Get your scream on

Is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge a cool concept or a lot of hot air?

Read time 5min 20sec

The ice bucket has transformed. No longer just a vestibule for brewskies at a braai or the carrier of that tasty bottle of bubbly - over the last few weeks, the humble ice bucket has taken social media by storm. And it is not because of its incredible ability to keep drinks cold; that is something this kitchenware has done remarkably well for decades. The ice bucket has taken centre stage as part of global efforts to raise awareness about a neurodegenerative disease called Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

But before we scrutinise this viral sensation with our cynicism-tinted glasses and fob it off as just another brand of slacktivism that will soon be overshadowed by the next cheeky Game of Thrones inspired meme or cute cat video - allow me to unpack a few things.

The concept of raising awareness about ALS, and raising funds for ALS research, by recording a video of a bucket of ice-cold water being dumped over yourself, before challenging others to do the same, first emerged at the end of July. US golfer Charles Kennedy was challenged by a friend to pour ice over his head and in return this friend would donate money to a charity of Kennedy's choice. The challenge was taken up by various athletes before moving on to models, musicians, actors and politicians. And in just a few weeks, the hype generated around the initiative, and the support from big names, has resulted in close to $100 million in donations to the ALS Association.

And it didn't take long for the sensation to hit SA's shores. In the Mother City, 567 CapeTalk host John Maytham took up the challenge and encouraged his listeners to do the same. The folks over at Cape Town eatery Societi Bistro also got involved, as did the entire Kaizer Chiefs football team. Perhaps the most poignant local participant is former Springbok captain Joost van der Westhuizen who was diagnosed with ALS in 2011.

But my fellow Saffas, should you decide to truly emulate your favourite celeb or athlete and participate in this Internet sensation, you'll have to accompany that video of you in your bikini (because who dumps a bucket of ice cold water over themselves fully clothed? That would be ridiculous, no?) with a donation of at least $100 to fight ALS, which given the current exchange rate will mean coughing up a little over R1 000. FYI.

The anti-ice-bucketters

With the purpose of the activity being to raise awareness, one has to consider the real value of awareness in itself. I've seen several ice bucket challenge videos and I am no more clued up on the intricacies of ALS, its symptoms, causes or treatment. What I have learned over and over again is that pouring several litres of ice-cold water over a person makes them pull a funny face, cringe and often scream.

Back in 2012, NPO Invisible Children used a similar tactic; employing social action in its bid to end the use of child soldiers in Ugandan war lord Joseph Kony's rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army. The group attempted to do so by creating a short film detailing the extent of these war crimes and encouraged people to help it to shine a spotlight on the human rights abuses in Central Africa and essentially make Kony famous. The KONY 2012 film was viewed 100 million times in six days and close to four million people pledged their support for efforts to arrest Kony.

Two years on from the hype and Kony is yet to be captured.

This is not to decry the efforts of organisations like Invisible Children or to belittle the millions of dollars that have already been donated to ALS research, but rather to illustrate that raising awareness, and often raising funds, may only be a single piece of a very intricate puzzle.

With the purpose of the activity being to raise awareness, one has to consider the real value of awareness in itself.

When looking at the Ice Bucket Challenge specifically, the complexities of contributing to a disease-specific charity should also be kept in mind, especially when your contribution is part of a fleeting campaign. While the ALS Association has not outlined what it plans to do with the funds, the organisation's primary focus is on funding research to better understand the disease and to potentially find a cure. Will an extra $100 million make these efforts easier? Possibly. Does it guarantee a positive outcome? Unfortunately not.

And some have suggested the donations to ALS Ice Bucket Challenge are essentially funds being taken away from other charitable causes. Ultimately, it is your choice which charity you decide to support, but with most of us having a finite amount of resources available to contribute to medical research, before you give in to the FOMO and decide to douse yourself in ice-cold water or post a make-up free selfie online, take a moment to consider which diseases affect the most people versus those that amass the most money and attention. Where is the greatest need? Where will your money have the most impact? And how urgent is the problem?

With the magnitude of the support for KONY 2012 and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, one could easily label these campaigns a success. But gauging the actual success of initiatives that gained infamy via a one-night stand style media frenzy is a little more complicated. Was Kony captured? Will this funding contribute to finding a cure for ALS? Currently, in both cases, the answer is no. But does that mean these initiatives that occupy news bulletins and our social media feeds for a couple of weeks only to be overtaken by the next big thing do not make a difference at all? That is impossible to say.

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