Global Policy Forum

Marketing Humanitarian Crises


By Clifford Bob*

YaleGlobal Online
March 31, 2006

Why do some crises attract global attention while so many others do not? Why, for instance, did Mexico's 1994 Zapatista rebellion catalyze an international support network, when longstanding indigenous activism across Latin America created none? Why have the Tibetans amassed worldwide backing while the Uighurs - another Chinese minority of like size facing analogous threats - remain far less celebrated abroad?

"It's like a lottery, where there are 50 victimized groups always trying to get the winning ticket, and they play every night and they lose every night," Jan Egeland, the UN official in charge of humanitarian affairs, told The New York Times in the summer of 2004, as the crisis in Darfur was edging into the world's consciousness. The issue is not academic. While the international spotlight is no guarantee of peace or justice (witness Darfur), attention from the press and nongovernmental organizations can alter the dynamics of conflict. Expanded resources, experienced activists and new contacts with key policy makers can strengthen dissident movements and pressure repressive governments or negligent multinationals.

In explaining disparities in international concern, Egeland's lottery theory no doubt holds some truth. Luck plays a role in many social phenomena. But there is an underlying rationality. Unfortunately, this does not take the form of a "meritocracy of suffering." In this view, suggested by some scholars and NGO staffers, vigilant journalists would persistently report on the world's "hot zones," selfless NGOs would tirelessly scour the globe for the "neediest cases" and sustained activism would alleviate distant suffering. But even a cursory survey reveals that many of the world's worst problems remain off the international agenda. Civil and interstate war in Congo since the mid-1990s has scarcely registered overseas, notwithstanding millions of deaths. For much of the 1980s and 1990s, Sudan's north-south confrontation, with similarly horrific casualties, also remained little known.

The reality is that resources devoted to international issues are simply too small to meet the needs of the world's poor, diseased and conflicted. Even the largest NGOs complain of too few funds and constantly campaign for more. This creates a lop-sided power relationship strongly favoring NGOs. While many have good intentions, NGOs must choose carefully where they devote their scarce money, personnel and time. They also have internal needs - pleasing funders while sustaining and expanding their organizations. Therefore NGO views of what constitutes a major problem, NGO predilections for certain tactics and NGO demands for accountability shape the field on which needy groups compete for support.

Not surprisingly, the victims most likely to gain are those whose profiles most closely match NGO preferences. In some cases, NGOs will search out distant clients who epitomize an ongoing campaign, as happened in the late 1990s when Sudan finally rose to the international agenda on a wave of organizing by powerful Christian-based constituencies in the United States. But while the southern Sudanese were eventually "discovered" by overseas allies, most aid-seekers must sell themselves. Marketing matters. Those facing persecution use every available means - email, Web sites, cell phones, lobbying - to publicize their cause. Many turn to protest or even violence to attract notice. This was a key Zapatista strategy - invading a major Mexican city, then using the resultant media frenzy to project the Indians' plight overseas.

But winning attention is only half the story. Many groups must reframe their claims, tactics and even their identities for foreign audiences. The Tibetans' success in garnering attention owes much to their international reputation as a uniquely spiritual people. Victims differ in their ability to deploy marketing strategies, with economic, educational and organizational inequalities favoring some over others. Those from high-profile countries, those with superior resources, those with international contacts and those with prominent leaders hold the upper hand.

In sum, the allocation of international activism has logic. It is grounded in vast differences in power between NGOs and the groups they choose to assist. The needy are not helpless, but only a fortunate few will gain major support.

About the Author: Clifford Bob, assistant professor at Duquesne University, is the author of "The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism."

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