The fund-raising television ads showed children starving in Somalia. In the eyes of State Department officials, they went too far.
And, with the department's reputation at stake, officials decided to challenge the charities that were producing them.
The films, solicitations for World Vision International, World Concern and International Christian Aid, painted a nightmarish portrait of children whose only hope for survival rested with the charities.
Several hundred thousand Somalians living in Ethiopian-controlled territory had fled into Somalia in early 1978 when fighting broke out between the two countries. Later that year, drought and intensified fighting added nearly a million more refugees.
But State Department officials felt that the problem of hunger had been brought under control. "The starvation problem was arrested around September, 1981," said Arthur E. Dewey, deputy assistant secretary for refugee programs. "But the films left the impression that people were still starving. As soon as I saw the films, we contacted the agencies involved."
Jim Kelly, a senior program officer in the Bureau of Refugee Programs, also thought that the films were misleading, and that they made the department's statements about the Somalian situation suspect. "I have a responsibility," he said. "I get queried by the public and people up on the Hill. If they see we're spending millions of dollars and haven't turned things around, they begin to wonder what we're doing."
So in early spring, department officials arranged to meet with representatives of the charities. The charities acknowledged that the TV films were a year and a half old and agreed to change them. But they also insisted that hunger was still a problem in Somalia, and that the money they raised was indeed going there.
Richard Perry, director of resource development for World Concern, said they also discussed the problem of keeping fund-raising films current. "We just had a crew in Sudan," he said, "and I guarantee that by the time it goes on the air in August, it will be dated."
The State Department has no real weapon to compel the charities to yank the films, although World Concern has been receiving about $500,000 a year in federal funds. Nevertheless, "we took a very tough line on the need to be truthful," Dewey said. "I appealed to them as a Christian myself that what they were doing was misleading and un-Christian. You have to use moral persuasion in these cases."
Asked why World Vision pulled its films, public relations director Jim Jewel said, "We like to think it was a matter of our own integrity and not someone else telling us what to do. But the State Department complaints were certainly a factor."
Jeff Collins, a spokesman for International Christian Aid, said, "These films do become dated very quickly. We wanted to satisfy the State Department's concerns."
State Department officials are careful to say that they have not cast themselves in the role of censor. They also make clear that they don't view the charities as adversaries. In fact, International Christian Aid and World Concern are now giving the department advance copies of their television solicitations.
Still, Dewey said he was concerned that people give to charities without really knowing where their money is going. "My question is why is the American public so unquestioning? There seems to be a tendency to trust these large organizations. People do not seem to care where their money goes."