Doctors Without Borders is a well known NGO (non-governmental organisation) that provides emergency medical care around the world. It operates in places knocked back by catastrophic events such as natural disasters, droughts and armed conflicts.
Not far behind them, is the lesser known NGO – Clowns Without Borders. They also fly to places knocked back by catastrophic events and refugee camps. When an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, they came to provide “training in circus skills and physical comedy”.
Meanwhile, down the road, fully qualified doctors battle against the worst cholera outbreak in recent history.
Whilst Doctors Without Borders struggle against famine and malnutrition in the Horn of Africa, Clowns Without Borders provide what they call “the psycho-social relief”.
As fully qualified humanitarian clown Selena McMahen explains:
“…what a clown can bring to you somehow makes you healthier. The fact that clowns have begun to gravitate towards areas where you have pandemics, areas after natural disasters, is because there are people that need healing through humour and the relationship you can have with a clown.”
Selena is not entirely convincing. People probably do not need healing through the relationship you can have with a clown, especially in areas of disaster and catastrophe. It isn’t that such people don’t deserve a bit of fun, it’s that they deserve an aid system that prioritises their emergency needs before their entertainment needs.
More importantly, these people deserve a say in the emergency aid they receive. Instead however, it is wealthy people living in other parts of the world who make these decisions on their behalf. Personally, I am not convinced there is any place for clown healing in emergency zones, and so I would not donate to Clowns Without Borders. But there are people who do, and there is nothing I or the people receiving the clown healing can do to stop them. This is unfortunately how the aid industry functions.
In 2007 Bill Clinton described an “unprecedented democratization” of the aid industry, of an “explosion of private individuals who devote themselves to a good cause”. Clowns Without Borders and other such dubious organisations are part of this explosion.
In an unregulated, unaccountable, “free market of philanthropy“, anyone can set up shop. And this can turn the aid industry into a circus.