Morocco & Libya: The problem with influencers putting themselves at the centre of tragedy
When horrific and unthinkable disasters occur, like the recent earthquake in Morocco and flooding in Libya, it is instinctive to want to help. Especially for those of us with family ties or cultural and religious affinities with the impacted regions.
But the good intentions around charity shouldn’t prevent us from examining the comparatively privileged positions that we come from, or the way that the charity industry as a whole capitalises on the plight of displaced or marginalised people around the globe.
When we think of charity we might think of donating money, holding fundraisers and sending supplies. But the recent disasters in Morocco and Libya have revealed something altogether more alarming and conceited masquerading under the name of charity.
Call it the instagram-ification of suffering, or downright exploitation, but the growing trend of influencers placing themselves in the centre of disaster zones and making content out of the entire “adventure”, as one such figure oh-so-tactfully put it, is one such example of charity merging from selfless giving, into something more self-serving.
''What can exporting a minor internet celebrity do for victims of the flooding in Libya who are searching for their loved ones in rubble? Calling on our own Western governments to acknowledge the part they played in creating the power vacuum that, in turn, led to the poor infrastructure that failed to safeguard thousands of people, would be a much better use of our privilege.''
In our self-obsessed, social-media-fuelled age where nothing really happens unless it inhabits our instagram story for twenty-four hours, or is immortalised in a photo dump for all to see, I get that it is tempting to platform your charitable acts too. If you’re already tweeting your every thought or sharing pictures of everything you ever buy, then it’s probably second nature to tell hundreds of thousands of followers what you’re donating and to which cause. Especially if content creation is your entire career.
Of course, for as long as there have been egos there have been people who broadcast what should probably be kept private. But if sharing a picture of you donating a bag of clothes or posing for a photo shoot with impoverished children is one level of narcissism, then taking a flight funded by other people’s charitable donations (at a time where many might be scrambling for flights to get to loved ones out, or would prefer their donations go to victims of disaster rather than an influencers all-expenses-paid trip) and making content out of the entire thing, is nearing dystopian levels of self-absorption.
What does it say about our society, even our position as a Muslim Ummah (after all, many of the charities are Muslim charities) that a first instinctive reaction to a horrific natural disaster would be to fly out influencers to vlog themselves giving out aid? What does it say about how little humanity we ascribe to victims that we are willing to turn them into content - even if it is to help the charity gain more traction and therefore more funds in the future?
There’s no doubt that the few influencers who have hopped on a plane to Morocco to distribute aid (and instagram the whole thing) are no doubt intending to do good. After all, inserting yourself into the aftermath of a catastrophic natural disaster isn’t exactly a holiday. But that’s the very point. Why do any of us in the West - even those of us with family in Morocco or Libya - need to place ourselves in the centre of a tragedy that isn’t actually about us?
In the West, we have the luxury of blanketing ourselves in cosy ideas of diaspora in which millions of people all over the globe are united over a shared heritage, an affinity for mangoes or a mum who says “there’s rice at home” whenever you want to eat out. But the truth is, diaspora means nothing in the face of indiscriminate suffering whether through war or nature. Thinking that shared blood or religion is somehow the answer to the prayers of those in disaster or conflict zones is nothing but a perpetuation of the very colonial mindset that we’d be the first to criticise in the West.
All you have to do is listen to the people on the ground to know that what they’re asking for isn’t a hijabi influencer or food blogger from the UK to come and hand them their supplies.
The women’s rights activists in Morocco terrified for the future of Moroccan girls after flurries of male foreign aid workers propose marriage to them (and even post pictures online of themselves with underage earthquake victims joking about marrying them) aren’t made any safer by people using their suffering as a way to amplify their platform. In fact, they are made all the more vulnerable by an influx of people who could have done more by donating abroad.
What can exporting a minor internet celebrity do for victims of the flooding in Libya who are searching for their loved ones in rubble? Calling on our own Western governments to acknowledge the part they played in creating the power vacuum that, in turn, led to the poor infrastructure that failed to safeguard thousands of people, would be a much better use of our privilege.
I could quote the religious argument for obscuring your deeds rather than sharing them with millions of followers, such as the aphorism present in all Abrahamic faiths that the left hand shouldn’t know what the right has given in charity. I could talk about how charities should be focusing on working with local groups who know where the needs are rather than someone flown in from London who is going to leave again after getting their perfectly-choreographed shots. But in the end, it comes down to a question of humanity: why centre our own experiences when, now more than ever, it is those on the ground who need to be heard?
Nadeine Asbali is a secondary school teacher in London.
Follow her on Twitter: @najourno
Have questions or comments? Email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of their employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.