Tis the Season: The Need For Philanthropy in the War Against Health Crises
From many non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the international response to the Ebola outbreak has faced a volley of criticism aimed at attacking everything from the slowness of the response to the seeming indifference shown towards the plight of the West Africans, accusing countries of only taking serious action once the situation threatened to spiral out of control and move beyond the African continent. A September statement from the international president of Doctors Without Borders voiced this frustration by stating “Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been ringing alarm bells for months, but the response has been too little, too late. The outbreak began six months ago, but was only declared a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ on August 8.”
Some of this criticism may very well be warranted. In the United States for example, the outbreak only achieved its front-page, round-the-clock coverage following the arrival of infected aid-worker Dr. Kent Brantley in Atlanta (incidentally an effort funded not by the U.S. government but by Samaritan’s Purse). From this point, according to a recent Forbes article titled, “Ebola is a Symptom of Our Compounding Failures,” “we only started worrying about [Ebola] in the U.S. when a Liberian man whose compassion killed him arrived on our shores. And then we suddenly noticed that more than 4,000 West Africans have died from a virus with a vaccine sitting untested on the shelves for years. Even then—judging from the news cycle—the nation primarily cared about whether we might catch the virus ourselves.”
But while the U.S.’s relationship with Ebola may one day earn itself an academic study in the subject of mass hysteria, it nonetheless highlights the type of restraints at play in governmental responses to all health crises. The simple truth is that government is big, and bureaucratic, and typically governs in accordance to the will of its citizens, its politics, and its laws, consequently rendering efforts more reactionary than preventative.
Non-profits, foundations and other NGOs however are not restricted in this same capacity and are able to use their no-strings-attached approach to pursue their respective mission statements to the best of their abilities. This independence is crucial in being able to offer quick solutions to international crises. In contrast to most government agencies, many larger foundations, such as the Paul G. Allen Family and the CDC Foundation, are able to authorize the use of millions of dollars within hours. An approval of government funds can take weeks before being subjected to a variety of other practical concerns. Furthermore, these organizations bring an almost immeasurable amount of experience to these devastating situations, focusing on immediate disasters, but also the health and humanitarian crises frequently overlooked. In addition to the present Ebola outbreak for example, Doctors Without Borders also confronts ‘”neglected diseases,’ from malaria to HIV/AIDS to drug-resistant tuberculosis. They are truly global, privately funded, and astonishingly effective, able to treat diseases others won’t touch in places few will go.”
Though the dedicated work of Doctors Without Borders is certainly admirable, it also highlights two often overlooked aspects of philanthropic work: that there are many health crises taking place all over the world not making headlines, and that no matter the qualifications, neither one organization, nor one government, will be enough to solve them. We need the work that these thousands of NGOs and non-profits perform in combatting the thousands of widespread health threats all over our quickly shrinking globe. In this season of giving it has perhaps more important than ever to acknowledge what is needed most needed in these noble pursuits: your support. Your support gives life to these organizations, which are in turn able to save lives around the world, whether it be by halting a potential pandemic, or by supplying basic necessities, such as vaccines, to citizens in developing countries. The fundamental message of the holidays is the joy of giving. But as we once again rise to the social expectations of providing our friends and family with more possessions to add to their relative comfort, let’s not forget those millions for which the word “need” is by no means an exaggeration. There are plenty of people who can make a difference in their lives – experience the joy and fulfillment of being one of them.