Giving to strangers: aid and empathy and Live Below the Line

Abigail Watson

Live Below the Line

Live Below the Line

Raising money and awareness in the West for those suffering in places that seem vastly different is difficult. Many commentators have speculated why this might be. For example, Owen Jones looked at the problem of getting international attention on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The war – which peaked between 1998 and 2003 – has claimed the lives of 6 million people and has affected DRC’s neighbours, prompting it to be labelled Africa’s world war. Yet, it has hardly been documented in Western media.

Jones highlights two, interrelated, problems. First, he notes that the DRC is affected by the “hierarchy of death”. Developed by Roy Greenslade in relation to the Northern Ireland conflict, this purports that Newspaper editors make judgments “on the newsworthiness of blood spilled based on the perceived value of the lives lost”. Thus, in the DRC, where people die too often, new deaths are perceived less newsworthy than in the West, where violent deaths are perceived as rarer. Second is the issue of “cultural proximity”. Western countries perceive themselves to have more in common with other Western countries than and less in countries in the developing world and, as a result, feel more empathy for deaths in the West. Jones argues this played a role in the devastation felt in Europe over the Boston bombings. Similarly, Fong and Luttmer (2009) found that, on average, “participants rated their own racial group as more worthy” of aid[i]. Jones concludes “On another continent, such a devastating war would never have been allowed to rage for so long. African lives simply do not matter enough.”

These conclusions have resonance with patterns of donations to charity in the West. For example, according to UK Giving the causes receiving the most donations in Britain are related to cancer, children and animal welfare. For example, £1 million pounds was raised in 24 hours for the Manchester Dogs home after a fire and the #NoMakeUpSelfie raised £2 million for Cancer Research UK. Similarly, the Ebola crisis has received far less publicity than the ALS ice bucket has, at least, in terms of social media action. Kofi Anan, former UN Secretary General said “[i]f the [Ebola] crisis had hit some other region it probably would have been handled very differently”.

Yet, maybe there is a less damning conclusion: it may be that people in the West do not feel, consciously or unconsciously, that African lives matter less but that they do not know as much about them. If someone like themselves gets cancer then they can empathise; however, the problems the DRC and Sierra Leone are very different from their own. Perhaps the problem is not that they do not care but that they cannot comprehend them in the same way. Thus, for a charity to be effective they need to help the donor understand the suffering so that they can empathise and, therefore, may be more willing to give. For example, scholars found that people are much more likely to give aid if they are provided with personal insight into the suffering of a person.[ii]

The need for empathy may explain the failures of Make Poverty History. The campaign was formed in 2005 to fight for “urgent action to deliver more and better aid, debt cancellation and trade justice”. It engaged hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom had never been involved in an international campaign before, and culminated in protests at the Gleneagles G8 Summit, where leaders committed to cancelling debt.  While, initially, it had positive impact – for example Zambia was able to provide free healthcare for everyone – the movement lost momentum after the Gleneagles Summit. Vanessa Pupavac argues it lacked devoted activists because it aimed at “instant gratification” which made people feel like they were doing good just by buying the white band. She said the campaign focused on “lowest common denominator” engagement rather than fostering understanding[iii]. Thus, there was not the empathy and understanding that makes for committed donors.

Make Povery History Protests in Edinburgh (2005)

Make Poverty History Protests in Edinburgh (2005)

With these considerations in mind, there may be something in the Live Below the Line campaign, which has commenced its fourth year of running in the UK. Those who participate eat and drink on £1 a day for 5 days to raise awareness of, and money for, extreme poverty. Last year £748 688 was raised and 17 000 British people did the challenge – including actor Tom Hiddleson. The money goes to one of its 30 partner charities, for example Action:Aid who tackle hunger, poverty and give children an education through empowering local communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Danielle Ross from Action:Aid noted “By choosing to take on the live below the line challenge you are helping us to shine a light on just some of their daily struggles, so you can gain a small insight and better understanding of the choices and challenges people face living in extreme poverty.”

The challenge not only raises money but encourages empathy. While people who do the challenge do not go through the struggles of the 1.2 billion living in extreme poverty; they are forced to reassess the value of money and think about how people survive. Further, they are encouraged to do a blog so that those donating – or those just interested – can read about their journey. This allows others to consider the difficulties of living below the line vicariously through its campaigners. Thus, a member of the Live Below the Line staff said that those who had “heard about the campaign through word of mouth were our most effective fundraisers”[iv]  Bonnie Wright, a supporter of the campaign, added “empathy is more effective than sympathy”.

Where international charities consistently struggle to get the West to look beyond its borders it may be more important than ever to concentrate on deepening understanding and empathy. As such, the Live Below the Line challenge may be a model in how to raise money and awareness for international problems.


[i] Etang, A; Fielding, D and Knowles, S (2012) “Giving to Africa and perceptions of poverty” in the Journal of Economic Psychology 33 pp 819-832

[ii] Etang, A; Fielding, D and Knowles, S (2012) “Giving to Africa and perceptions of poverty” in the Journal of Economic Psychology 33 pp 819-832

[iii] Vanessa Pupavac (2007) “The Politics of Emergency and the Demise of the Developing State: Problems of Humanitarian Advocacy” in Eade, D and Tony Vaux Development and Humanitarianism: Practical Issues Kumarian Press

[iv] Email correspondence

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