Anti-Poverty Day, World Food Day – too many days to be meaningful?

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A girl eats her meal next to a relative in Terrabona town north NicaraguaBy: Astrid Zweynert (REUTERS)

From World Food Day to Anti-Poverty Day, October is a busy month when it comes to calls to make the world a better place.

No one knows the exact number of such days of international observance but there are hundreds each year – this list shows more than 30 of them in October. It made me wonder how impactful they actually are.

Last week, Oct 11 became the first International Day of the Girl to support more opportunities for girls and draw attention to inequalities they face because of their gender.

It generated quite a buzz – with landmark structures around the world lit up in pink and a fair number of newspaper headlines, not least because just days before 14-year-old Afghan campaigner Malala Yousufzai was shot in the head by Taliban rebels opposed to her promotion of education for girls.

Another such day, World Food Day, on Oct 16, aims to draw attention to the fact that more than 800 million people go to bed hungry every night. This year’s day focused on the crucial role of agricultural co-operatives in improving food supplies.

Many other days have been declared by the United Nations or other international bodies, while others are set up by charities. There is always scope to set up more, with campaigners now calling to declare a day from next February to fight female genital mutilation.

Among news editors, story pitches about days of this, that and the other often don’t pass the “so what?” test – why have a story only because a day has been declared? And what use are these days when many of the problems they highlight, such as hunger, poverty and violence against women have got worse?

Aid organisations, like the World Food Programme, argue that days like International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction on Oct 13 and International Day of Rural Women on Oct 15, are an opportunity to draw global attention to those issues.

“We realise they may seem distracting to some, but in reality they are an important opportunity for drawing attention to issues that might go unnoticed in the course of our routine work-weeks,” Steve Taravella, acting deputy director of communications at the World Food Programme (WFP), said in an emailed response to a query about what such days mean to the organisation.

“While the nature of our work means that we already devote considerable energy to issues like (for example) reducing risk of disaster and the challenges faced by woman in rural areas of the developing world, devoting a day to each prompts us to focus the attention of our audiences (staff, media, donors) on those issues for a moment longer than might otherwise be the case. In general, that’s a good thing.”

It is indeed “a good thing”, given that few donor governments are giving enough aid to put disaster risk reduction policies into place and that women, not just in rural areas, are disproportionately affected by poverty.

What impact development policies and aid programmes have has become a crucial question for donors, both governments and individuals in our economically tough times.

As far back as 2004 The New York Times remarked that “Asking the Do-Gooders to Prove They Do Good” – and seeing results and impact – is most important when it comes to spending money on causes aimed at making the world a better place.

Increasingly, we find that our readers are interested in stories that show how affected communities find solutions that make an impact, rather than just point out the problem on a “you must pay attention to this because it is terrible” day.

Solutions to hunger, water scarcity and adapting to the worst effects of climate change generate a buzz among our audience – throughout the year, not just on a day when a deluge of stories about a particular issue is likely to overwhelm the audience.

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