Does distance make a difference?

Dr Heather Buckingham 

Third Sector Research Centre


@gristGrist ‏@grist 8h Help good go viral tomorrow. Donate and be a part of #GivingTuesday

A number of the articles I read during my time as an undergrad geographer had a significant impact on the way I view life, the world, and my work as a researcher. One of these was David M. Smith’s paper, ‘How far should we care? On the spatial scope of beneficence’.  Even the title has a good ring to it. Amongst other things the article notes how changes in communication and mobility over time have transformed the ‘geographies’ of both our awareness of human needs, and our propensity to respond to them. In the past, it claims, ‘lack of knowledge could justify the exclusion from ethical consideration of unknown others, with whom geography denied the possibility of a relationship’. In the age of social media and 24-hour news reporting, this justification is removed (although many groups, places and issues do not make their way into our headlines or twitter feeds), opening up further possibilities – and perhaps obligations – to care for ‘distant others’, but at the same time rendering individual and corporate decisions about where and how to care more complex.

The balance between caring for those nearest to us – whether that’s geographically, emotionally, relationally, or in terms of similarity – with those at a distance is a tricky issue to grapple with, and is one that surfaces in individual decision making, as well as national politics and international relations. In a previous Saving Humans blog, Andrew Jones reported on the ‘huge outpouring of global compassion’ towards the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. Britons donated £39 million during the first seven days alone of the Disasters Emergency Committee’s appeal. In the same week a record £31 million was given in support of Children in Need. That generosity seemed to prevail on both these scales, despite the financial challenges facing many UK households at present, points to great potential for solidarity in the face of suffering and difficulty.

In both cases, the media – and its celebrities – played an important role in urging individuals to give. Images and stories are communicated and taken seriously because the needs they portray are pressing, visible and great. Under certain circumstances, it seems, the spirit of generosity is readily released. It is not simply the monetary donations that seem significant – much hard work and careful stewardship will be required to translate those into improvements in people’s wellbeing both in the immediate and longer term – rather what is striking and encouraging is people’s willingness to release their own resources for the benefit of others. This is not to say such responses cannot be faulted: certainly, the severity of the loss and suffering being experienced in the Philippines and in many other contexts around the world does not permit any sense of complacency. Nevertheless, the generosity revealed in the public response is worth honouring: not something we generally do enough of as social scientists, I think.

But whilst these examples illustrate our propensity to extend care to others, both within the UK and over much greater distances, there is an uncomfortable juxtaposition between this generosity of spirit and action and the rather different climate that has tended to be fostered around persistent and growing un-met social needs within our own society.  Perhaps the long-term nature of entrenched deprivation in local communities prevents it from seeming anything more than mundane. Or perhaps the complexity and profound ramifications of addressing the root causes of social inequalities are such that we would rather concentrate our efforts on more instantaneous, less painful solutions to more readily ‘solvable’ problems. Undoubtedly this echoes the relative difficulty in securing development funding compared to humanitarian aid in the international context alluded to in Andrew Jones’ post. Whist events such as last weeks’ ‘Giving Tuesday’ may be a welcome antidote to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the simplicity with which they frame the notion of giving leaves some considerable distance between the giver and the complex and enduring nature of many of the issues that third sector organisations seek to address.

The effects of the recession and welfare reforms are bringing the issue of poverty – including food poverty – closer to home for many people in the UK. But whilst for some, personal proximity may foster greater solidarity, changing attitudes to benefit claimants amongst the general population depends heavily on the climate created by the media and others in the public sphere. If it’s a climate in which individuals are held to be primarily to blame for their own wellbeing (or lack of it), we’re unlikely to see a ‘generous’ response: but if on the other hand it’s a climate that acknowledges the influence of time and place – and all their political, social and economic baggage – on individual prospects and livelihoods, then the outlook is perhaps more hopeful.

Further useful links

Giving Tuesday:

‘Why I hate giving Tuesday’:

Opening of the UK’s first ‘social supermarket’:

British Food Poverty a ‘public health emergency’:

David Smith Article referred to in the blog:

Critical geography and super-philanthropy- Hay:
Landscapes of Care- Milligan:




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