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Jim Kennedy Headshot

Webcam Of Shame

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The subject line on the email from the charity CARE was nothing if not eye-catching: "25,000 will die this Thanksgiving."

So I did what they wanted -- I clicked the message open and learned that the figure refers to how many men, women and children perish from malnutrition and hunger-related causes every single day. The statistic reminded me of the news from the World Food Program earlier this month that the number of people suffering from hunger now exceeds 1 billion (and to think at the beginning of the 19th century there weren't even that many humans in existence on the planet).

Close to home, the news is not much better, with the US Department of Agriculture disclosing that nearly 50 million Americans are "food insecure," and Feeding America saying food banks have experienced a 30 percent jump in demand this year alone.

The CARE solicitation, the World Food Program's "Billion4Billion" campaign, Feeding America's "Feast for 9 Million" program and The Hunger Project's "Epicenter Strategy" all do their part to match giving hearts with empty stomachs, but the demand for help seems to keep outpacing the supply of hope.

What's a supposedly caring civilization to do? Maybe it's time for a game-changer, something radical to shake things up and wag the long charitable tail of the 5,799,356,509 people who don't wake up or go to sleep hungry every day. After all, hunger is one of those crises, like preventable disease, that we have the capacity to solve virtually overnight; all that is lacking is sufficient will.

So that Thy will be done, here's one small but provocative idea: set up global webcams that transmit graphic, live images of people quite literally dying of hunger and related diseases to shame the world into action by confronting us with the sheer horror of our neglect.

In 1960, Edward R. Murrow's broadcast, "Harvest of Shame," shined a bright light on the hidden plight of migrant farm workers. It stirred many to action. However, in the Internet age, a single television documentary (not that they produce them anymore) isn't enough to move the masses to act against the ravages of poverty and preventable disease. But if confronted with real-time video of real people at death's door - people who don't need a miracle; just a helping hand -- many would be inspired to act.

This Webcam of Shame project would require charities, NGO's, technology companies and high traffic websites to join together and install and operate a sustainable network of webcams in hospitals, urgent care centers, villages and other places where people are suffering from a lack of food or water or preventable diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

With the cameras focusing directly on those who are in the process of dying, the streaming video feed would be made visible to millions of people via some of the world's most popular websites, positioned just like an advertisement for a car or a politician. A button on the webcam "ad" would allow viewers to quickly make contributions to charities that can bring relief directly to the people and communities depicted on the webcam streams. The more people who click-through, the more aid can flow to where it's needed most.

Other links on the chain of webcams could help unite people in a powerful, global movement to put pressure on governments to take more action against such "crimes of humanity," flooding the corridors of power with vast social networks of outrage about the devastation unfolding so disturbingly before everyone's eyes ("click here to send an email to your member of Congress to demand action NOW!").

The fact that 25,000 people a day die of hunger and related illnesses makes us all guilty of neglect. The Webcam of Shame (or "I Am My Brother's Keeper-Cam" or "The Eyes Of God-Cam") would bring the terrible reality of 21st century poverty and disease right into our homes and workplaces. If we turn to our laptop and are confronted by the sight of another human being dying right before our eyes, right this very second, fading away ... who among us would not act?

We know intellectually what's happening; but we're not feeling it emotionally enough to act strongly or consistently enough (I know how short I've fallen in my own response to this crisis). By shaming those of us who have so much we can give hope to those who have too little.

Sure, there would be lots of questions to answer to get a guilt-trip like this off the ground: who funds the operation of the webcam network; who installs and maintains the equipment; which charities should get the money; how do you channel citizen support for more governmental action; how do we deal with local and national government opposition; and how do we convince high traffic websites to carry the webcams (who wants their ad for a Cancun vacation running alongside an image of a dying child?). But I see these as hurdles to be crossed, not roadblocks to stop the implementation of this plan. Heck, let's just start with one webcam in one hospital focused on one dying person linked to one popular web page, and see what happens.

Of course, some will say that displaying such intrusive images violates the privacy of the suffering. But I believe that most of those who are, quite literally, dying from neglect won't neglect an opportunity to remind all of us of our own responsibility to act, and to act now.

Truly, the only real question about the Webcam of Shame is whether we are too ashamed to make it happen. In World War II, my father was in the U.S. Army's Rainbow Division, which helped liberate Dachau, and when I was young he told me the story of how they made the citizens of the town of Dachau come through the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gates and into the camp, and forced them to walk by all the emaciated bodies of the last victims of the Nazi Holocaust.

Surely those neighbors must have suspected what horrors were happening in their midst, year after year, just yards from their homes. Yet they failed to act, choosing to claim "we didn't know." Sometimes I imagine that Purgatory is a place where the angels of God, like the Rainbow Division soldiers, force-march our souls past the bodies of all the people who suffered and died in our midst throughout the course of our lives.

We suspect what is happening in the world around us, thanks to emails from groups like CARE and the good, hard work of so many charitable people and organizations. But we don't ever seem to bring ourselves to the level of action required to put a stop to the madness of hunger all around us.

At the least, a Webcam of Shame would ensure that none of us could get away with saying "we didn't know."

[p.s. if you think this idea sucks, but at least have been shamed into doing something, just click through to these or other hunger charities and give now: World Food Program (http://www.wfp.org/), Feeding America (http://feedingamerica.org/), CARE (http://www.care.org/) and The Hunger Project (http://www.thp.org/).

Jim Kennedy has worked in media relations in the government, non-profit and private sectors.