Why don’t we do more for mankind?
On August 19th, 2003 a hotel bombing in Baghdad left twenty-two people dead. Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, was among those killed. Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan would later describe de Mello as someone “with a remarkable grace and sensitivity,” a man who “never once hesitated to take on difficult, even dangerous assignments.” Six years later the UN would establish August 19th as World Humanitarian Day in honour of the UN workers killed by the bombing.
The UN says World Humanitarian Day is a time to “celebrate the spirit that inspires humanitarian work around the globe.” That spirit lives in all of us–not just in individuals who risk their lives in far-flung corners of the world. But this spark within us, this fuel that motivates us to do good, needs to be nourished. Too many people feel they are incapable of affecting real change and so choose not to act on their desire to leave the world better than they found it.
What stops us from giving back?
Sociologists and psychologists have over the years identified various mental roadblocks we erect that make us less inclined to donate our time or money to causes that we believe in, patterns in the ways that we think about our relationship to the world and to others.
- Futility Thinking: Futility thinking is the belief that you are ultimately unable to truly make a difference in the world. We feel that no matter how hard we try our individual efforts are unlikely to amount to much. How much of an impact can one person really make? This is the same logic that sometimes leads to low turnout in elections. I am only one person, the thinking goes, I won’t make a difference in the outcome.
- The Bystander Effect: Most people associate this concept with the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese a woman who was stabbed to death in Queens in the early sixties. There were multiple witnesses who heard her cries for help (although the exact number has been disputed). Theorists speculated at the time that a “diffusion of responsibility” prevented her neighbours from intervening to save her life. This same phenomenon, this “diffusion of responsibility,” can influence how we respond as individuals to issues like climate change or global poverty. Because there are so many people who can act to ameliorate the living conditions of the world’s poor we are complacent. We do not feel a real sense of urgency—perhaps thinking someone else will do what needs to be done.
- The Identifiable Victim Effect: Finally, the Identifiable Victim Effect is the idea that we are more likely to feel committed to a cause if we are provided with specific instances of people who will be positively affected by our involvement. For many people, being told that there are millions of refugees who need help is overwhelming. The reason so many charitable organizations choose to profile specific individuals in their campaign literature (a young woman who lives on the streets, a father unable to provide for his family), is that doing so personalizes the work that they do and makes potential donors feel more connected to those who stand to benefit from a donation.
In honour of World Humanitarian Day we should recognize the unconscious biases that govern our behavior and fight against them. We are all of us responsible. We are all of us capable of making a difference. We need to fight through the apathy that leaves us lethargic in the face of injustice. The world demands more of us.