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Not so innocent bystanders

By Susan McDonald - posted Tuesday, 20 September 2005

I used to chide myself for feeling threatened in poor black neighbourhoods in US cities. I assumed it was racist to feel that way. But the fear was valid, and it wasn't based on race. As first-hand accounts from New Orleans have confirmed, poverty can make people desperate, and desperation can result in anarchy.

Why don't the rich and powerful do more to help the poor? It's a perennial question, but it seems particularly compelling right now, after Katrina's disproportionate battering of America's poor. Why was help offered so slowly? Why weren't low-lying neighbourhoods better protected? Why is the divide between rich and poor condoned?

But think too of Africa's poverty. The dust has finally settled on the G8 summit, and nothing has changed. Promises made at the summit, and in 2000, probably won't be kept, and centre stage won't be Africa's again until the next famine.


Shakespeare's Hamlet soliloquised, "conscience does make cowards of us all", speaking of everyone who has ever been faced with knowing what to do, but not being willing to do it. Before the Africa summit, our collective conscience was pricked (as it has been before), amid clamorous calls for humanitarian action from aid groups, activists and celebrities. But the G8 ultimately remained unmoved: Ulysses, shutting his ears to the Sirens' song, rejecting their appeals to emotion.

When an individual declines to help someone in distress, psychologists call it "bystander apathy". The 1962 New York murder of Kitty Genovese was a seminal case. Thirty eight witnesses to the brutal crime did nothing, not even call the police.

And in the James Bulger case in the UK, witnesses who saw the two-year-old with his two 10-year-old murderers, and who later admitted to having had concerns, ultimately did nothing.

Psychologists postulate that non-intervention is more likely when the bystander isn't alone. Responsibility is diffused, each witness thinking ‘someone else will help". Significant, too, say the experts, is the part played by social categorisation and the pressure to stay within accepted social boundaries. Witnesses in the Bulger case said they thought the boys were siblings and felt they shouldn't "get involved" in another family's business.

It's not a stretch to suggest that the willingness of governments (after all, collections of individuals) to respond to calls for help is similarly stymied by social and psychological imperatives.

There have been several reasons given for not doing more to help Africa, among them that money thrown at corrupt African governments is wasted, and that other countries should take more of the load.


Similar rationalisations are used to deflect criticism over welfare policies. The politicians will say that handouts encourage laziness; the federal authorities will say state and local governments should do more.

But such claims are often no more than disingenuous excuses, sometimes even misconceptions.

The Bulger witnesses based their inaction largely on the mistaken belief that the children were family. According to Jeffery D. Sachs, director of the U.N. Millenium Project and author of The End of Poverty, Western governments, too, are mistaken, if they base their inaction on the idea that the real problem in Africa is misrule and corruption. Rather the world should be focussed on geographic and climactic causes of Africa's problems - like its unique vulnerability to malaria.

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About the Author

Susan McDonald is a freelance writer and sub-editor.

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