Mind over Media

11 Apr

Over the past couple of months, as you know, I have done a lot of talking and writing and thinking about Haiti. I have done a number of interviews, some on air, some for print.

There are a lot of questions about what it’s been like on the ground. Why was aid slow to start? Or was it? What are the issues? What about the land? What’s the inside scoop?

But there’s one question that comes more consistently than any other:

What makes Haiti different?

In answering this question I have made all of the obvious comparisons in my head and on the record. I have compared Haiti with post-Cyclone Myanmar and post-earthquake Sichuan. I have discussed the rate of response and transition into recovery of Haiti compared with that in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Everyone seems to want to know what specific lessons learned from the Asian Tsunamis are being applied in Haiti now. Every disaster is unique, as are the responses that follow.

But I have come in the last few weeks to believe that there is one thing in particular that sets this terrible disaster in Haiti (and the international response to it) apart from the other big ones in recent and current memory. There is one factor, largely unacknowledged (or at least not talked about publicly), and largely unanalyzed so far as I am aware. It is the thing that in my own experience as an emergency response practitioner, coming from an operational perspective, sets Haiti apart:

Media Visibility

I am still thinking through the implications of the incredibly high amount of media visibility on Haiti for the aid and recovery efforts. There are obviously some very good things, obviously some bad. Just a few thoughts on that:

Never have I seen such intensive coverage of a disaster response effort. I am not talking about coverage of the disaster itself – images of crumbled buildings and people weeping for their dead and talking heads going on about numbers. I am talking about coverage of aid agencies and issues in the response.

The questions I was asked by the media following Cyclone Nargis were pretty general: how big is this thing? What are conditions like in the Aerawaddy River Delta? What kinds of things to aid agencies do to help? By contrast the questions I’m being asked about Haiti are very specific (if, at times, unenlightened): Why did three out of four distributions turn violent during the first month? In what ways are aid agencies in Haiti being held accountable? Isn’t the fact that some people are still living under tarps evidence that the aid effort is failing?

To a large extent, I think this visibility is simply due to the fact of Haiti’s proximity to the United States, plus the fact of how easy it is to go there. It’s a short flight from Miami. It’s a short drive from Santo Domingo.

There’s a Diaspora connection as well. Not just Diaspora, but celebrity Diaspora: Oprah didn’t invite the media spokesperson of an actual aid agency to her show to talk about Haiti, nor did she invite an actual aid worker. She didn’t even invite an academic expert on humanitarian aid. No, she invited a rapper who happened to be Haitian.

It seems as well, that there is comparatively little regulation of the press there. Anyone can go, interview pretty much anyone they want, and say whatever they want in the media. This, in particular, is in very sharp contrast to all of the large disasters in recent memory (The Tsunamis – Indonesia, Sri Lanka; China, Myanmar, and even to some extent Louisiana): The level of commentary by the media on the performance of NGOs in Haiti, both positive and negative, is unprecedented.

Some early thoughts on what this means for us:

Ultimately it should lead to aid agencies being more accountable. Accountable to beneficiaries. Accountable to donors. In some ways, also accountable to the Third Audience.

This is an unprecedented opportunity for the aid community to educate the general public – the Third Audience – about what aid is, and how it works. It is an opportunity for the aid community to talk about what “good” aid is, what constitutes poor aid, and what is just plain bad aid. For goodness sake, this is the beginning of a three (or more) year-long teachable moment about the myth of low overhead, why overhead rates tell us nothing, and why donors should never ever ever base support of this agency or that on their published overhead rate.

Similarly, but worth it’s own separate point, this is a golden opportunity to educate the public about the limitations of aid, whether in terms of logistics and organizational strength, or in terms of the legitimate role of aid agencies.

This is a time for us – the aid community – to get our act together and take the professionalism of aid seriously. If we learn nothing else from Haiti, let it be that just because anyone can get to the disaster zone and set up shop doesn’t mean that they should. And moreover, that our responsibility to the disaster survivors we say we mean to help, extends to (in my opinion) to regulating out those practitioners who do it badly and in ways that cause harm.

Our extended response and recovery programs in Haiti (and probably elsewhere in the future) will be under the microscope like never before. And  unfortunately, those looking through the microscope will not necessarily understand what they are looking at. In fact, very often they will misunderstand. Not long ago I did a background interview with a journalist who had a number of questions about how aid agencies who had received US government grants for the relief effort were being held accountable. It was apparent that this person lacked even a rudimentary understanding of either basic aid delivery or grant management principles. And yet, this person writes for a major periodical – one that is widely quoted and that potentially influences opinion for large segments of the American population. … Scary. We need to be prepared for more of this.

Sort of summarizing the above points – we need to develop the capacity to deal with the difference between perception created by the media and the reality on the ground. In recent history it has been largely militaries – the US Military – in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq who had to deal with this issue. Public opinion and support influenced by media that perhaps portrayed the situation in a not-nuanced manner (not always the fault of the medial). Now it’s our turn.

* * *

In conclusion, at least for now, it seems there are two main open issues for the aid community, coming out of the ongoing Haiti earthquake response:

First, a specific perception by the media that we have or should have more influence than we in fact do. Influence on the big picture of how host national governments deal internally and externally with large disasters. I reached this conclusion after repeatedly doing interviews with journalists and correspondents who seemed to basically misunderstand how aid works and what exactly it is that NGOs do vis-a-vis, say, the UN or host governments. We need to communicate better to the public about our role as NGOs in the aid process, and perhaps to be more clear about it ourselves.

Second, and this is harder to pin down, I am beginning to pick up a growing sense that aid agencies and NGOs are thought to be accountable to the general public – the Third Audience.  Point number nine of the Code of Conduct reads, “We hold ourselves accountable to both those we see to assist and those from whom we accept resources.” We’ve understood for some time that we’re to be accountable to donors and beneficiaries, recipients, disaster survivors. But for the first time, I’m getting the sense of an expectation that we also be accountable to those “ordinary citizens”, those people watching coverage of the response on CNN.

Interesting times…

9 Responses to “Mind over Media”

  1. Tim Ogden 12 April, 2010 at 10:34 am #

    I think a great deal of the misunderstanding by journalists and individuals about the role of NGOs and what they can and cannot do is a direct result of the marketing of the NGOs themselves. Their ads do not feature nuance–what they do feature is an implicit and often explicit suggestion that the NGOs are in charge of “saving lives.”

    Is it any wonder that people then expect the NGOs to be able to just get things done?

    • J. 12 April, 2010 at 10:53 am #

      You’re correct – there is most definitely a disconnect between what NGOs “market” to donors and what they actually do in the field. I’ve written about it before: https://talesfromethehood.wordpress.com/2009/12/16/part-2-of-3-you-cant-handle-the-truth/

      The issue that I’m sensing in the Haiti response is not around whether or not NGOs are part of “saving lives” (many of the things being done by NGOs in Haiti are saving lives) or getting things done (again, they are). It’s more around the question of what things can the NGOs be reasonably expected to get done? Provide transitional shelter that meets Sphere standards? Absolutely. Resolve land issues (like, where will all those transitional shelters be built?)? Not so much.

      Yes, NGOs need to up their game when it comes to marketing. But someone… the media, and yes, the NGOs… needs to also present a more realstic view of Aid, writ large – a large and complicated machine within which NGOs are but one moving part.

  2. Carla Murphy 12 April, 2010 at 9:55 pm #

    Exciting! Despite the pitfalls you rightly point out, I tend to see the increased media attention of aid agencies as a very good thing for all parties involved. That Code Nine is interesting… sounds a bit impossible actually, like Twister with 5 people. And I understand distrust of the media but stay optimistic. There’re bad eggs out there but, as with aid workers, there’re journos out there who’re doing incredible work. May your path be lined with them.

    • J. 13 April, 2010 at 8:20 am #

      Carla – nice to see you here🙂

      Yes, I’d agree that overall increased media visibility on humanitarian work is ultimately a good thing. Or at least has the strong potential to be a good thing. And yes, it has been my privilege to speak with some very talented and committed journalists.

      Some days, though, the challenges of trying to do what we do, not just well but better, while at the same time trying to explain it all in ways that make sense to non-insiders but also do not under-convey the nuance and complexity of it all are just daunting.

  3. HaitiLiveFeeds 13 April, 2010 at 11:13 am #

    Fascinating piece! Thank you.

  4. Sterling 27 April, 2010 at 9:12 am #

    i’m finally catching up with your blog, and i really enjoyed this post! as a former photojournalist-wannabe, i’m glad you addressed this recurring issue. i also think the “Third Audience” is so critical of NGOs because they’ve lost faith in government. i think there was a time when people were more critical of governments giving aid, but now that NGOs are so visible and ubiquitous, the public turns to them.

    thanks for the insight.


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