Notre Dame highlights myopia of western philanthropy

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I visited the Notre Dame cathedral around middle school. I remember sliding into one of the pews, taking out my sketchbook, and drawing the visual spectacle that was before me. I have that sketchbook at home, the plastic wrap still covering the page as my makeshift prevention device from the graphite rubbing off.

That memory obviously remains a very pleasant one, and I still feel very connected to the cathedral and Paris in general. Seeing Notre Dame burn was sad and surreal, and I can only imagine what it was like for the actual residents of Paris or Catholics who find the building symbolic and important.

As with all situations of this kind, the worldwide community demonstrated solidarity and unity by offering messages of support and fundraising. While heartwarming in a vacuum, it felt incredibly unfortunate to see the type of response that so many previous tragedies could have benefited from had they only been less in the periphery of the Western world. When the smoke cleared, it revealed the ugly underside of an inward-looking white world.

The National Museum of Brazil suffered a devastating fire in September 2018. Unlike Notre Dame, which lost just a roof and spire (and most artifacts were saved), the museum lost 92.5 percent of its near 20 million objects. The museum had some of the most unique specimens on Earth, and along with the fire, the world lost quite a bit of very irretrievable knowledge. Yet ask almost any random person on the street, or even anyone who posted a Notre Dame picture with hearts on it to their Instagram story about the museum fire, and most will draw a blank.

The world is a lot more Eurocentric than we think or realize. It wasn’t until I saw the Notre Dame fire and felt assured that it would be quickly rebuilt with worldwide fundraising efforts, despite no construction having started yet, that it occurred to me to look up where the National Museum of Brazil is now. While I did not expect it to raise all the money it would need to rebuild, the number I read was lower than anything I could anticipate: about R$1.1 million (Brazilian reals), or approximately $280,000.

That’s an appalling number, and even more so considering the fact that the museum will likely require R$400 million, or approximately $100 million. The museum is not the only location that has been neglected just because is not the priority of predominantly white societies. The same can be said of Puerto Rico, Flint, black churches in southern Louisiana, Haiti, and many more.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to buildings or geographic locations. If the same vigor that was applied to a roof was dedicated to fixing world hunger, malaria, and climate change, the world would be a lot further along.

Support for Notre Dame and these museums, diseases, cities, and black churches are not mutually exclusive. The Notre Dame fundraising effort has received nearly a billion dollars and deserves every penny, whether it be for rebuilding or the subsequent maintenance. Nevertheless, rich people have money to spare, so donations should not be limited to places in the Western world that look nice with stained glass windows and gargoyles.

More attention needs to be given to problems and tragedies outside of our Western bubble. If you want to help, a good starting place could be to donate to the National Museum of Brazil.