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Dare to look away to unseen suffering

To stop wider and future suffering, we must dare to look away to unseen suffering. That’ s Dr Hans Rosling’s advice in his much-acclaimed book Factfulness. Yet it’s almost impossible for us to turn away from the people suffering in front of us. Other factors make it harder still.

Dr Rosling was working in a poor African hospital then. With his passion for data and the big picture, he also thought about the many more children suffering in the surrounding communities. They needed as much help or more than those who had come to the hospital.

Dr Hans Rosling, 1948 – 2017

It felt almost inhuman to look away from an individual dying child in front of me and toward hundreds of anonymous dying children I could not see.

Most of all, he thought of the suffering coming down the line for children in the future. The big picture approach shapes the best help of all: planning for better future services that emphasise early intervention and prevention.

In urgent situations, he said “we must forget the big picture and do everything we can to help.” When “the danger is over … we must dare to establish a fact-based world view again [to] make sure our resources are used effectively to stop future suffering.”

The Roslings: Ana, Hans and Ola. Introducing their book Factfulness (2019). Relevant pages are: Pp 111; 124-8

Why is looking upstream hard?

Education early support, intervention and prevention are widely known to be best. Those who work in jobs providing help to the troubled know that a cure is not nearly as good as early education and support could be. Yet we know that promoting an upstream approach is a big challenge. Why is this?

As well as the natural emotional inability to look away from the suffering in front of us, our own practical commitments and requirements of the systems around us mean that big picture change is a low priority. Here’s some of what makes it so hard:

  • Everyone’s expectations – we’re likely to just grumble and accept things that could be better.
  • Community, culture, media, and advice on Google, all support what we are used to doing.
  • Established government and service systems carry momentum – the public want more of the same.
  • Funding is all used up on those services, including facilities, training and pay for staff.
  • Workers depend on that income to pay their bills and support their homes and families.
  • Being busy in our day-jobs and lives we have little time or energy for anything else.
  • Our chosen career is a cherished identity – doubts are not welcome.
  • Professional organisations do aim to improve practice, but not so much that they lose their jobs.
  • It’s surprisingly hard to sell an invisible future in which a problem does not exist.
  • The result is that effective innovators and campaigners are rare.
  • Those who do get active may be experts, but they’re not expert in campaigning for change.

All these factors affect the world of supporting stressed and troubled families and their children – especially separating families. In that field too, helpers and agencies are busy with the immediate problems facing them, working within the ineffective systems we’ve got.

So it’s rare for anyone to feel able to follow Dr Hans Rosling’s advice about the big picture. Dare to look away to the unseen suffering.