Got Ice Water?
I ran across this image recently as a commentary on the ALS ice-water challenge, and I wanted to say something about it.
The meme is either an attempt to characterize Americans as wasteful and frivolous, or it’s a particularly mean slam on Africa as hopelessly backward. I find it very hard to believe it’s the latter, so I’m going to assume it’s the former.
Now I happen to think the ice-water challenge is frivolous, and while it’s certainly raising awareness of ALS, it seems to be more successful in giving a lot of people the opportunity to be the center of attention for a few moments during which they imagine they’re doing something meaningful for charity. I know this points the finger at a lot of people (including many friends), but I’m not saying they don’t contribute to charity - just that this ice-water thing is a lot like Michelle Obama’s hashtag activism, or her husband’s hashtag foreign policy: It “says” something perfectly reasonable, but also something that should be perfectly obvious and shared by everyone: We care about curing Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The problem with this image, which attempts to trivialize the ice-water challenge, is that it also attempts to characterize Americans as frivolous, and wasteful of a resource that literally means life or death to millions of African children. Who can think kindly of Americans dumping gallons of water over their heads, when that poor child on the bottom is hanging onto life by a capful of water? There go the Americans - again - with their callous, wasteful habits. Sniffing and eye-rolling commences, and America-haters are sated.
To be sure, Americans - like citizens of all countries - can be thoroughly frivolous at times. But the idea that we shouldn’t be able to indulge in something silly like the ice-water challenge because millions of African children are dying of thirst, says nothing about the wastefulness of Americans, and everything about the utter inability of Africa to take care of itself.
Westerners have been showing Africans how to dig wells for the past 150 years. The whole time, we’ve explained the science and importance of clean water. We’ve given them endless tons of machinery to help them create and maintain access to it. On top of that, we send thousands of people (mostly Christian missionaries) to repeat the process every year. Is water scarce in the Sahara? Yes. But most of Africa is overflowing with natural resources, including water; and as Nevadans and Californians have proved, it’s not impossible to get water into and out of the desert. It might be expensive, but it’s not impossible, and ultimately just points out the inadvisability of living in the desert, no matter what color your skin or the affluence of your community.
And not to put too fine a point on it, but you don’t need specialized machinery or advanced scientific expertise to dig a well - it can be done by a few guys with strong backs and a couple of shovels - something Africa has in abundance. And yet, large parts of Africa remain crippled because of a lack of clean water.
Yes, millions of gallons of water are being dumped onto the ground in this ice-water challenge, but it’s not because Americans are wasteful, and certainly not because they’re not doing anything to help the world’s less fortunate, least of all in Africa. America’s contributions to global relief efforts dwarf the rest of the world’s, and Africa gets the lion’s share of it. When can we stop congratulating ourselves on our clean water efforts, and start asking the question: Can we now expect the Africans to manage their own water systems, so we can devote our charitable resources to other needs?
Dumping millions of gallons of clean water on the ground in an effort to raise awareness of ALS may or may not be terribly effective, but it’s not a sign of America’s wastefulness or silliness, or its callousness toward places like Africa where clean water is scarce. Rather, it’s of sign of the triumph of the west over simple things like providing itself with clean water, and the abject failure of Africans to do those simple things for themselves. The reason so many Africans can’t get silly and dump gallons of clean water over their heads has nothing to do with America, and everything to do with themselves. At some point, in the interest of being good stewards of our own charitable giving as well as moving Africa from dependence on western assistance to self-sufficiency in something as basic as clean water, we need to question the wisdom of continuing to do some things for people who should have long since been doing them for themselves.
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