What is a Global Platform?

Having arrived in Geneva last week, despite the hares who delayed our flight so that they could ‘have a punch up’ on the runaway , I went straight to the Center of International Conferences Geneva (CICG) for the 2013 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction. This bi-annual meeting aims to support the implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 (HFA). Despite my deep interest in disaster risk reduction and its less technical but currently more popular stepbrother ‘resilience’, my main concern was to figure out what a ‘global platform’ consisted of. In this post I’m going to share a couple of highlights from the conference, before turning to the question which these conferences always leave me with – what next?

The conference consisted of numerous panel sessions, side events where discussions took place, a smaller stage where organisations could present their work and numerous stalls with thousands of reports and pamphlets for participants to collect. The conference was genuinely diverse with attendees from all over the world and interpretation available from numerous different languages (including Japanese). But the question I was left with – as is often the case – was: what next?

Venezuela was extremely well represented: with military figures in uniform and young volunteers giving out examples of their ‘bolsas de emergencia’

bolsa de emergencia

This ‘emergency bag’ (or ‘grab bag’ as many of us in the sector call it) is provided to every family in the region. The list displayed in the photo above outlines all the items that must be placed in the bag and kept stocked up in case of emergency. When a disaster strikes, the family can pick up the bag, place it on one of their backs and flee to the pre-designated meeting point safe in the knowledge that they have all the vital equipment necessary to survive. For me, the other key message is that the government cares and that someone is thinking of them during this time of need.

During one side event, a corporal from the First German/Netherlands Corps talked about the potential role that the military can play during emergencies. This included both expertise in training and ready trained personnel. There was much discussion about how well the military and civilian rescue teams currently worked together with several members of the audience ‘heckling’ that in their countries the partnership worked extremely well. The lively debated ran over schedule but they did seem to conclude in agreement that the central components for success were trust, good communication and a shared understanding of each entities objectives and priorities.

One of the most crowded side events was the one on food security in Africa. A distinguished panel from across Africa (Zimbabwe, Niger, Senegal) and almost all the UN nutrition related agencies (WFP, FAO, UNICEF) outlined the relevance of nutrition and food security to the wider resilience agenda. In fact, almost all agreed that without a more explicit acknowledgement of these issues in the next HFA, disaster affected communities would never be truly resilient to future shocks.

In answer to my own question: a global platform is a physical space where actors from around the world can share their experiences, seek future support, sympathise with one another and propose improvements going forwards. I wonder whether it would be possible to calculate the economic value of these conferences. The cost is enormous. Those who attend learn from other nations and have the opportunity to network. But throughout the conferences many participants can be seen responding to their daily emails. I can’t help but question what real value will have been produced aside from the recognition and exposure through the media and conference events of those working hard on the ground and the reward through a fun foreign trip. But maybe I’m too sceptical . . . I look forward to seeing the round of negotiations for the next HFA when the impact of this Global Platform may very well become apparent.

Finally, a quick link back to previous posts on this blog. The main image for the conference was a beautiful photo of a smiling boy leaning against a water level measurement post. The photo comes from Nicaragua and highlights the use of early warning systems in rural communities. Taken by a member of Oxfam GB we can safely assume that photography rules were followed and the small boy gave his permission before his face was captured on film. However, I wonder how he would feel to see his small body blown up on the side of this building in Geneva?

photo (3)

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.’

Give £10 RIGHT NOW

Sentenced to Death  Screen shot 2013-04-22 at 11.29.14

On the left is a Save the Children poster published in 1981, to widespread condemnation. On the right, an advert that appeared online last week alongside a rolling deluge of other similar advertisements and raised no major objections. One is designed to shock, the other to demand, and both invoke a sense of shame in you, the passive reader. But armed with moral superiority and the certainty that they have the answer – these adverts offer problem and solution in one neat package.

Peddling in the trade of morality and saving lives, it seems to me supremely important for aid agencies to properly assess how they represent the people they aim to serve. For what is the point in raising money to secure the humanity of those affected by crisis, if in the process, those same people become reduced to helpless victims and empty stereotypes, stripped of the very humanity their ‘saviours’ wish to restore?

This is an old argument. Following the horror of the Ethiopian famine, there was collective agreement over the need for more sensitive and dignified portrayal of disaster ‘victims’. Amongst other initiatives, in 1994 the IFRC stipulated in its Code of Conduct that: In our information, publicity and advertizing activities, we shall recognize disaster victims as dignified human beings, not hopeless objects. Since then, the humanitarian sector has grown rapidly and chaotically into a multi million dollar industry, with massive interventions across large parts of the globe and a powerful public profile. As technology has evolved, so agencies have become increasingly media savvy, with dedicated media/comms departments and sophisticated marketing techniques capable of bringing in even larger sums of money.

I am an aid worker, and despite spending a lot of time angry, frustrated and generally cynical, I remain fiercely wedded to the idea that trying to help people in war or disaster is an essentially good and necessary thing. So I suppose I should feel proud of the scale of influence that agencies now manage to wield through modern media. Yet the hyperbole, disturbing imagery and pervading sense of hubris, cloud any real feelings of achievement and often make me cringe. What is presented by agencies to the general public seems completely removed from the realities of actually providing humanitarian assistance, and the imagery used is only getting worse.

The ends-justifies-means argument would point the money raised and numbers saved as a result. Yet this position, standing opposed to ethical purism, is a tired dichotomy and completely misses the complex reality of providing assistance in a conflict environment. Having money doesn’t mean aid will actually be delivered effectively and appropriately. And as part of a sector that is trying so desperately to professionalise, surely we should have grown more sophisticated in our relations with the giving public, beyond ordering them to ‘Give £10: Right Now’?