Moving Beyond The Compassion Moment

  Photo Credit: Hafiz Johari / Shutterstock.com

Photo Credit: Hafiz Johari / Shutterstock.com

Every year on August 19th, World Humanitarian Day, the United Nations shines a spotlight on the millions of civilians around the world whose lives have been caught up in conflict, honoring also those courageous men and women who risk their lives to provide humanitarian aid and protection. At World Relief we join the UN in thanking these brave and committed workers, including some of our own staff, who put themselves on the frontline everyday in the midst of dangerous conflict zones. It is for them—and the millions of victims of conflict [1] worldwide—that we commit to learning from our history as we strive to better our interventions, increase our impact and alleviate future suffering.

The “Compassion Moment”

In 1984, BBC journalist Michael Buerk produced what was arguably the most groundbreaking news reports of the late 20th century, documenting massive famine in Ethiopia.[2] Record low rainfalls, compounded by the effects of a brutal civil war, contributed to an estimated one million deaths and made millions more destitute. In his report, Buerk described the scenes of dying families huddled in feeding camps as “a biblical famine in the 20th century.”[3] The report went viral, transmitted by 425 television stations worldwide.[4] Musicians, artists and celebrities of all kinds came together to organize fundraising events, the culmination of which was the Live Aid concert, watched by over 400 million people worldwide.[5] The surge of compassion was huge.

Fast forward to 2008, when genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan splashed across headlines and the Save Darfur movement was born. The campaign grew like wildfire, garnering unparalleled support—from high school students to politicians to Hollywood’s biggest names. Millions were pumped into advertising, celebrity spokespeople ensured constant media coverage and high school and college clubs and letter writing campaigns ramped up national support in the blink of an eye.[6] Again, the surge of compassion seemed unstoppable.

Then, in 2015, a picture of a little Syrian boy washed up on the shores of Turkey broke over the news. His name was Alan Kurdi, and he had drowned as his parents sought to escape the violence and horrors of the civil war in Syria. The image of this unimaginable horror once again fueled a compassion moment that captivated the world and led to an outpouring of generosity. The Swedish Red Cross saw donations skyrocket from $8,000 to $430,000 in one day—a pattern experienced by many other international organizations the day after Alan’s photo was released.[7]

Each of these tragic stains on our global history have been complex and different. But they have one painful commonality. The compassion moments failed. The outpouring of support did not last. Donations stayed elevated for a few weeks—before returning to normal levels. And these crises were largely forgotten. Conflict persisted and the images of suffering became commonplace. We returned to our normal.

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We should not be surprised. Today, the litany of crises around the world seems to be endless. Famine continues to stalk much of Africa periodically. The number of conflict zones seems to multiply. Mass migration driven by conflict is increasing sharply with the number of displaced people in the world today at an all time high. And of course, Darfur, like countless other conflict zones,  was not saved. “Millions of people called, wrote, marched, [yet] it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough,” said Eric Cohen, co-founder of Act for Sudan.[9] The Save Darfur Coalition actually shut down last year.

Psychic Numbing

Today, in Myanmar, ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people has already forced over 900,000 refugees across the border into Bangladesh, 60% of them children—many of them orphaned by the violence.[10] They are huddled in camps distressingly similar to the misery and despair seen in the camps of Ethiopia in 1984.[11] Yet the crisis has hardly impinged on the consciousness of the average American. We have become numb.

Why? Perhaps it is fatigue. Perhaps it’s a belief that it’s no longer possible to make a difference. A belief that the problem is just too big. Indeed, when the World Food Program reported that it had run out of funding for its emergency response in Syria just 12 months after the outpouring of charitable giving that was spurred by Alan Kurdi’s death, many undoubtedly took this as proof that their compassion wasn’t, and never would be, enough.[12]

But what if there was a different way to respond to these crises? What if funding didn’t run out with the hand-outs, but became a catalyst for crisis prevention—a hand-up? Would the world believe once again in the power of their empathy? Could we transform humanitarian responses to have impact that lasted far beyond the end date of a single crisis?

Sustainable Solutions

Humanitarian crises are rarely simple or short-lived. In fact recent OHCA reports reveal that more than 90% of humanitarian crises last longer than three years, with the average length being seven years.[13] It therefore makes sense that responses that focus only upon the immediate “compassion moment” to raise funding are insufficient. The root causes of most humanitarian crises, whether catalyzed by nature or by conflict, are complex and multi dimensional. They require far more than just emergency aid. Only a response that goes beyond relief to include restoration and rebuilding will truly heal and transform suffering populations.

That’s why at World Relief we go beyond immediate assistance to focus on empowering local communities with sustainable solutions to these complex crises.  

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Pakistan, and other nations plagued by conflict, we design and implement programming in conflict prevention through village peace committees, interfaith peace gatherings and youth against violence initiatives. These programs ensure that peace is maintained, create stability and social harmony and provide a mechanism for communities to resolve local conflicts before they turn to war.

In the Middle East, we work to heal the breakdown in relationships between people groups and the disruption in family norms that come from mass displacement through programs in family strengthening, literacy, girls empowerment and trauma counseling.

In parts of Africa, where drought and conflict often contribute to re-occurring food crises, we teach communities to rethink damaging cultural practices to ensure children begin life with proper nutrition and introduce food diversity through new agricultural techniques.

And in places like Haiti, our disaster risk reduction work helps communities to develop low tech early warning systems that dramatically reduce their potential vulnerability.

In each of these cases, we mobilize the authority, knowledge and outreach capacity of local churches and other partner organizations within the affected communities, magnifying and extending the impact of our work so that change can be sustained long after we depart.  

Of course, we cannot claim to have the solutions or the resources to end these humanitarian crises. But we can seek to operate beyond the compassion moment with long-term, sustainable and transformational solutions to complex crises. These solutions ensure that even in the face of crises that seem ‘too big’, ‘too hard’ or ‘too complicated’, we can still make a difference—breaking the cycle of despair and empowering the most vulnerable with courage, resilience and hope.

We can still say ‘yes’.



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Tim Breene served on the World Relief Board from 2010 to 2015 before assuming the role of CEO in 2016. Tim’s business career has spanned nearly 40 years with organizations like McKinsey, and Accenture where he was the Corporate Development Officer and Founder and Chief Executive of Accenture Interactive. Tim is the co-author of Jumping the S-Curve, published by Harvard Publishing. Tim and his wife Michele, a longtime supporter of World Relief, have a wealth of experience working with Christian leaders in the United States and around the world.