rough notes: Aid as a Morality Play

H: You hinted that something had changed in the way humanitarianism deals with the media, as there is a ‘creeping resurgence’ of disaster porn. Are there any sources that support this, or anything other than a vague feeling (which isn’t particularly reliable, since none of us have been following the situation for that long.)

D: This is an interesting question. There is a dearth of solid empirical data around use of media by aid agencies, including comparative data around images used / or advertising over the past 50 or so years (at least, that I can find- if there is and someone can point me in the direction of it, I would be most grateful!). On the other hand, there seems to be a lot of broad assumptions which aren’t necessarily verified. The query over whether there is a resurgence is therefore my own – based on the fact that there are a lot of questionable images that do currently crop up in fundraising, campaigning etc, but I lack the comparative data to state it either way. It would be fascinating to look at this in more detail.

H: One problem is that, although the categories of ‘innocent/fighter/etc’ are blurred, there is still some truth to them. Nobody is innocent – but I still think it can be valid to make moral judgements about those who receive aid. I think the natural intuitions of humanitarians actually differ from the general public – who do care about the people who receive aid, whether they’re fighters, people who have committed atrocities, etc. In that sense, most people probably do want money to go to ‘the innocent’ as much as possible. Although I agree that humanitarians are guilty of over-simplifying, I’m not sure I’d support a humanitarianism that was completely neutral, as you advocate. An obvious example is funding going through rebel soldiers. So I agree that humanitarianism shouldn’t glibly trot out the innocent baby – but I think the answer is perhaps for them to be more like the advertising, rather than to try and make the advertising more like themselves. In other words, I think humanitarians do need to take more account of who they’re funding, what the wider consequences are, and try to better match the public perception.

D: You are conflating the difficulty of adequately providing aid without it being compromised on the ground (an eternal dilemma) with the representation of aid in the media. I don’t advocate that humanitarians are completely neutral – far from it, that is impossible and as the ICRC demonstrated during WWII / Holocaust- perhaps not entirely preferential. I think here we return to the impossible domain of ethics/principles vs. operational realities. I suppose my guiding light in all of this is honesty in practice, and honesty in representation. If aid is complicated and messy and often compromised- then don’t pretend it isn’t! The trouble with a ‘morality play’ representation of aid is that it introduces a fairy-tale idea of humanitarian assistance, installs the notion of the ‘deserving victim’ (a la the current ‘deserving poor’) and is ultimately, false.

If humanitarianism is truly serious about professionalising, then its arguments for support and involvement should not depend on a join-the-dots type moral argument. Humanitarian agencies should not intervene in a crisis simply because ‘we are humanitarians’ and therefore hold the moral weight of a burdened West on buckling shoulders. Humanitarian agencies should intervene in conflict and crisis situations because their organisations and staff are specialists in disaster response; trained and capable of delivering effective relief and assistance to the populations in need. That’s why I hate the reduction of the humanitarian enterprise to simple moral language – it does such an injustice to an amazingly complex initiative. And I absolutely don’t agree that aid should be more like the simplistic portrayal of ‘dying innocent child saved by hard working aid agency’ – that will never have any bearing on reality. The beauty of success is in the complex negotiations that ARE the effective provision of assistance despite all the hurdles- negotiating access, making difficult ethical compromises, establishing an effective cold chain etc. The simple act of giving a packet of plumpy nut is the smallest part of all that.

(ps. The recent book ‘Humanitarian Negotiations’ is a great analysis of those compromises and the associated issues – have you read it?

K: I fully agree with your analysis of an increasingly symbiotic relationship between the media and some humanitarian agencies and organisations. However,  I think it would be unfair to assume that this conclusion is relevant to all humanitarian agencies. I don’t want to provide a list of examples, but there are organisations, both large and small, who are actively working against this tidal wave. Some of the innovative use of twitter to give voice to beneficiaries and use that as a communication and fundraising tool is worth looking at, though only relevant to particularly contexts e.g. Somalia.

D: Absolutely yes, I agree. That is one of the most interesting aspects of this close relationship. But I see a difference between the Western news media as an institution/system (or set of organisations/individuals) which has a particular audience and agenda – and the innovative use of media techniques and tools for the purpose of humanitarian and other goals. My previous arguments are more geared towards the former. The difference, I suppose, between ‘The Media’ and media.

K: Moving forward it would be interesting to look at the share of funding per humanitarian NGO broken down by donor e.g. private giving, government donors, domestic resources, diaspora etc and see if there is any relationship between an increase in giving from a particular donor and media coverage. Again remittances to Somalia comes to mind as an interesting example – I suspect these are determined less by the international or western media and more by personal contacts/information routes.

D: Agreed! There was a great Guardian Dev graphic on remittances recently:

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