Aid as a Morality Play

As I wrote about previously, there is a sense of déjà vu in the way the humanitarian sector uses the media, largely in terms of fundraising. But is there actually a creeping resurgence of ‘disaster porn’, or are aid agencies simply more numerous, and their media presence more strident? Hard to say without clear statistics, but it is fair to argue that the relationship between the Western news media and (Western) humanitarian aid has undergone significant change over the past couple of decades.

There is a natural symbiosis between the two institutions: both grapple with the grim realities of modern conflict, and both try to communicate this to a wider audience. At worst, both treat suffering as a casual commodity, and at best, both try to effect serious and meaningful change: by bearing witness, by providing life-saving assistance. And over the past few years, this symbiotic relationship appears to have deepened.  Aid organisations and media outlets are becoming increasingly dependent on one another, in ways that has serious implications on the ability of each to carry out their work properly and with integrity.

As media budgets contract, news organisations and freelance journalists are using, and at times relying on, humanitarians for field logistical support, story leads and information packages – delivered by professional agency communications/PR staff (with an institutional agenda). In ‘Getting into Bed with Charity’, Suzanne Franks delivers a searing critique of this dependence, claiming that ‘This symbiosis of media and aid agencies, while it might benefit both parties, may not always best serve the audience.’ Independence is as closely prized by journalists as by aid workers, and media is a powerful means of holding aid to account – a strong argument for keeping the two at least somewhat disentangled.

On the other hand, though humanitarian agencies have increased in number and influence, rather than carving out a distinct domain, I would argue that they have become further embroiled in the media’s terrain. Agency appeals, campaigns and branding are the public face of NGOs, and agencies are much more media savvy, with sophisticated comms teams, media teams, PR departments et al. Yet the relationship is defined largely according to market logic. With such a glut of agencies competing for public money and attention, branding is king. And to maximise coverage (and therefore funding / branding), agency comms teams have to pitch appeals or story ‘packages’ that are relevant to the varying styles/whims of a news outlet, fit in with audience consumption and squeeze between competing news stories.

It clearly makes practical sense to be responsive to market realities (who wants to read about another East African famine when there is a Royal Wedding on the cards?) – yet this also plays to the common weaknesses of both. The media in disaster zones roams quickly, searches for unique angles and prefers ‘events’ over situations. Urgency is also a better salesperson in soliciting donations: everyone wins. But this panders to the horrible tendency of representing complex situations through broad, simplistic brushstrokes, buzzwords and an ethnocentric lens. Humanitarian narratives about war and conflict are more often than not framed as a ‘morality play’, with agencies gladly taking on the mantle of ‘saviour’ (give us money please). Yet as pretty much every aid worker or journalist knows, famine isn’t just a result of drought, and conflicts aren’t simply bad vs. good guys (or even, Africans vs. Africans).

Understandably, as agencies have grown in size they have also become profoundly risk averse. The risk of compromising operations, compromising agency reputation or tarnishing donor money is unacceptable. And yet, oddly enough, through depoliticising and sterilising the humanitarian narratives in this way, NGOs may also find themselves moving away from the core principles. The humanitarian ‘morality play’ describes a world of innocents (starving babies), saviours (white aid workers) and villains (governments, military etc). Yet, as evidenced by every conflict, disaster and crisis – a person can be a fighter, mother, refugee and HIV patient all at the same time – the idea of ‘innocence’ is only really applicable to children (and which is why, as former MSF President Rony Brauman wryly remarked ‘the one thing that tyrants and aid workers have in common is their liking for being posed next to children’).

Humanitarianism is predicated on the ideal of neutrality – impossible, but crucial. This recognises that people in crisis, regardless of their political, religious or ethnic affiliation, have a right to assistance when in need. By labelling those receiving aid as ‘innocents’, we introduce the idea of ‘deserving’ into relief, which is completely antithetical to humanitarianism.

So – as David Rieff puts it: ‘The first and greatest humanitarian trap is this need to simplify, if not actually lie about, the way things are in the crisis zones, in order to make the story more morally and psychologically palatable- in short, to sugarcoat the horror of the world, which includes the horror of the cost of a good deed.’

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