For those following global events, the past few days have been filled with extremely bad news: government troops firing on civilians in Yemen and Syria, a crackdown on dissent in Bahrain, a NATO air strike that killed Libyan rebels. An ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan, compounding the tragedy caused by earthquake and tsunami. Perhaps the ugliest news has come from the Ivory Coast, where more than 1,000 people were massacred in the town of Duékoué, the latest development in a civil war between a president who won’t leave and one who’s using violence to claim the office he was elected to.
At times like this, when international news turns dark and hopeless, it’s pretty common to hear media analysts talk about “compassion fatigue”. The term has a legitimate clinical use – it’s a helpful concept to understand how professional caregivers can become overwhelmed by the suffering their patients are feeling and lose the capacity to fully empathize.
I’m not convinced that people watching the news from the Ivory Coast are so fatigued from caring about earthquake survivors that they’re having trouble empathizing. I think what’s going on is much simpler – if there’s no clear way you can provide help and support to people affected by tragic events, you feel helpless and stop learning more about the situation that’s ongoing. I have no data to support this contention, but I’ll go a step further out on the ledge and suggest that some methods of helping are lots more effective than others in helping us avoid a state of helplessness – while donating to the Red Cross is a worthwhile thing to do, I think people get very tired of being asked for money when faced with tragic events. If we can find other ways to lend a hand, I think we may be able to overcome “compassion fatigue” through constructive engagement.
With that as background, I’m very fond of an idea put forward by Senam Beheton and promoted by Professor Laura Seay, the author of the excellent Texas in Africa blog. At moments of crisis, mobile phones are critical sources and transmitters of information. They bring news out of war zones and to international audiences. They allow families who’ve fled violence to reconnect and avoid separation. In Ivory Coast, mobile phones and Twitter are turning into a network to help people communicate urgent humanitarian and medical needs, using the hashtag #civ2010.
Here’s the problem: with violence in the streets of many cities in Ivory Coast, it’s really hard to go out and buy top-up cards for your phone. And since many people haven’t been to work – and since there’s been a currency crisis in the country – most don’t have the money to top up. Beheton’s solution: ask the mobile phone companies in Ivory Coast to offer free SMS during the crisis. It would be extremely good corporate citizenship for the networks to simply make SMS available at zero cost for the foreseeable future, allowing a network that’s otherwise going to go dark from lack of use to be a critical informational backbone for the troubled country.
Dr. Seay has done the hard work of looking up ways to contact the executives at Orange, MTN and Moov who might be able to help. So if you’re feeling helpless and disengaged, here’s something you can do - put some pressure on the folks who run the three networks in Ivory Coast to make a small, important change that will impact everyone in that country. It may not stop violence in the streets, but it will help Ivorians stay in touch and to coordinate efforts to make sure the sick are cared for and the needy fed.