OPINION: Highlighting the power of attention

An Indonesian rescue team carries the body of a victim following an earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, earlier this month.
An Indonesian rescue team carries the body of a victim following an earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, earlier this month.

Are you paying attention?

As we reflect on our efforts so far to help tens of thousands of survivors of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia it is an interesting moment to recognise the power of our attention.

As the Disasters Emergency Committee’s representative in Scotland my primary focus in times of crisis like this is to get your attention, no easy task when we are now bombarded with information almost every waking hour.

Working together, the DEC’s six member charities here in Scotland have been frantically working for the past two weeks to bring the attention of the public to the urgent need for donations to fund vital supplies of emergency humanitarian aid to devastated communities.

The long-held reputation and effectiveness of the DEC and its 14 UK members is based in large part on this attention to attention.

The unique relationship we have with the media and the main UK broadcasters is sustained by the relatively rare occasions that we collectively ask the broadcasters to give us free air time to make a joint public appeal.

Whilst there are serious emergencies happening seemingly every week around the world, there is of course a risk of ‘attention fatigue’ and diminishing the effectiveness of this life-saving coalition if we ask too often.

Two weeks ago, reports emerging from the shattered infrastructure of Sulawesi quickly brought home the terrible destruction wrought by the terrifying earthquake and subsequent tsunami that slammed into the city of Palu a few days earlier.

The DEC leadership met, and agreed with the broadcasters that there would be an appeal, starting on October 4.

In Scotland, working with the Scottish DEC member Islamic Relief, Tearfund, British Red Cross, Save the Children, Oxfam and Christian Aid, our mission for the past two weeks has been to hold vital attention and keep the donations coming in.

I’m delighted to report that we have lived up to our DEC motto, Together We’re Stronger.

But that is not just the work of our members, it is in large part too, not only to the broadcasters, but the wider media in Scotland and newspapers like The Courier.

We all have our issues with media agendas that challenge our world view and “fake news” is a rampant menace but we can all too easily forget how strong a force for good the press can be if it captures our attention at times like this.

Their role in a strong, internationally aware, civic society should not be underestimated.

We must also praise the Scottish government for their generous support and a number of Scotland’s leading companies who have either donated directly or helped gain the attention of their staff or customers and encourage them to get behind us.

With 650 Indonesian students currently studying in Scotland, students in many campuses across the country are rapidly organising their own fundraisers.

Once again Scotland has shown it has a big heart in keeping with the country’s proud history of humanitarianism.

This huge collective effort has now raised more than £1.5 million in Scotland and £17 million across the UK in just two weeks.

Of course, much more is needed but we’re proud of our efforts and grateful for every donation, large or small.

We say we ‘pay’ attention as through that act we are giving something of ourselves to others.

We thank you for your attention.

  • Huw Owen is the DEC’s representative in Scotland. You can donate to the Indonesia appeal here.