Letter to Bill Gates on Humanitarianism

Dear Mr. William Gates:

You once wisely said, “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” Perhaps you were not speaking of humanitarianism, but I think your analysis fits aptly in regards to this. Humanitarianism is the organized compassion across political borders. It is generally transnational, intergovernmental, and neutral. However, humanitarianism is strongest when backed by factors such as politics, religion, or war, as proven throughout history. While this benevolence is sometimes viewed as a modern phenomenon, it’s important to note that humanitarianism as we know it today has roots dating back to the anti-torture Baroque period, which also foresaw the 18th Century age of revolution. The ideas of selective compassion, the notion that we pay more attention to certain events than others, and nationalism, the belief in a political community stimulated by moral/biological ties to those around you, are also important to keep in mind as we trace the history of humanitarianism in through the late Ottoman Empire and the Armenian situation, post-World War II humanitarian efforts, and current humanitarian efforts.

Humanitarian aid was especially prominent during the Armenian Genocide, though it more or less failed in its post-World War I efforts. A threatened Christian minority in the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians had been perceived as a group of humanitarian interest since the late 1800’s during the Hamidian Massacres when thousands of Armenians were slaughtered by the Turkish Ottomans. Attention to this situation was provided through sources such as the New York Times. Aid was already being administered to the Armenian people in the region prior to the start of the Genocide, during which organizations like the Red Cross kept providing medical and other needs to the suffering populations.

Though extensive fundraising helped lead the way for supplying food and building hospitals during the war, post-war efforts did not see the same results. The Armenians, it should be noted, were particularly considered a “threat” by the Turkish Ottomans because they increasingly demanded political rights and wanted to establish their own state wherein they could reside (seeing this as a weak branch of their already dwindling empire and pointing to the belief that many Armenians would side with the Russian enemy in WWI, the Ottomans eventually decided to “take care” of their problem). Thus, the primary objective of the Armenians, to emphasize, was creating their own politically recognized state. While during the end of the war and after Western nations help relocate Armenian refugees to areas like Syria and headed initiatives like the Nansen passport, they failed in their efforts to give Armenians what they really wanted. Could we have done better? Perhaps we could have by measures such as military intervention. However, seeing as it was a post-war period, this may not have been the best move. The second best would have been to increase refugee rights. The 1933 Refugee Convention gave way to groundbreaking thought in regards to refugees and though it provided refugees with securities such as the reassurance of the right to non-refoulement to refugees, it did not grant neutralization or many political rights.

So what does the example of the Armenians mean in the history of humanitarianism? Firstly, that despite the spread of knowledge about the atrocities in the Ottoman Empire and the extensive aid given, 1.5 to 2 million people still perished. And despite all this, the Armenian genocide has been deemed the “forgotten genocide” of the twentieth century. This should be alarming because once the world, that was once so shaken by these massacres, they quieted down and essentially ignored the horrors of 1915. This in part gave way to the Nazis’ “inspiration” of the Holocaust. If such an atrocity could be forgotten once, could it not go by unnoticed once more? Education is key in prevention, and that is what I think you should focus on. How are today’s crisis going to be remembered so that they can be prevented in the future?

The humanitarian movement vastly expanded during World War II and while it proved extremely beneficial in many cases, other situations did not witness the same level of success and even regressed the situation at hand.  One of the bloodiest times in modern history, the second Great War also witnessed an incredible increase in humanitarian aid. While most of the world, at least the Western nations, did not know the extent of the Holocaust, organizations like the Red Cross, which was neutral throughout the war,  served direct roles in supplying aid to the victims and at times perpetrators of the genocide. United States foreign aid, a part of foreign policy during WWII, was initialized with lend lease as a form of relief program.  The States hoped that the war would be short and the international community would once again achieve homeostasis.  Despite governmental action by the U.S. and growth of nonprofits globally, many nations (including the U.S.) still shut the doors on refugees, specifically Jewish people,  who needed a way out. This caused the deaths of millions of more people as they could not escape the home of their persecution. A vital lesson to be learned here is that if we indeed say we want to help others, we should do so in a manner that actually helps people in a time of need.

Community based organizations that sprung up in the midst of WWII include those like Oxfam, founded in 1942 and now working in about 94 countries to find answers to global injustices. As apparent by the previous example, the NGO hype continued years after the War. Although non-profits such as Human Rights Watch, founded 1978, have provided immense support to pressing issues over the years, other humanitarian drives have failed miserably. Notable crises include the aid during the Ethiopian famine and Biafran War. In the instance of the Ethiopian famine, the international community did not give the conflict much thought until a BBC reporter provided footage of suffering people in the region. Following this, millions came together behind this movement, even celebrities such as Bob Geldof. However, what many thought to be a drought-driven famine was actually a measure taken by the Ethiopian government. Unknowingly, therefore, aid was provided straight into the hands of the government instead of the actual suffering populations in the region. Hence, this misguided deliverance of aid prolonged the tragic situation in Ethiopia. Therefore, looking into the future we must fully commit to understanding an issue prior to stepping in to “help out” when our aid may be more harmful than beneficial for those in need (aka do your research).

The recent years have witnessed a revolution in humanitarianism with the shift towards tech-facilitated aid and the initiative for change transitioning more and more from organizations to individuals. In 2015, Google set out on a mission to crowdfund $11 million for migrant funding and refugee relief. They exceeded their goal, raising a total of $14 million, which they split equally between four non-governmental organizations: Doctors Without Borders, the International Rescue Committee, Save The Children, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (VentureBeat). This is just one of Google’s many humanitarian outreach drives. According to Google.org’s website, “Through our global giving programs, we accelerate and scale the work of innovators around the world who are using technology to combat humanity’s biggest challenges.” Perhaps the biggest message that can be taken from Google’s leadership is how humanitarianism is expanding through technology.

While in the past charitable work was done under direction of one organization, technology has allowed an individual to take a direct role in deciding how he/she wants to solve a problem. An example of that is Google’s Impact Challenge, a “time bound open call for bold ideas addressing a single cause, aimed at jumpstarting change.” Through this challenge, each person has the ability to pitch an idea to improve a certain designated arena, i.e. disabilities. With the rise of the startup culture, social entrepreneurs have taken to tackling specific areas that they believe can help others. For instance, Rizikitoto is a new organization that raises money for specific children in Ugandan orphanages through iOS application revenue. Google supports this type of social work by means of seed funding or Global Impact Awards that go out to globally-thinking entrepreneurs. Hence, increasing amounts of initiative for change are granted to individuals. Lesson here? Technology can be a powerful force in shaping the way people go about giving back and thus it can be used as a force of motivation or stimulant for charitable passion.

Whether it’s looking back at the Armenian situation around World War I, tracking the patterns of aid and nonprofits during and after the World War II, or standing witness to today’s tech-driven social entrepreneurship, there is much to be learned from the successes and failures of past humanitarian aid. Of all the lessons I mentioned throughout this letter, there is one that I would like to leave you with as perhaps the most important — education for prevention. Humanitarian education should be at the forefront of our agendas and for my last bit of suggestion, I will focus on genocide awareness–

The denial of the Armenian genocide which increases the perils of further humanitarian infractions. More than five major genocides have followed that of the Armenians. The refusal to accept the most abhorrent histories of the past perverts two basic tenets of our government: truth and security. Still the solution does not reside solely in recognition. Students’ education on the topic of genocide should be incorporated into our schooling system. How can we, as a nation, accept a genocide if we know but little of it? Speaking as a descendant of genocide survivors and a student just finished with the secondary school curriculum, I can testify that little to no education is allocated to crimes against humanity. Incorporating humanitarian education, through implementation of school policy, would not majorly alter school curriculum but rather emphasize the happenings of the atrocities.In turn, this would set a standard for further education of genocide, which would translate into other renditions of awareness in public events, such as protests or recognition outings that require public participation. And so, Mr. Gates, I set you on a challenge to fight for genocide awareness in education as your next humanitarian initiative.


Mariam Sulakian

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s