What would you do if you saw a six-year-old alone in a public place?’ So begins a short video from UNICEF, which has received more than 2 million views on YouTube. In the video, Anano, a six-year-old child actor, is dressed in different ways and placed in different scenarios. When Anano is well-dressed, we see people actively trying to help her. But when Anano’s appearance is altered to make her look homeless, we see people shunning her and sometimes even telling her to go away.
Why do people treat Anano so differently depending on how she is dressed?
One, not very flattering, explanation is that people have ingrained biases and prefer to help the privileged rather than the disadvantaged. After all, the dishevelled Anano resembles a child from a culture of travellers, which could have triggered many prejudices. Still, we can imagine a different child from a different cultural background placed in similar circumstances. It would not be surprising to find that people’s reactions remain similar. Indeed, the people in the video appear to be no different from you and me. Would we have reacted in similar ways if we had been in a similar situation?
I would like to propose a different way of looking at Anano’s case, one that highlights a basic problem in how we respond to other people. There is an important distinction between urgency and need. A situation is urgent if it requires immediate attention and action. For instance, a person drowning is an urgent situation, since that person will die if no one comes to his or her aid. A need, in particular a fundamental need, is something that is essential or very important for someone to, for example, pursue a good life. Receiving basic education would qualify as a fundamental need for a child, since without basic education it would be nearly impossible for a child to acquire the knowledge necessary to be an adequately functioning individual in society.