Beyond the 'CNN Effect'

As I write this article, a famine is raging in East Africa that will affect the lives of more than 13 million people across three countries. Families are walking for days to seek help—arriving at temporary camps exhausted, severely dehydrated, and often having left behind loved ones who succumbed on the road.

Working for an organization that has been on the ground, watching this unfold over the past number of months, we are frustrated by how long it takes for the world to recognize and respond to such an emergency. Lives are at stake, but the funding comes too slowly and often too late.

Unless CNN is reporting on a crisis, the world doesn’t seem to care.

In our business we speak of the “CNN effect”: unless CNN is reporting on a crisis, the world doesn’t seem to care. As soon as CNN packs up and leaves, the world also moves on to the next thing.

There exists a small window of opportunity when organizations maximize their funding efforts to carry through the remainder of a crisis. Although we have known of the emerging East Africa crisis for more than six months, it is only now that the “CNN effect” is kicking in. There’s something wrong with this picture!

How is it that we live in a world that requires images reminiscent of the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s before we are willing to respond? Do we really need to see the starving kids before we believe there is a problem?

Approximately 25,000 children die needlessly each day of preventable causes. Millions more suffer the inhumanity of grinding poverty. Wars, natural disasters, and global forces bind the poor in an abusive vicious cycle of hopelessness and despair. There is no shortage of need.

Couple that with the fact that we are the most connected society ever. We are deluged with mailings asking for help, and when something happens in the world we all know it in seconds. There is no shortage of information. Have we become callous? Uncaring? Tired of responding? What truly motivates us to act?

As Christians we should be outraged by this situation. This is not what God has in mind. He calls us to protect the vulnerable, to feed the hungry, to set the prisoner free, to proclaim his kingdom. We shouldn’t need a “CNN effect” to motivate us; our motivation should come from the depths of our calling to witness to God’s love and compassion in our world. It should be a natural, willing, and joyful response to how God has blessed us.

The Hole in Our Gospel

In his book The Hole in Our Gospel, Richard Stearns argues that Christians have become far too tame and relaxed in our faith. We need a revolution that will shake us up and bring the whole gospel to life.

Would the world take notice, he asks, if “two billion Christians embrace this gospel—the whole gospel—each doing a part by placing his or her piece into the puzzle and completing God’s stunning vision of a reclaimed and redeemed world—the Kingdom of God among us?”

Someone else once said, “Sometimes I think I would like to ask why God allows poverty, suffering, and injustice to exist in our world when he could do something about it, but I don’t because I’m too afraid God would ask me the same question.” The truth is that we are asked that question daily by the ongoing presence of poverty and injustice in our world. We can and we must do something about it. But what—and how?

Dave Toycen makes the distinction between charity and generosity in his book The Power of Generosity. Charity is more calculated. Though it is a compassionate response, it is often based on duty and/or justice. It originates from a position of plenty. All the virtues are important, Toycen says, but generosity is “the lubricant that smooths our daily living in a way that affects every other moral virtue.”

Generosity is not a single act but a way of life; it is “the attitude that puts heart in our obligation to care for others.”

From an early age the Church taught me to care for the poor, to fight for justice, and to give regularly. It taught me to be a good steward of what God has blessed me with. It taught me to be charitable.

We in the Christian Reformed Church are known for being extremely charitable—just count the dollars raised by our small denomination when an earthquake hits somewhere in the world. But is our charity lubricated with the power of generosity? Has that power become an integral part of our fabric and being?

We Can Relate

Poverty at its root is relational. It has a face and a name. It happens to real people who are fellow imagebearers of God. In World Vision’s experience, the most successful means of engaging people is relational: child sponsorship. The power of sponsorship is that it allows for a personal relationship to exist that can lead to transformation on both sides. People respond more positively when they can relate to a real person and know that through that relationship lives change.

The CRC has long been a faithful supporter of international missions and development. But think of whose pictures we have hanging in our churches: our missionaries’. Not the poor.

We relate more to our mission workers than to the very people we hope to serve. What if we turned this model around and helped build relationships between our churches and the poor instead? Would a more personalized and direct approach unleash our power of generosity?

One of the conclusions of a recent study on giving was that it must be cultivated within family and community (Arthur Brooks, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism).

At World Vision we talk about “life cycle giving,” which is presenting products and opportunities to families at different stages of their life cycles. When a family has young children, simple products that build relationships and understanding are important. As children grow and develop hopes and aspirations for a bright future, it’s important to provide them opportunities for advocacy and justice. As parents become empty nesters and have more disposable time and income, we offer meaningful lifetime opportunities. And, finally, we talk to the elderly about legacy giving.

Cultivating a generous spirit is best done within the family, and it must be appropriate to the life cycle of the family.

We do practice life cycle giving in the CRC, to a certain extent. But there is opportunity for more focus and variety. Churches that practice this successfully engage whole families with unique challenges and opportunities designed for their respective stages in life. A more holistic approach of harnessing time, talent, and treasure (known as the “3 Ts”) allows individual members to be more satisfied and challenged by their engagement.

In the end, our response as Christians to world crises must be a whole-life response. We should be passionate about justice, fairness, and holistic development in everything we say and do. Our response to poverty shouldn’t be driven by emotional appeals or by the CNN effect, but by our calling to claim this world for God.

How to Unleash Your Church’s Generosity

  • Ensure direct contact between your church and the needy.
  • Teach generosity, not just charity.
  • Engage whole families in different ways depending on their stages of life.
  • Focus on the “3 Ts” of time, talent, and treasure.
  • Build accountability and reporting into the relationship.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How has news coverage of the recent famine in East Africa affected you? What motivates you to respond?
  2. Are you drawn into relationship with the people who are suffering? Why or why not?
  3. Dirk Booy says that our motivation to respond should come from “our calling to reach out and witness to God’s love and compassion for our world. It should be a natural, willing, and joyful response to how God has blessed us.” How does this vision compare with your experience and action?
  4. What’s the difference between charity and generosity?
  5. How can you cultivate a generous spirit in your family and church? How do you intend to live this out in the year ahead?

About the Author

Dirk Booy serves as Partnership Leader-Global Field Operations for World Vision International. He has worked in Christian humanitarian development for more than 30 years, including 13 with CRWRC. He is presently based in London, England, and remains a member of Rehoboth CRC in Toronto, Ontario.

See comments (7)


I just watched a video on the life of Mother Teresa. Some of her theology was questionable. But how she lived was a better theology than that written in books. Better than that preached in the pulpits. She was asked, how could one feed and help the millions of hungry. She replied, one person at a time. Start with one. Who knows how far God will allow it to go?

60 years ago my mother used "the starving children in China" to convince me to eat lima beans - still hate them. China got a handle on their problems but Africa? Shoveling sand against the tide. There is lots of similar sand to be shoveled closer to home.

I have been privileged to be part of many churches' journey to developing a relationship with the poor, specifically through CRWRC. Our missionaries and field staff are an important link to the churches, communities, and people living in poverty whose lives are improved through the programs that the churches support, so I have no problem with their photos hanging on church bulletin boards. Read their newsletters, however, and you will hear about individuals and their stories of transformation.

I encourage any churches that are interested in getting more involved--through work teams, learning tours, long term volunteering, and church to community relationships, to contact me or any CRWRC staff.

I am new to the CRC, however, in my experience so far, through building relationship with our members, I have been deeply touched by the strength of their love (charity) in giving to help those in need. They are committed, responsive, and responsible in the way that they give. And, it is extraordinarily generous. I have also worked in over 30 countries and together in relationship with family members, church members, and individuals, who have come alongside me on the journey, through their giving, I have had the honour of personally building relationships with, and helping to bring sustainable, redeeming resources to the poor in need.

Personally, I feel we may need to be careful in our thinking that a relationship can be developed through the posting of a picture on our walls of the poor, or of a child in need. And, perhaps even the use of our resources to build bridges of communication directly from a child or person in need to ourselves, may in fact, not be the best choice in maintaining these relationships through our giving. From my personal experience, I would have to suggest rather, that it is through our trust and relationship with those who serve on our behalf, that we can entrust our resources; are taken alongside to participate in the journey; and can experience with them the relationships they have, through their telling of the stories of these precious lives being transformed.

Our engagement in these relationships, from our homes here in N. America, can be through our volunteering, prayer, advocating on behalf of those in need, and giving to the need, through the partners who we trust to act on our behalf, where we may not be able to go. And, while the need is certainly great, our relationship and engagement should never be limited to responding to the needs of the poor overseas, but should be represented in every area where our lives touch another, from within our homes to the ends of the earth.

Having a picture of someone, with whom we have a relationship, to remind us to pray for them and for those with whom they serve, and to remind us to continue to give toward the building of these relationships with those being assisted through their work, is I think a very empowering and relational way to remain engaged in all that God is doing for lives around the world. And, we can also count on those to whom we have entrusted our resources, who are equipping and sending, to act in good faith, on our behalf. They are a living, breathing relational extension of ourselves, through our partnership/relationship with them, to act and build sustainable relationships with the poor.

I was drawn to participate in the work of CRWRC because of my recognition of the integrity of the relationship they have with members of the communities around the world where there is a need, as well as the partner relationship with those for whom they serve on behalf. I was also drawn by the evidence of their outstanding stewardship of the resources that have been entrusted to them.

I would like to thank the members of the CRC, in the hundreds of communities in North America, and specifically those with whom we have relationship through deacons, pastors and individually, on behalf of our staff, our countries' local partners, and the members of communities we work in relationship with overseas, for their very generous support through their financial giving, and for their commitment to engaging in relationship with the members of God's family whenever one of them is in need.

There are two aspects to charity: meeting the need and fixing the problem. Meeting an immediate need can be an easy "fix": we send some money, assure ourselves that someone is fed/housed/clothed, and feel good about our contribution. But for the recipient, not much has changed, and tomorrow, they need more donations in order to stay cared for. This often has the unintended consequence of making people dependent on contributions. A wiser path, most people involved in aid work contend, is to fix the problem that led to the need in the first place. The author says that we knew six months before the East Africa crisis that it would occur. I think it was even earlier than that because the crisis is exacerbated by corrupt government and poor policies. The way I see it, the real problem with the CNN effect is that we move from one crisis to the next without staying behind to fix the problems that created the crisis in the first place. That is a much harder job, and fraught with much more frustration and sorrow than feeling good about providing a hundred meals. One of the things I appreciate about the CRWRC is its emphasis on community development: empowering communities to create their own solutions. This is, in truth, relational, but it is side-to-side, face-to-face "relationality", rather than high (rich)-to-low (poor) that often breeds dependency and resentment.
As far as pictures on the wall, our church partners with a church in Haiti to feed, house and school orphans. We have pictures of those children on our wall (and no pics of missionaries). While I look at those beautiful faces with compassion, it doesn't foster the kind of relationship that I have as I mentor a group of teen moms: taking joy as they graduate from high school (and even college!), find jobs, move off welfare--and grieving when they get pregnant (again), go back with abusive boyfriends or engage in other destructive choices. Working in the trenches: that is where true charity occurs.

I appreciate very much Dirk Booy’s plea for us to more intentionally cultivate lives of generosity. The suffering of many who live in poverty and hunger is a constant challenge to those of us in North America who live in unprecedented affluence. In fact I believe we need to allow our compassion to exceed generosity to include the pursuit of justice. Booy rightly stresses that poverty is relational – in other words poverty is not merely about material deficit, and cannot therefore be resolved with the donation of material goods. Global poverty exists, to a large extent, because relationships are out of order, bent away from the Creator’s loving intentions. Whether it is the local money lender extorting a small business owner, the manipulation of global markets to maximize profits at the expense of those without power, or the crafting of economic policies that maintain inequalities, human greed (and indifference) often finds a home in systems and structures – in other words, relationships. Perhaps that is why I am surprised that Booy suggests that a relational approach to poverty leads to child sponsorship. Child sponsorship doesn’t really address the relational dimension of poverty – although it may create that illusion. Child sponsorship turns out to be more about me and my need to feel like I have a personal connection to a child than it is about getting at the root relational issues that remain unaddressed. This is why I believe that justice must be married to generosity. By all means, let us give of our abundance, for that will help to treat symptoms. But at the same time let’s understand root causes and fix the broken relationships that cause so much hurt. That’s what the bible calls justice.

With this article's major focus on generosity and child sponsorship it is encouraging to note that, while absent from the article, World Vision does do advocacy for the Millennium Development Goals,, the U.S. International Affairs budget, and a handful of other issues.