Is It the Thought That Counts?

4 mins read

By Rebecca Mariana Bengtsson

There are no shortages of ways available to us that we can use to contribute to making the world a better place with our money. Whether it is donating to the local homeless shelter or buying the product whose proceeds go to charity in a country far away, our money and charitable intentions are important commodities for organisations at home and abroad to succeed with their mission. Trends like volunteering abroad, celebrity activism, ad-campaigns and major fundraising events all compete for our attention and want to appeal to our sense of justice. Why do I have so much when somebody else has so little?

At the same time, development organisations and the aid industry at large are under fire, for being unable to show for the results of their noble pursuits. Millions raised at charity fundraisers go missing, transparency is lacking or security concerns for staff swallows the majority of the budget. Celebrities use charities to repair their image after a scandal and the everyday person finds an excuse to consume more. Sometimes, more harm than good comes to the supposed beneficiaries. And yet, the picture presented to the public is still one of hope and solidarity. If you spend this money, the world will get better. And we believe it, why wouldn’t we?

For clarification, the world has gotten better (if you don’t believe me, go watch a TED talk by Hans Rosling after you finish this article, he was certainly enthusiastic about it). This, however, is a story about narratives around global poverty, local as well as global power structures and media interaction with the public. The central phenomenon I will use to tell this story happens to be a Norwegian fundraiser, one whose history spans back to the beginning of modern media coverage around poverty. One who seems to be frozen in time.

The Norwegian television network  Norsk rikskringkasting, known as NRK, organizes an annual fundraiser TV-aksjonen. An estimated 8 billion Norwegian kroners have been raised since it was first televised in 1974, with 240,5 million donated to last year’s project. The initiative grew from a reaction to footage from the famine during the Nigerian civil war in the late 60’s. After noticing that television was a strong tool for fundraising, the concept was formalized through then Crown Princess Sonja. As the host, Lauritz Johnson told the viewer in the very first official TV-aksjonen broadcast in October 1974:  “the fundraiser for refugees has developed into a national celebration”. Today, the fundraiser presents itself on their website as “the world’s largest fundraiser measured in collected capital per capita and the number of volunteers”. The organisations on the receiving end have been many, with projects all over the world as well as charity causes closer to home. Whatever the cause, the event brings much engagement from individuals and communities all over the country, who collect door to door, run for charity or sit in front of the TV to watch the spectacle that is TV-aksjonen. 

Despite the apparent good intentions of the people hosting and participating in the event though, not everything is as it should be. Critics are pointing out the portrayal of “the suffering” that is used – arguing that it creates a distance between the giver and the receiver that is not warranted. It feeds the narrative of the defenceless poor who desperately need our help to get out of the cycle of poverty and reinforces power imbalances left from colonial times. Responding to this criticism, director general of NRK, Thor G. Eriksen, stated that “people out there are wise, they register that this is a fundraiser and other programs are something else”. The share size and viewership of the event makes me beg to differ on the importance of having more nuance in the reporting around beneficiaries and projects. NRK is a serious platform for journalism with great resources and opportunities to make this event both entertaining and useful for fundraising, while also educating the viewers. As the world changes and evolves, shouldn’t our coverage of it reflect and celebrate that as well as challenge the structures that keep so many in extremely vulnerable positions still? The world is not the same today as it was in 1974, and TV-aksjonen is lagging behind.

In his commentary, Eriksen also addressed the large sums of money that are raised every year as the ultimate proof that the world has become a better place because of TV-aksjonen. In doing this he completely disregards the criticism directed at the event by essentially saying that the money collected matters more than how it was collected and to what extent it is used as intended. He pats himself and the Norwegian people on the back for a job well done – no need to scrutinize anything. The amount of money raised is impressive, but if we do not think it is possible to help people without indirectly removing their agency, their dignity and minimising heterogeneities, should we really be putting ourselves on such a high pedestal?

Mikkel Niva, host of the 2019 fundraiser, tells us in an interview that “aid doesn’t have to be sad. It can be good. You can send the message that there is hope”. While hope is important and generosity is a virtue, scrutiny and self-criticism is a necessity. Both on our part as we donate and on the part of NRK and other institutions that collect money for development projects. Thinking about making the world a better place doesn’t make the world a better place. Collecting 8 billion NOK doesn’t automatically make the world a better place either. It is the people who constantly work to tip the scales of power and who attack the root causes of poverty in a way that is dignifying and empowering who hopefully can. Those are the people who deserve to receive praise – whether they are in an office planning a budget, or a local somewhere in the world who identifies and tries to meet a need in his or her community. We do not have to be naive to be generous or to invite generosity and we are not helping anyone by not holding the aid industry accountable, even as we reach for our wallets. 

Cover photo: Johnny Syversen/TV-aksjonen

Rebecca Mariana Bengtsson is aiming for a bachelor’s degree in development studies and hopes to work in and around Asia in the future. Few things make her as happy as the ocean, great writing and people who are passionate about their interests. Time well spent is time spent cooking, in conversation or learning something new, and even though she loves exploring, Norway will always be her bias.

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