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When Hashtag Humanitarianism Just Isn't Enough

05/27/2014 05:37 EDT | Updated 07/27/2014 05:59 EDT
TONY KARUMBA via Getty Images
Nigerian women living in Kenya demonstrate to press for the release of Nigerian school girls kidnapped in nothern Nigeria by members of the Boko Haram, on May 16, 2014 in Nairobi. The '#bringbackourgirls' slogan has become a huge global phenomenon following the abductions, albeit controversial, as world and opinion leaders get involved under its banner on social media to aggitate for the release of the girl-students by the islamist militants who continued their rampage by razing two schools in Bauchi state, northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram gunmen previously attacked a girls' school. AFP PHOTO/Tony KARUMBA (Photo credit should read TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)

If your family is anything like ours, you've been inundated over the last seven weeks with requests for support for the Nigerian girls that have disappeared. The requests range from financial donations, to petitions, to writing our MPs, to even expressing support for some kind of military intervention. It runs the gamut because, in truth, we find the thought of such a travesty abhorrent.

Recently I was asked to speak to a women's association specifically on this topic because they wanted to find "the most effective manner in which we can assist these girls." We conversed about how one of Africa's strongest surging economies could still be in a situation where such things were possible. The divisive religious tensions were referred to, as was the fledgling state of democracy in all of Africa. When the subject of terrorist Boko Haram, the architect of the kidnappings, was broached, anger spilled over into strong accusations. It was a good discussion and those present clearly wanted to get on with fixing the problem.

The difficulty is that you can't just "fix" Nigeria, or all of Africa for that matter. The same individuals in the group who lashed out at the United Nations for not doing anything about the crisis also felt that foreign aid was a worthless venture and that the Canadian government should do more to care for its own. Some felt a special military force should go in to rescue the girls -- just as long as no Canadian troops were involved. Some present spotted these inconsistencies and told me later they were hesitant to speak up lest they be criticized.

At the front of the room someone had tacked up a dated map of Africa. When one of the harshest critics said that she wondered what anyone could do for that troubled continent, I asked her if she could show me where Nigeria was on the map. She admitted that she couldn't.

This is our problem with how we view Africa. The needs are so vast, with a great many of the world's most destitute living there, that our basic humanity desires to reach out to assist. But we hesitate -- not just because of the complexity of the problems, but also due to our own biases and lack of knowledge of almost a billion people half a world away.

And then there was the huge hashtag campaigns, such as #BringBackOurGirls. It was a massively popular way of protesting in part because it was so simple. Most major celebrities, politicians and even conservative political pundits participated. Added to the list were churches, women's groups, student clubs, unions, even public schools. It was all an impressive display that sadly overlooked the real solutions to dilemmas like the Nigerian kidnappings.

Without robust relief and long-term development programs our effectiveness will always be muted. And we must face the reality that every time the UN sends out special pleas for the various African crises, support has been repeatedly underwhelming. In our absorption with our own problems and domestic agendas international troubles are losing their ability to galvanize our institutional and individual imagination. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) continue to work against almost impossible odds as Western governments cut back on aid and long-term opportunity to make a concrete difference. Had the Nigerian girls enjoyed the benefits of effective land claims for their mothers, proper child and maternal healthcare investments, true democratic reform, legitimate protections against female abuse, and financial reforms that actually got to the average villager to provide for themselves, such crises would be greatly reduced. The trouble is that we aren't inclined to invest in such initiatives because they are expensive, just as they are in our own countries.

And so we continue with a thin patchwork of donations and investments that can't possibly attain what our high ideals call for -- hashtag humanitarianism, for all its energy, must be complemented by a dedication to a better world that requires more from us all.

The expansive UN's Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) have been referred to many times in these posts and still remain the most effective method for righting a wronged world. Global leaders came together to set such targets and then, despite limited success, we lost our way. So, yes, by all means let's fight to get the Nigerian girls back. But more than that, let's fight for their future, not just their precarious present, by investing in those infrastructures that will someday see them leading their own nation towards equality, opportunity and the right to be safe.

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