Red noses foil land mines

Most of us probably know about Doctors Without Borders, the international medical aid organization that specializes in taking medical services to some of the most imperiled and dangerous places on Earth. According to a recent report, there’s another international aid group with a similar goal of making people feel better, but this group doesn’t use traditional medical therapies. Rather, they rely on the “best medicine” — laughter.

Clowns Without Borders (Payasos Sin Fronteras/ was founded at Barcelona, Spain in 1993. The group’s first performance was in a refugee camp at Veli-Joze on the Croatian Istrian peninsula. Since then, Clowns Without Borders and their allied organizations in other countries have mounted in excess of 750 aid missions. During those missions, the group has staged more than 8,000 performances, performing for 3,600,000 children in 100 countries.

The organization’s website details their core approach: “Laughter allows the collective psychological rebalancing of refugees, displaced persons, returnees or chronically excluded populations. Besides, laughter is used as a recovery mechanism (to instill) constructive and creative values like tolerance, diversity, community involvement … and peace.”

While it is all fun and games, it’s also very serious business. The Clowns don’t just travel to yuck it up. They facilitate projects in areas like: health and disease prevention (water, sanitation, oral health); child protection (violence prevention, mine field elimination, creating safe play spaces); promotion of human rights (reduction of child labor and family violence); and through the development of values supportive of peace and conflict resolution.

A key component of the Clowns approach is the provision of emotional support, not just to the individual but also to the collective. As their website states: “For the affected population is important to laugh and to see each other laughing. It’s a sign of permanence and resistance to adversity that makes the community more resilient.”

Perhaps most interestingly, when the Clowns go to the sites of conflict they will often bring together groups of children from opposite sides of the fighting. They reason that this will humanize one side to the other; and perhaps give younger people pause as they make choices about violence.

The organization also stresses the importance and agency of women. Women are the protagonists in all the Clowns’ shows. This generates a balanced perspective that recognizes the distinctive female voice in humor: “Not everything can be said from the male (comedic point of view), women also have their own laughter.”

It’s easy to imagine the value of all this in places like Serbia, Palestine and Somalia. These nations are the archetypal symbols of failure and despair. Even though the children of Pine Bluff don’t exist in a dystopian wasteland of war and pestilence, they confront an epidemic of poverty, violence and social marginalization that few communities in America know.

This then causes us to wonder whether programs like Clowns Without Borders might have value here. Our children exist in an ocean of negativity. For all too many Pine Bluff children, unstable family situations, blighted neighborhoods and under-resourced schools merge into a perfect storm of sadness and hopelessness.

Might not some structured and purposeful levity help those kids? It has been said that the worst thing you can do to a person is to take away their hope. We know that red noses and balloon animals are no substitute for proper rearing, consistent nutrition and progressive schooling, but we also recognize the limits of the present situation. As we attempt to craft a better future, perhaps a few smiles might buy us more time.