How should we react to charity appeals − particularly those that we see on television? This PSHE secondary assembly compares the different public responses to the recent disasters in Burma and China and asks how we should respond

Resources

A leader and two readers. (The record: Let them Know it’s Christmas may be used.)

Sources:

The Times, 22 and 27 May.

The Observer, 17 Oct, 2004, located by the Guardian website.

Engagement

Leader: Recently the world has been hit by two terrible disasters, both of which have been reported on television. There was Cyclone Nargis in Burma, which flooded large parts of the country, and the earthquake in China, which killed thousands of people and left many more homeless. Many people have been eager to help the victims, but it turned out that victims in Burma were getting less help than those in China. Let’s ask why. Please listen to these recent newspaper headlines.

Reader 1: [Loud and clear] ‘Burma victims lose aid battle.’

Reader 2: ‘Cash flows into China.’

Reader 1: ‘Lack of TV pictures hinders cyclone appeal.’

Reader 2: ‘Giving doesn’t follow need. Fundraising is also down to the news.’

Leader: What was that? Please let’s hear the last two headlines again.

Reader 1: ‘Lack of TV pictures hinders cyclone appeal.’

Reader 2: ‘Giving doesn’t follow need. Fundraising is also down to the news.’

Reflection

Leader: Nowadays, most of us watch television and use the TV news to tell us what is going on in the world. And that affects the way we look at disasters − like earthquakes, famines and floods.

Reader 1: What people see on television certainly affects the way we give to help the victims. TV’s power was proved back in 1984, at the time of the Live Aid appeal, which was fronted by Sir Bob Geldof.

Reader 2: BBC correspondent, Michael Buerk, had been a witness to a terrible famine in Ethiopia. The rains had failed again and thousands of people were starving. The film he made was seen by up to ten million people on the evening news. Many people were moved and anxious to help.

Reader 1: Then a group of rock stars and pop singers got together and made the Band Aid record Do they Know it’s Christmas? At first, Michael Buerk was not impressed. He said:

Reader 2: ‘When I heard about the Band Aid record I thought ‘Who are these creeps?’ I had the stereotypical view of rock singers as airheads, lining their own pockets.’

Leader: But this time the rock stars were trying hard to help. When he found out what Live Aid was doing, Michael Buerk changed his mind.

Reader 2: ‘When I went back to Ethiopia… there were eight Hercules aircraft on the ground carrying aid. It was impressive.’

Leader: So the charity Live Aid was set up − and it’s clear that television can make us want to help − by bringing pictures right into our homes. Victims don’t have to die alone in the middle of nowhere. But what happens when you have a disaster which doesn’t make it to the television news?

Reader 1: And, recently, the world has been hit by two terrible events, which were differently reported – first came the cyclone in Burma, which struck on 12 May.

Reader 2: Here, in Britain, the The Disasters Emergency Committee − which unites leading charities − made an appeal on TV, presented by the entertainer, Stephen Fry. It raised eight million pounds.

Leader: That sounds a lot. But was it?

Reader 1: The committee reported that it was ‘encouraged by ongoing interest’.

Reader 2: And that’s a polite way of saying that they were disappointed because people did not give as much money as they hoped.

Leader: Next came the dreadful earthquake in China, which took place on 21 May.

Reader 1: This time the response was much better. Another newspaper headline reported.

Reader 2: ‘Cash flows into China on a flood of sympathy’ .

Leader: So, why the difference in response to terrible disasters in Burma and China?

Reader 1: One reason was that hardly any news pictures from Burma were shown on television. Houses had been swamped under twelve feet of water, but few needy survivors appeared on the TV news.

Leader: The Disasters Emergency Committee reported, rather sadly…

Reader 2: ‘It has been hard, because of the lack of pictures, to tell the human story and to cover the aid effort.’

Leader: But why no pictures? The government of Burma is a dictatorship, run by a group of soldiers who are afraid to let outsiders in. They kept on saying that they could cope on their own, thank you very much. And so, most aid workers were kept out and many Burmese people lost out.

Reader 1: But, after the Chinese earthquake, things were different. In the past, the Chinese communist government has kept out the foreign media, too, but this time it decided to let them in. So more pictures were seen worldwide.

Reader 2: The British Red Cross announced that the reporting of China’s disaster has been immensely powerful, but it made the situation in Burma look even more impossible.

Reader 1: ‘Where pictures show that people are being helped, just as we see every night on the news, people give money.’

Leader: Which means that we are all greatly affected by what we see on television. And also by what we don’t see. ‘Out of sight’ can mean ‘out of mind’, and ‘off the screen’ can even mean ‘left to die’.

Reader 1: Since then it seems that there has been some improvement in Burma. Aid workers have been allowed in, but the government has still been attempting a cover-up, by showing outsiders a smart, clean, refugee camp, while other people were left in poverty.

Leader: But visitors were not fooled. Another headline said it all.

Reader 2: ‘The two faces of Burmese aid − a starving village and a grotesque lie.’

Leader: So, when we see disaster victims on television, we’ve got to remember that the news reporting can’t help being selective.

Reader 1: But that is no reason to stop giving, or loving, or praying.

Reader 2: Or thinking!

Leader: Quite right − because thinking, loving and praying should go together. Any suggestions as to what we can do? [The following section may be replaced by open discussion.]

Reader 1: For starters, we don’t just have to depend on TV. You can also learn from the internet.

Reader 2: Or read the newspaper.

Reader 1: Schools often have their own aid projects and links with people working overseas. (The school’s own community outreach may be mentioned.)

Reader 2: Many of us have friends, working or living abroad, who can keep us in touch, especially via email.

Response

Leader:Let’s sum up − with modern communications there really is no need for people to die of starvation just down the street, or in faraway places, either. But we mustn’t just depend on the TV news. And we must allow for the fact that some good causes are more popular than others − some make us say ‘Yes, I’d like to help’, while others may make us say, ‘No thanks!… or ‘Not them again’. There are ‘fashions in compassion’, and so, we need to think hard before we decide to give or not to give.

Please listen to this prayer-poem and join in, if you like.

[This may be read by the leader, or the readers, or a group]

Dear God, do guide our giving: When to donate? And where? How much? We watch bewildered faces on TV. (Although they find it hard to keep on living You’d think them close enough to touch) But how can we sustain our unknown brothers, Or help our far-off sisters? And what about the others: Those unreported souls we never see, Bullied by cruelty and greed, Too often ruled by gangs of crooks and twisters? Must ‘Of the screen − and out of sight’ Mean ‘Not today − my friend’? Let’s ask for thoughtful love − and skill − to send The steady help they really truly need.

Dear God, do help us get our giving right.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2008

About the author: John Coutts has worked as secondary school principal in Nigeria, taught RE in Scotland, and has been involved in teaching and teacher training at the University of Greenwich. He currently works as a freelance writer, poet and performer.

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