Can media tame the global ‘alms bazaar’?

The Asian Tsunami of December 2004 inspired dozens of cartoons in newspapers and websites all over the world. To me, this was one of the most heart rending Tsunami cartoons.

Without a single word, it said so much about the humanitarian sector’s conduct and priorities. It showed how Asia’s massive disaster drained much needed support from other unfolding emergencies in the world.

This week in Geneva – arguably the humanitarian capital of the world – a leading Swiss journalist once again raised the crucial issue: how best can humanitarian agencies respond to multiple crises without everyone ending up in a needless frenzy?

Edward Girardet, who specialises in in media, humanitarian aid and conflict issues, was speaking at a media workshop on tracking climate change that his non-profit organisation, Media21, organised this week in conjunction with the Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva (5 – 7 June 2007).

The platform, organised by the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN-ISDR), brought together several hundred disaster managers, researchers and activists for three days of discussion and debate on key issues and challenges they face.

Ed was outspoken in his critique of the humanitarian sector (which, someone suggested during the week, is the largest unregulated industry in the world).

“Much of the emergency response to the Indian Ocean tsunami in late 2004 was not required, but hundreds of organizations still insisted on being seen, often at the cost of rechanneling humanitarian resources from vital operations elsewhere in the world, bringing some to virtual collapse, notably in Africa.”

Writing an op ed piece in the Christian Science Monitor this week, Ed has expanded on his views. He says:

“What this amounts to is a blatant abuse of public confidence. As one International Committee of the Red Cross representative admitted, if the donating public knew how often personal egos or vested interests call the shots, they might prove less forthcoming in their support.”

Edward Girardet, Swiss journalist

Here is how he ends his essay:

Humanitarianism, however, should not “belong” to any one group. What the international aid industry urgently needs is more hard-nosed and independent reporting.

Current initiatives such as IRIN, the UN’s humanitarian news service, and the World Disaster Report of the International Red Cross are excellent in many ways but widely perceived as beholden to their organizations.

Another question is whether one can expect real criticism of the international aid industry if such ventures are themselves cofunded by governments.

The best solution would be the creation of a viable media watchdog capable of reporting the real causes behind humanitarian predicaments, including how the international community responds.

Most mainstream news organizations are unlikely to cover the global aid business on a consistent basis.

On the other hand, a pooling of media, corporate, and foundation support for a specialized reporting entity could prove to be the answer. Any other approach that does not guarantee complete independence would be a waste of time and money.

Read his full op ed in Christian Science Monitor online (8 June 2007 issue).

Read the full report of TVE Asia Pacific’s Roundable meeting on Communicating Disasters, held in Bangkok, December 2006

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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