Have you heard about the Cajun Navy? Google it. 644,000 hits. The Cajun Navy is not a one-off story, it is one of the top Hurricane Harvey storylines. If I had to sum it up: ordinary people coming together in the face of extraordinary adversity to save the lives of other people. Mother with small children stuck in waist deep water? Some bass fisherman on a boat will haul them out. Elderly man drowning in a car? A human chain forms and performs the rescue. The Lt. Governor of Texas likened the civilian effort to the rescue of Dunkirk. If nothing else, this makes for great TV. But there is more than nothing else.
The accompanying story is that Hurricane Harvey has met its match. Unprecedented destruction? Sure, but this is Texas, and even a storm like this will not defeat the spirit of the Texans. Is there anyone who has not seen that story?
Exit Harvey and back to the world. When was the last time coverage of a disaster / crisis somewhere in Africa sounded like that? Or Asia? These are not occasional human interest stories sunk within the reporting on a major catastrophe, these are top, persistent headlines. The hero is not a brave individual but a brave population. Here’s a sample headline: Spirit of Texas: People pull together to help Storm Harvey victims. I’ve blogged before about the narrative divide, about the power of the narratives that shape our world view. It’s not a new story.
Media and even aid agencies are doing better, but neither the Western public nor aid agency fundraising targets are ready for the courage, resourcefulness and agency of ordinary Sudanese or Bangladeshis as a predominant image of crisis response. We may be able to feel admiration for the fortitude of an IDP mother and rape survivor who has lost a husband plus two children and has now walked 100 miles to find medical care, but that story is of a heroic individual, the victim of a pervasive venality and brutality.
The core humanitarian principle of humanity manifests itself in the compassion to respond to the suffering not of family, neighbours, clan or countrymen, but to anyone, anywhere in the world, simply because they are human beings just like us. Our hardwiring sometimes works differently, though, and we see and feel attachments or bonds to family, neighbors and fellow citizens that get in the way of us seeing the entire human race through the lens of a dispassionate equality. Ethnocentrism may even prove biological in origins, which makes humanitarian ideals all the more important, even if ‘unnatural’.
I choke up and find tears on my cheeks when I watch the videos of the Cajun Navy. I feel pride at the American can-do spirit. There is a special sense of connection because I lived in New Orleans for several years. I know quite a few actual Cajuns. Beyond the near-hegemony of a Western worldview, that helps explain why the Western media run with these headlines. Because I will read them and be touched by them. Of course I am interested and often moved by stories – in the media or the ones I’ve heard in person – of the extraordinary resourcefulness of disaster-affected communities in the so-called global south. But that is different in both degree and quality.
Two conclusions come to mind. The first is that the depiction of Hurricane Harvey lines up so much better with the reality of humanitarian crisis. The people of Houston and Beaumont and Port Arthur will rise to the occasion and overcome this catastrophic event. At the same time, they require support from outside to overcome the immediate needs, to support reconstruction, etc. They do not need to be saved or rescued as they sit there, helpless. And they do not need the international community to arrive with the intention of solving painful structural issues such as gender/racial inequality, illiteracy, violent crime, drug addiction, undemocratic institutions, environmental degradation… (Or, at the least, they might very well need that, but it is not how we as humanitarians understand our role.). So why do we humanitarians think so differently about Sudan or Haiti or Bangladesh?
The second is to consider what the people in places like Texas (or Bihar) need most at a time like this. Water, shelter, food etc come to mind. Hope and reassurance come to mind. But perhaps more than these is that spirit, the one Texans reportedly have in spades, the one that sits not in a briefcase or in a convoy full of water bottles but in a bar, shelter or church full of people. It also sits in and is inspired by headlines and stories and Tweets across the media machine. It is a manufactured swell and it is vital to crisis response. Which raises the question, what happens when there is no such inspirational headline, where 99% of the story reinforces a swell of helpless incompetence or the hope that rescue will come in the form of a foreign intervention?