Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Check Is in the Mail...

Over at the Weekly Standard, Jonathan V. Last's undies are all a-bunch in response to the latest We Are the World release. (Full disclosure: I have always detested that song. Please leave your outraged responses in the comments section.)

At first blush, it may seem cruel to gird your loins with snark and vitriol and rush out to attack a defenseless song -- and a charitable song at that! But Last raises the very good point that many grand-scale pop culture charity efforts have had limited impact on their intended beneficiaries:

The $243,418 from the [1971 Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden] gate got to the United Nations pretty quickly, but the rest of the proceeds—about $8.8 million after expenses—were tied up in accounting for the better part of a decade. It wasn’t until 1981 that UNICEF received the balance, by which time Bangladesh had won its independence and was already onto its seventh presidential strongman. The money would surely have been welcome in 1981, since Bangladesh was (and remains) one of the poorest places on earth. But how much difference could $8.8 million really make? Since 1971, Bangladesh has been given more than $30 billion in grant aid and loan commitments to little effect.
Stars don't have a lock on charitable giving (or dunning, as the case may be). States, NGOs, IGOs, the private sector -- heck, just about everybody, thanks to modern technology that makes mass communication nearly effortless -- have engaged in humanitarian action. For states, the intent is often two-fold, which is how bags of rice end up emblazoned with the donating country's flag. The pitfalls of cultural charity aren't unique either. And that brings me back to what seems to be the theme o' the week: glitzy, attention-grabbing efforts to raise awareness and promote messages are frequently successful at doing just that--raising awareness and promoting messages. But they don't necessarily translate into action.

For Bono and Joni Mitchell and the Beatles, inaction means the disappointment of seeing your goals unrealized, and the danger of being cited in snarkish articles and blogs for years to come. But for states, the stakes are much higher. Governments who engage in flashy public diplomacy outreach without the policy or action to carry their goals to fruition risk not only personal disappointment and ridicule; they risk isolating the very groups they'd hoped to target and undermining their own efforts by failing to fulfill expectations.

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