Fundraising for Notre Dame Reveals that Western Buildings Have More Value than Human Life...

On Monday 15th April 2019, the world watched in shock as Notre Dame Cathedral was engulfed in flames, destroying parts of the iconic 850 year-old French national treasure.


The fire represented the destruction of France’s most treasured historical site. BBC World correspondent, Henri Astier, wrote of Notre Dame:

“No other site represents France quite like Notre-Dame. Its main rival as a national symbol, the Eiffel Tower, is little more than a century old. Notre-Dame has stood tall above Paris since the 1200s. It has given its name to one of the country’s literary masterpieces. Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is known to the French simply as Notre-Dame de Paris.

The last time the cathedral suffered major damage was during the French Revolution. It survived two world wars largely unscathed. Watching such an embodiment of the permanence of a nation burn and its spire collapse is profoundly shocking to any French person.”

The burning of the cathedral is a moment that will go down in history. It’s a tragic day for France; the loss of a Unesco World Heritage site and France’s most visited site is no laughing matter. While we can mourn the loss of such an iconic monument, we can also call out the disparity of the fundraising response in comparison to other events that have led to the loss of human life.

Less than 24 hours after the blaze broke out, France’s three wealthiest families spearheaded a fundraising drive to rebuild Notre Dame that has already exceeded £500 million. Meanwhile, Paris Mayor, Anne Hidalgo proposed organising an international donor conference to coordinate pledges to restore the building. The international donation site reached over 7 million euros  just 24 hours after the blaze.

This event is a stark reminder that buildings can have more value than human lives.

Just last month, over 1,000 people died in Cyclone Idai, with hundreds of thousands of people still in need of aid in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi.


The international fundraising efforts to help those in need reached £18 million in the first three days. That’s £482 million less than what Notre Dame raised in under 24 hours. International media response was (as you can expect) quite limited, with topics such as Brexit taking over the headlines. Meanwhile, the Notre Dame fire continues to dominate the top three headlines on the BBC. It’s a stark embodiment of the rule of journalism: 1000 deaths in ‘far away’ lands, is essentially the equivalent to one major incident ‘close to home’, no matter whether or not lives are lost.

Some may argue that you can’t compare the international response to Cyclone Idai to Notre Dame Cathedral; one happened in Africa and didn’t directly impact Europeans and therefore doesn’t deserve as much attention in the West, meanwhile the other was the loss of a much loved historical building. Taking this into account, I thought it would be useful to highlight how another European fire has impacted lives, and demonstrate the stark difference in response.

Grenfell Tower Fire, London, June 2017

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In summer 2017, a massive fire broke out in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block in North Kensington. It caused 72 deaths, over 70 injuries, and has since been categorised as the deadliest structural and residential fire in the United Kingdom since the Second World War.

When compared to the Notre Dame fundraising, the £18.9 million raised for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire seems like small change. What’s even worse is the fact that two months after the disaster, only £2.8 million had been given to the people who needed it. The authorities neglected the victims, and continue to ‘look for excuses and loopholes not to prosecute so the guilty parties get off scot free’. The latest announcement in March 2019 claimed that the ‘Metropolitan Police Service will likely not file submissions for criminal charges to the CPS until at least 2021’. The fact that a historic building has gained more fundraising attention than the preventable loss of life is frankly an insult to victims of devastating fires like Grenfell. It goes to show that while national treasures will always be protected, cherished and supported, human lives are seen as dispensable with limited resources to protect them. Comparisons between Grenfell and Notre Dame may be seen as reductionist, but I can’t help comparing the collective sense of loss from a historic building with that of human beings at the hands of a British council.

We can support the fundraising efforts for Notre Dame; it’s a ‘sacred’ French monument that will need to be rebuilt and is in need of additional funds. However, in our efforts to save one historical building, let's not forget about the victims of fires like Grenfell, who need a continued collective response for justice.

To join the Justice 4 Grenfell campaign, visit their webpage here.

Article by VERVE Operative & Blogger Chanju Mwanza

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