accessibility & help

The F word causes debate

18 December 2009

Woman stands with folded arms in front of sea of tentsReuters/Finbarr O'Reilly, courtesy was no sign of Gordon Ramsay but the F word caused temperatures to rise as journalists, aid agencies and parliamentarians discussed reporting of humanitarian emergencies on 16 December.

Rather than food, it was the emotive issue of famine which got people hot and bothered at the Dispatches from Disaster Zones conference, hosted by the British Red Cross, at the Royal Society in London.

Despite a major food crisis in east Africa this year, aid agencies have avoided crying ‘famine’ in order to tug at the heart and purse strings of the public. Which isn’t to say that people aren’t in a desperate situation and don’t need help.

Forget the nuance

But it’s a complex situation and the challenge for aid agencies is getting a nuanced message into news stories – particularly the tabloids.

George Pascoe Watson, former political editor of the Sun newspaper, said: “Ten million people read the Sun everyday, so it’s really important to get a message in there. I think you shouldn’t be squeamish about using primary colours – it’s not about getting the nuance.”

The British people are living through the worst economic recession in 80 years and the question was asked, should we even be talking about expenditure of public money abroad? But the reality for people in developing countries of holding off on development aid is a catastrophic prospect.

Gareth Thomas, minister for the Department of International Development, said: “We need to help developing countries out of the global recession and get them onto a sustainable route out of poverty. We need to consider the impact of climate change: how do we help countries build on what we hope will be achieved in Copenhagen this week?”

Good governance over aid

It’s a pretty sure bet that most aid agencies would agree. However, the media has a powerful role to play in raising public awareness – and funds – for development programmes. And the problem for aid workers is convincing journalists that aid works.

Journalist Sam Kiley, who recently wrote the article ‘Do starving Africans a favour. Don’t feed them’, said: “We need to look at the real issues of why there are food shortages. For example, in Kenya there is enough food to go round so the current crisis shouldn’t be happening.

“Too often the issue of food security is separated from the leadership of a country. Countries in Africa don’t need to be sent food, they need good governance.”

Technology saves lives

Slightly less controversial was the issue of technology. Increasingly, in the aftermath of disasters, the first thing people buy is a mobile phone. When Kiley questioned why we should send money to help people who are buying phones, Imogen Wall, a consultant for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said: “Phones are not a luxury, they are a vital tool for people taking care of their own recovery after a disaster.

“Phones allow affected populations to talk to each other and to aid agencies, it doesn’t mean they aren’t poor or don’t need help. If it had been possible to get a text message to everyone in Sri Lanka on 26 December, they could all have moved inland 500 metres and no one would have died from the tsunami.”

Information as aid

People caught up in disasters are not the helpless and passive victims the media often portray them to be. Tim Large, from the Thompson Reuters Foundation, said: “The truth is more complicated and we have just launched an emergency information system to help people in disasters. Previously, it was about getting information out from crises, but we started thinking about how to change the use of information so it can go back to the affected communities to help them.”

Paul Conneally, head of media for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said: “Information is a potentially life-saving commodity in the humanitarian environment. Information is a part of aid – it needs to inform, engage and empower.

“Social media provides new ways to engage people. The opportunities are enormous with camera phones, YouTube and Twitter. It needs to be the people affected by disasters who are the ones telling their own stories.”

Read more about Dispatches from Disaster Zones


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