By Chloé Meley
What is there to do when faced with a humanitarian crisis as acute as the one currently unravelling in Myanmar?
Looking at the complete and revolting lack of action by state governments and international organisations designed to protect human rights: apparently not much.
Myanmar has been conducting a cruel and methodical cleansing of its minority Muslim Rohingya population, a population persecuted for decades and now brutalised in the worst ways imaginable. Bangladesh has welcomed hundreds of thousands of people, people it cannot take care of. States priding themselves in upholding the liberal democratic principles of human dignity and tolerance are intolerably silent. The United Nations is a powerful organisation with supposedly powerful means, yet turns a blind eye to the atrocities perpetrated by Myanmar’s armed forces. The Pope has only recently uttered the word ‘Rohingya’ for the first time in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It is a word he refrained from using during his visit in Myanmar, where the term is stripped of its meaning as the Rohingya are considered illegal immigrants. Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader, is still sitting comfortably in office. What is there to do? A recent initiative launched on social media has got me thinking: if the UN cannot act for the Rohingya, can former vine stars succeed?
Love Army is a movement created by Jerome Jarre and his friend Juanpa Zurita, two formers ‘viners’. Thanks to their wide-ranging platform, and with the help of various players,from actor Ben Stiller to Turkish Airlines, as well as their fellow social media stars, they have mobilised thousands of people across the world to donate for various humanitarian causes. In addition to raising money by setting up a GoFundMe, they further go into the field, providing daily updates through simple videos characterised by an very enthusiastic and hopeful tone.
In Somalia, where a drought killing cattle and destroying people’s source of income had led to a famine, Love Armyprovided immediate food and water relief thanks to a plane Turkish Airlines lended for free. The mission was to provide food and water until the drought was over. Besides that, they worked towards improving the situation in the long-run, stimulating the economy by buying local food and working in partnership with local NGOS for months. They managed to raise over 2,7 million dollars.
In the aftermath of the earthquake in Mexico, Love Army raised 1.,3 million dollars with the objective of ‘putting money directly in the hands of the people doing the important work on the ground so they can continue their work’ as they write on their GoFundMe page. At the time of writing, they have reached their 1-million-dollar objective for the Rohingya people. Their GoFundMe page highlights that all the money will be directed at vital aid: food, clean drinking water, and other supplies. Many of Jerome Jarre’s friends, mainly French Youtubers, are currently in the refugee camp in Bangladesh, sharing videos of them talking about the crisis and the Love Army initiative to their millions of followers.
Their use of social media as a tool for solidarity has been very successful in terms of the money Love Armythey have been able to raise. They have successfully capitalised on the global mistrust of elites, aas well as the opaque inner workings and almost inexistent external action of supposed humanitarian organisations. Their success is built on the idea that their enterprise is truly and revolutionarily humane, the provision of help from people to people. It is built on humility, honesty and the chief notion of transparency. The money comes from you, and it is directly used for the benefit of the people who are suffering. Their marketing campaign is straightforward, based on a simple strategy of omnipresence, but efficient.
Jerome and Juanpa do not act alone, recruiting dozens of their fellow social media stars as well, it is very likely that the GoFundMe page link will appear on your Twitter feed, or your Facebook timeline, progressively enkindling your human instincts of empathy and solidarity. Love Army is also based on a community rhetoric, as a movement that brings together supposedly powerless young people for a meaningful cause. It is about the youth that acts when others do not. However, such a movement risks creating a sense of kinship that is quite exclusive, and from which can easily arise a certain self-righteousness, of those who act and those who change the world, when everyone else seems immobile. By stressing the antithetic positions of action from the Love Army and inaction from the UN and governments, Jarre placed himself, and arguably his companions, on a certain pedestal.
This sense of heroism is not in itself an issue. Who am I really to judge someone, no matter how smug they might be, who is doing something to help people? Are we not supposed to judge an action based upon consequence rather than motive? I will let Jarre and his fellow humanitarians feel as good about themselves as they want.
No, my problem with the Love Army is not there. My issue is with what it can do for Myanmar. Myanmar is not Mexico or Somalia, it is not a matter of raising money to support, feed or provide shelter to people until the drought is over or the reconstruction is done. This time it is not a crisis with an end-point. It is not a single-issue situation. It is a matter of ethnic cleansing, it is a complex political crisis in addition to a humanitarian one.
I am not cynical, but to believe us as simple citizens could do something truly significant and sustainable in this situation seems far-fetched, utopian, an artificial hope, of those that only social media can create.
Despite its success in the past, the Love Army initiative for Myanmar is as wobbly as it is noble.
Let’s unpack. What does it want to accomplish and how in Myanmar? The presence of video creators with a large audience in the refugee camp is aimed at giving a voice to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people currently living in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. The funds that are being raised as we speak will be redirected towards the provision of food and other necessary supplies. And then?
Because this time it is not merely about buildings in ruins, or starving people, it is also and primarily about the threat of being eliminated, about an elite-level effort to deny a whole ethnic group the right to live.
Such an issue cannot be solved via solidarity created through social media. A solidarity that will create a band-aid, surface level solution to a complex crisis with intricate historical and religious factors.
As much as I would like to embrace the hope Jerome and his friends are trying to ignite in us, I also cannot help but to consider the scale of the humanitarian challenge that the world is currently facing with the Rohingya people’s situation. Social media has great potential for humanitarian ends because of the extent of its reach and the large-scale sensitising campaigns opportunities. But social media is not an organisation that can provide diplomatic envoys or trained peacekeepers. No matter how much money they raise and how much noise they make, once they leave, the Rohingya will go back to being persecuted and silenced. I am not saying that their initiative is useless, simply that it might not be sustainable. The root of the problem lies deeper, and cannot be solved through an awareness-raising video, no matter how impactful, or through money, no matter how much. There is an urgent need for institutions with greater capabilities to act.
That is as hopeful as I can make my conclusion to be. If social media cannot do what needs to be done, it might at least prompt action from the relevant organisations who can, providing their guilt is sufficient enough to stimulate an effective response.