consumers would rather shop from the comfort of their home than confront the hassles of the Mall, Canadians can now respond instantaneously to the heart strings that are being plucked by the media.
But as anyone who has toiled in the fields of philanthropic fundraising will tell you, knowledge of need and convenience of giving are rarely sufficient, unto themselves, to make Canadians part open their wallets for the charity.
One of the most significant outcomes of the post 9/11 period is that we have are more interested in and have learned more about the world in the last 39 months than in any time in the past. Moreover, we no longer simply view the world as a commodity – a place to sell things to or buy things from – but as part of that learning, we have come to understand the world as a place that can hurt you, that needs help and one in which we have a responsibility to participate. Put simply, we are more alive and aware of international events than ever before.
Add to this, changed patterns of immigration that have vastly altered the complication of the Canadian mosaic. In the 1991 census, so few Sri Lankans lived in Canada that they barely registered as a category of ethnic ancestry. Today, more Sri Lankans live in Toronto than in any city outside of their native homeland.
The magnitude to the tsunami disaster lies not only in the number of people who perished but also in the number of countries that were affected. The tidal wave reeked havoc on thousands on miles of coastline, in X countries. Immigrants from these shores are now our neighbours, as well as a considerable political constituency in their own right, who have given us a face and a domestic context to which politicians and citizens alike can relate.
Canadians will report to pollsters their belief that a central part of our unique identity as a nation is our peacefulness, generosity and charitableness. How then do we explain those cringing statistics that shame us with the fact that Canadians only donate half as much to charity per capita, compared to Americans? Evidence indicates that we do respond to charity – but most often, rarely in any other way than “doorstep ambush”, when we are solicited, more or less spontaneously, by volunteers canvassing our neighbourhoods. Without the ingrained “habit” of religious giving or loyalty to alma maters (as is the case in the United States) the pathways of giving are very underdeveloped in Canada. Consequently, even though we can claim to be very generous-minded, Canadian’s behaviour often lags behind our stated concerns. Much like the Canadian response to African Relief in 1984 or the attack of September 11th, the Tsunami disaster has provided a concrete pathway to giving and has brought our deeds in closer correspondence with our beliefs.
The temper of our times also adds to the mix and gives us a frame of reference that brings a distant problem closer to home.
The omnipresent prospect of terrorism has created a lingering fear for our personal security. Less starkly, our concerns have also become more multi-layered and complex. We have lost faith in institutional authority. Progress is no longer considered a birthright to which each successive generation will enjoy in greater abundance. This climate of uncertainty and faithlessness has left us feeling more alone and vulnerable.
This mindset is responsible for the “joyless prosperity” that dominates the current public mood. It also has stripped us of our gilded sense of Western smugness and invincibility, and has given us an appreciation that bad things can happen to anyone – us included. Where once, in a more naive state, it might have been inconceivable for Canadians to relate to East Asia’s despair, events at home have actually drawn us closer to people living on the other side of the world.
The question now being asked by relief agencies and charities is whether Canada’s generosity will last or if, as has happened in the past, once the images of disaster recedes so too will our charity.
While it may be impossible to provide and answer to this question with certainty today, I would hazard a guess that this “unprecedented effort” will reinforce our increasing recognition of the importance of international institutions and perhaps even teach us that, together, it is possible to bring comfort and help to a scary and dangerous world.