A few Saturdays ago I attended the Global Health Forum’s “Minus Malaria” variety show, and I had a great time. The performers were fun to watch (I was particularly impressed by the student who did Turkish drumming), and it’s always nice to feel like you’re supporting a good cause. I even did my part by donating five dollars at the door. But I left feeling ambivalent, with something troubling nagging at the back of my head.
Earlier, as I approached the desk to donate my money, a GHF member had pushed a piece of paper towards me and asked if I would like to sign a letter advocating for malaria prevention policies. The letter would go to members of relevant U.S. House of Representatives and Senate committees suggesting to them that they support bills which presumably contain anti-malaria initiatives. I say “presumably” because, well, I have no idea what these bills actually do. To the best of my recollection, the letter listed the names of each bill along with, at most, a one-sentence summation.
I signed the letter, and this is what troubled me after the show. First of all, I was guilty of perpetrating a classic act of uninformed democracy. A one sentence summation of a bill—even a paragraph summation, for that matter—presented by a group with a clear agenda, shouldn’t be enough to convince me to support a serious act of legislation. I am willing to trust that the GHF was honest with me, and that my letter was endorsing legitimate anti-malaria initiatives. But there are an incredible number of unknowns. Was the bill itself concerned with malaria prevention, or just a small portion of it? If indeed the anti-malaria initiative was merely a rider, what was the full body of each bill actually endorsing? The reinstatement of the gold standard, as far as I know.
Furthermore, specifically what kind of anti-malaria initiatives were being called for? I feel perfectly comfortable donating a mosquito net (and it was a cool idea to have one of these on display at the event), but “malaria prevention” could mean a lot of things. It could mean, for example, direct monetary aid to malaria-stricken nations, a practice that has garnered intense scrutiny as of late. At the very least, then, I would have needed more time and more thorough information before I could have possibly made an informed decision about signing that letter.
The second troubling thing is that the GHF was actively facilitating all of this. To be fair, it’s not like anyone was pressuring me into signing the letter. On the other hand, asking students to make this decision on the spot based on almost no information sounds a bit cynical. Yes, at a liberal, socially conscious place like Swarthmore the GHF will inevitably be able to coax some students—like myself—into rubber stamping progressive-sounding initiatives. However, I think this does the entire Minus Malaria program an injustice. Wouldn’t the goal of eradicating malaria be better served by ensuring that Swarthmore students were well informed about issues related to the disease—which could make a real, tangible difference in the long run—than by sending off a few dozen letters to Washington signed by students who really haven’t learned anything? It would have been more ethical and effective had GHF members merely handed out letters to all the attendants of the variety show, and told us to research the relevant bills ourselves.
It’s been a while since the Minus Malaria event, and so I feel like I have to justify my decision to write about what sounds like a minor qualm. The problem is that the GHF letter is an example of a larger issue, which really should be addressed. Virtually everyday, Swarthmore students are bombarded by requests from various interest groups on campus, whether it be Earthlust asking us to be vegetarians for a week, the Phoenix asking us to respond to their weekly poll, or Swarthmore athletic teams asking us to come out and support them at a pep rally (an issue which I tabled for just two weeks ago). For the most part, I take no issue with student groups doing some self-promotion. In fact, part of what I like about Swarthmore is that its student groups are very active, and that with just a bit of organization and knowledge of the various broadcasting methods available to them, groups are able to bring their respective messages to a large portion of the student body. This ability is important so student groups can feel like their policies actually make a difference on campus.
But there is a difference between “come see my concert tonight” and “sign my petition.” As soon as student groups begin advocating for policies which would have an impact outside of the Swarthmore community, things get complicated. Unless it is for a prominent issue like gay marriage, where most students might already have formulated stands, it takes time to decide where to come down on policy issues with far-ranging social, political, or economic consequences. Student groups should feel entitled to make a strong case in favor of or against such policies. They should not feel entitled to inveigle students into supporting these policies by appealing to their ideological predispositions rather than to informed decision-making.
I want to make it clear that my experience at the variety show in no way diminishes my respect for the Global Health Forum’s “Minus Malaria” initiative. According to GHF, the money collected at the variety show goes towards insecticide-treated bed nets, perhaps the most practical and cost-effective method for combating the disease (this was confirmed with a brief look at some malaria prevention literature). This is a worthy cause. Unfortunately, I have no idea if the bills I supported deal effectively or exclusively with this issue.