Tuesday, October 31, 2006

NGOs - a disaster for disasters?

I have AlertNet (www.alertnet.org) to thank for this provocative headline - it's not mine! I went to meet the team in Reuters spanking new HQ at Canary Wharf yesterday to talk about humanitarian coverage in the media, as AlertNet bridge the gap between aid workers and the media a lot of the time. When I was looking through their site I came across a very interesting debate with this title that had been held at the LSE earlier in the month (http://www.alertnet.org/thefacts/reliefresources/116013999244.htm).
One of the speakers, a senior MSF official said that massive public appeals by aid agencies in the wake of disasters were wrong and should stop. The reason? They were often too late to be any use and led to inept interventions. "The real relief work during the first week of a disaster is already prepared, pre-planned and pre-paid," said Gorik Ooms of MSF Belgium. "You buy tents months or years before you need them."
The media - who often run their own appeals - wouldn't be best pleased to hear this I'm guessing.
Of course MSF were - controversially - the NGO who asked the public to stop giving them money a week after the tsunami in 2004. This led to criticism, which Ooms acknowledged in the debate.
A common response to MSF's tsunami announcement [from the public], he said, was: "You have ruined our way of showing solidarity with these people. Shut up now and tell us one month later that you are going to spend the money elsewhere."
And it wasn't only aid agencies affected by MSF's pronouncement - or potentially riled. Many media outlets' appeals at the time of the tsunami raised thousands if not in some cases six figure sums from ordinary people.
In fact it wasn't just money that people gave at the time of the tsunami. I remember in the Sunday Times we ran a story about DIY aid workers who went out to help with the relief effort. I wonder what happened to those who went out? Did they help - or as many NGOs feared - hinder? Did they feel they made a difference - or did they return disillusioned? I'd love to know.

Monday, October 23, 2006

I'm a celebrity....

By some coincidence both the Guardian and Independent media sections are running stories today about what can happen when celebrities, the media and aid work all get involved with each other - and they both provide a fascinating insight. In the Independent Marina Cantucuzino (http://news.independent.co.uk/media/article1919430.ece) writes about her trip to Addis Ababa with Rupert Everett - and how he ended up writing about her in his autobiography Red Carpet and Other Banana Skins. There's various amusing incidents she recounts of her time with various celebrities - and she's honest about what journalists are often after - the hope that a celeb will spill the beans on their own life later in the trip.
She asks a serious question though:

the question that the celebrity, the charity worker and the journalist must all ask themselves is, will these people's lives improve because I am here? The answer, I believe, is yes- but not immediately and perhaps not to those people specifically. Money is donated to programmes, awareness is raised, and readers start to think of Ethiopia or Laos or Brazil as more than just holiday destination

Meanwhile in the Guardian Sue Ryan spills the beans on what happened when Unicef took Jemima Khan to Pakistan a year on from the Pakistani earthquake (http://media.guardian.co.uk/mediaguardian/story/0,,1928722,00.html) - and how what can seem ideal can go wrong. Amidst the trials and tensions of conflicting journalist/aid worker demands, Ryan is left uncomfortable by the fact that Khan finally appears in the Evening Standard wearing a £15,000 outfit - the danger is she feels is that it looks like a fashion shoot with a collage of disaster pictures in the middle.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Something for a sunny Saturday

Nothing to do with aid work or journalism - but listen to Allison Crowe sing Leonard Cohen - a fabulous way to start the day.


I found this thanks to Rachel North whose blog I read - rachelnorthlondon.blogspot.com. I once commissioned Rachel to write a piece in my previous life at the Evening Standard.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Life on the front line.

I spent the morning at the Frontline Club (www.thefrontlineclub.com). This is an alternative media club set up by a co-operative of freelances who used to work in warzones and promotes independent journalism, runs discussions and events ( as well as having what's meant to be a very good restaurant and - they say - a 'blistering wine list'). It's great - all distressed rugs, old battered leather sofas and lots of books. My ideal room.
I'd gone to meet Mark Brayne who runs the Europe office of Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma to talk about what happens when journalists work closely with aid workers and in situations that are often very distressing.
The Frontline's the kind of place that while you're just sitting there you bump into people - in the time I was talking to Mark we met someone who'd been out helping give out aid during the tsunami . He said that he had found it very frustrating when aid helicopters were taken up with journalists - meaning that they couldn't get as much aid out.
Whose fault is that though? The journalists would say they have to go to see for themselves - and often the aid agencies are keen to get journalists out with them (see the quotes from David Shukman below). And without the coverage - would the money and aid flood in? Do aid agencies believe that one seat on a helicopter less pays off in the positive effect that a striking colour piece could bring?
Or are the aid agencies finding that trying to do their work comes second to journalists desperate to get the story? - and that aid should never be delayed so that a journalist can get to a place?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

One day in history

A chance to put down your diary of the day to be part of what they claim will be the world's biggest blog.

A disaster that there is no disaster?

"Come on darling," the photographer from the News was saying to me as we stood outside in heat that threatened to take the skin off our faces. "You don't want me taking pictures of the celebrity with the kids. You don't want me taking pictures in the hospital. What am I doing here? There's a story to tell love. It's got to be done somehow."
Vernon Briggs the TV producer was making his way up the path.. "There isn't a bloody story that's the bloody truth of it," he bellowed.
"This is a right bloody carry on this is. We can't make an emergency appeal out of this lot. Nothing bloody well wrong with 'em. Crying wolf is all these aid agencies ever do."
"It's not crying wolf," I said. "It could all still happen."
"Not in the next two bloody days it couldn't. If we weren't stuck in the middle of effing nowhere, I'd put a call in London and pull the whole thing now. It's a bloody disaster."
"A disaster you say?" Muhammed one of the camp elders was standing very still. "It is a disaster that there is no disaster?"
-From Cause Celeb by Helen Fielding

This was one of the things that inspired me to start thinking about how the media and aid agencies work together when there is a natural disaster (as well as being fascinated that Helen Fielding wrote this book - a pretty biting satire on the media, aid workers and celebrity endorsements - before Bridget Jones). It's really easy as a journalist to get caught up in wanting the most dramatic pictures, the most dramatic stories. But it's not just the journalists who get caught up.
Remember Sofia Pedro...she was the woman who gave birth up a tree during the 2000 Mozambique floods. International reaction had been slow to the floods....but a strong image like that meant that it went to the top of the media agenda.
In a BBC news online debate (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/1306897.stm), the BBC's World Affairs Correspondent David Shukman pointed out that while Sofia and her baby Rositha were got to safety, given the sheer number of media-chartered helicopters covering the rescues, a few Mozambicans may have been blasted from tree-tops by the force of the downdraft.
But he also said that aid workers should not be so quick to criticise the media for over simplifying. He wrote
One colleague who covered the famine in Ethiopia last year described having trouble opening his hotel-room door because the agencies had left him so many notes inviting him to join THEIR helicopter or Landrover the next day to visit THEIR particular project. They all wanted coverage; in fact they couldn't afford NOT to have coverage; and the result was a little unseemly on their part.
His point - both aid agencies and the media should be examining what they are doing and how they could do it better. And this is what I hope to do in my year at Nuffield.