‘Embedded’ or aloof: Media’s choice in covering emergencies


In many disaster and conflict hot spots of the world, journalists and relief aid providers work closely together. There are times when journalists play good Samaritan and aid workers dabble as reporters. In the difficult field conditions of emergencies, this is understood and accepted.

But should journalists become ’embedded’ in humanitarian operations? If so, how impartial or independent would their coverage be?

This issue kept coming up during the Global Symposium+5 on ‘Information for Humanitarian Action’ in Geneva this week (22 – 26 Oct 2007). The majority aid officials and handful of journalists present didn’t always agree.

UN agencies and other humanitarian organisations increasingly recognise the power of media, especially broadcast television, to raise public awareness on emergencies. This, in turn, influences political commitments, aid donations and relief operations themselves.

But how close can the media get to aid agencies before they lose their sense of perspective and independent analysis? If journalists becoming embedded with the military in conflicts is frowned upon, what about media’s de facto embedding with humanitarian missions?

There was no consensus on the issue, but a few of us stressed on the need for independent media — independent of governments, aid agencies and other vested interests — to take stock of crisis situations and report, reflect and analyse on what they find.

The presence of nosy reporters might be an occasional irritant to some aid agencies, especially if they have things to hush up, but at the big picture level it can serve everyone’s interest — especially those of affected groups.

Alain Modoux, a former red cross official who went on to become an assistant director general of UNESCO, reminded us how governments often stand in the way of free flow of information on emergency situations. The reasons for such suppression vary: some don’t want to admit failures on their watch, and others fear public discussion and debate, especially at international level, on what is happening in their own country.

Governments can — and often do — bring pressure upon aid agencies to fall in line (or risk being thrown out). In such situations, it’s only the independent media that can take stock of rapidly changing situations and highlight the unmet needs and any disparities in the emergency response.

Then there is the media’s traditional watchdog role. The humanitarian sector is now the world’s largest unregulated industry – billions of dollars flow through the sector every year, most of it public funds (direct donations or taxes collected by governments). Yes, the aid agencies all audit their accounts and the UN has stringent regulations on how they can spend money. But there’s nothing like a bit of media scrutiny to keep everybody clean and honest…

Follow the money! This is what journalists are taught and trained to do – and with good reason. In emergency situations following the money often brings up instances of waste, corruption and mismanagement that aid agencies would rather not talk about.


Swiss journalist Edward Girardet (photo, above), who specialises in in media, humanitarian aid and conflict issues, has been making this point for a long time.

As he has written: “Humanitarianism should not ‘belong’ to any one group. What the international aid industry urgently needs is more hard-nosed and independent reporting.”

That is unlikely to happen when individual journalists are too cosy with aid workers or their bosses.

Ed was at the Geneva Symposium this week, once again making a case for a viable media watchdog capable of reporting the real causes behind humanitarian predicaments, including how the international community responds.

Read my June 2007 blog post quoting Ed Girardet: Can the media tame the alms bazaar?

In one intervention, I suggested that the media can become the ‘conscience’ of the humanitarian industry – to ensure transparency and accountability of resources, decisions and conduct.

Partnerships between media and aid workers is fine, as long as the media remain somewhat aloof and detached.

And it’s not the global media who can or will stay with the stories as recovery takes months or years. We all saw in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami how quickly the global media’s news interest went down.

In the long term, empowering the local journalists to ask the right questions and go in search of answers.

Read this blog post reproduced in Asia Media Forum

Read this blog post adapted in MediaHelpingMedia

New media tsunami hits global humanitarian sector; rescue operations now on…


Geneva, 25 October 2007 (MovingNews): The global humanitarian sector has been hit by a ‘new media’ tsunami, causing widespread damage and massive confusion in Geneva.

Giant waves — carrying blogs, wikis, YouTube and other new media products — have simultaneously swept over several aid capitals of the world, including London, New York and Tokyo.

United Nations and many other international relief organisations are among the worst affected. These aid agencies, usually among the first to arrive at the scene of major disasters or crises, found their information and communication capacities severely depleted.

“This is entirely a man-made calamity, and we just didn’t see it coming,” the UN spokesperson in Geneva said in a brief message released using the old-fashioned Morse code. “Our risk registers, log frame analyses and satellite technologies gave us no advance warning.”

Eye witness reports said some agencies were completely marooned on old media islands, saddled with very large numbers of completely unreadable documents going back to decades.

First casualties included assorted spin doctors carrying out propaganda for UN agencies. One perished while trying to sanitise the Wikipedia entry about his agency head.

Meanwhile, several dozen injured or badly bruised public information officers have been treated at a language clinic. Some will undergo trauma counselling.

“We have never been exposed to this level of open and two-way communication,” a survivor from UN OCHA said. “We were so used to always being in control, always telling others what to do and how to do it. I still don’t know what hit us!”

In a major show of solidarity, the world’s computer, telecommunications and media industries are rushing emergency teams to provide relief and recovery support.

“For decades, the UN, red cross and other aid agencies have responded to many and varied emergencies. In their hour of need, we have decided to come to their help,” a joint tele-com-media industry statement said.

Other survivors are being given first aid in simple, jargon-free public speaking. Those who respond well will be treated with basic courses in participatory communication methods.

The emergency coordinators have ordered that any spin doctors found alive be quarantined to prevent the spread of the fatal infection known as MDG.

As the recover process continues, ICT activists plan to conduct more advanced exercises — such as how to produce PowerPoint presentations with less than 20 words per slide.

“But we have to take things one step at a time,” a relief worker said. “These people have just had their entire frame of reference collapse all around them. They are in deep shock and disbelief. It will be a gradual process.”

It has now been established that a few alert officials had anticipated the new media tsunami well ahead of its dramatic arrival. But their warnings were ignored, as it now turns out, to everyone’s peril.

In Washington DC, the United States has just designated veteran broadcasters Walter Cronkite , Bill Moyers and Oprah Winfrey as their New Media Tsunami Relief Ambassadors. In the coming weeks, they will tour the decimated UN, red cross and other humanitarian aid agencies, taking stock of the global disaster and sharing their collective wisdom on telling the truth to the public simply and well.

You, dear reader, are now invited to continue building this unfolding scenario:

How soon and how well will the humanitarian sector raise its head from the new media tsunami?

Will they learn lessons from this disaster, or might they soon return to business as usual?

What would happen to the massive outpouring of goodwill, voluntary help and aid?

Message to aid workers: Go mobile — or get lost!


“MY NAME is Mohammed Sokor, writing to you from Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab. Dear Sir, there is an alarming issue here. People are given too few kilograms of food. You must help.”

This short, urgent message of a single individual has already joined the global humanitarian lore. It was sent by SMS (a.k.a. mobile texting) from the sender’s own mobile phone to the mobiles of two United Nations officials, in London and Nairobi. Sokor found these numbers by surfing at an internet café at the north Kenyan camp.

The Economist used this example to illustrate how the information dynamics are changing in humanitarian crises around the world. In an article on 26 July 2007, titled ‘Flood, famine and mobile phones’, it noted:
The age-old scourge of famine in the Horn of Africa had found a 21st-century response; and a familiar flow of authority, from rich donor to grateful recipient, had been reversed. It was also a sign that technology need not create a ‘digital divide’: it can work wonders in some of the world’s remotest, most wretched places.”

Elsewhere in the article, it added: “Disaster relief is basically a giant logistical operation. Today’s emergency responders can no more dispense with mobile phones or electronically transmitted spreadsheets than a global courier company can. But unlike most couriers, aid donors operate amid chaos, with rapidly changing constraints (surges of people, outbreaks of disease, attacks by warlords). Mobile phones increase the flow of information, and the speed at which it can be processed, in a world where information used to be confused or absent. The chaos remains, but coping with it gets easier.

Image courtesy WikiMedia

All available indicators suggest that the future of humanitarian assistance is going to be largely dependent on mobile communications. Despite this reality, old habits die hard. I sat through an entire presentation on ‘Innovation to Improve Humanitarian Action’ at the Global Symposium+5 on ‘Information for Humanitarian Action’ in Geneva this week — and not once did I hear mobile phones being mentioned. A group of 15 – 20 people had deliberated for 2 days to come up with their vision of ‘the potential of emerging technologies and approaches used in the field and globally to strengthen information sharing, coordination and decision-making’ in humanitarian work.

It might be that aid workers are all frustrated computer geeks…because all their talk was about collaborative and networking software, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), the use of really high resolution (read: oh-so-sexy) satellite imagery, and the latest analytical tools — all requiring high levels of skill and personal computers with loads of processing power.

But no mobile phones! This was too much to let pass, so I raised the question: did you guys even consider this near ubiquitous, mass scale technology and its applications in crisis and disaster situations? And how do you engage the digitally empowered, better informed disaster survivors and crisis-affected communities?

I also recalled the example of Aceh tsunami survivors keeping each other informed about the latest arrivals of relief supplies – all through their mobile phones (as cited by the head of MERCY Malaysia on the previous day).

It turned out that they did discuss mobiles — well, sort of. Amidst all the gee-whiz talk about high tech gadgets, I received a short answer: widespread as mobile phones now are, ‘these systems are not fully integrated or compatible with other information platforms’ — whatever that means! The group’s spokespersons also pointed out that since mobile services are all operated by commercial (telecom) service providers, using their networks involves lots of ‘negotiations’. (I would have thought it’s the same with those who operate earth-watching or communications satellites.)

The message I heard was: mobile phones are probably too down-market, low-tech and entirely too common for the great humanitarian aid worker to consider them as part of their expensive information management systems. For sure, everybody uses them to stay in touch in the field, but what use beyond that?

What uses, indeed. If today’s aid workers ignore the mobile phone revolution sweeping Africa, Asia Pacific and, to a lesser extent, Latin America, they risk marginalising their own selves. The choice seems to be: go fully mobile, or get lost.

Fortunately, the panel discussion that followed — on ‘Envisioning the Future’ — partly redressed this imbalance. The panel, comprising telecom industry, citizen media and civil society representatives, responded to the question: what will our humanitarian future look like and what role will information play in supporting it?


Leading the ‘defence’ of mobiles was Rima Qureshi, head of Ericsson Response, part of the global mobile phone manufacturer’s social responsibility initiatives. She reminded us there were now 3.4 billion (3,400 million) mobile phones in the world — and it was growing at 6 new mobile connections every second. By the time she ended her 8-minute talk, she said, some 3,000 new mobiles would have been connected for the first time.

This represents a huge opportunity, she said, to put information into everyone’s hands whenever and wherever they need it. And mobiles are all about two-way communication.

The new generation of mobile phones now coming out are not locked into a single telecom network, and have built-in global positioning (GPS) capability. This means the phone’s location can be pinpointed precisely anywhere on the planet — which can be invaluable in searching for missing persons in the aftermath of a disaster.

Wearing her Ericsson prophet’s hat, Rima said: “Everything we can do on a personal computer will soon become possible on a mobile. Mass availability of mobile phones, able to connect to the global Internet, will represent a big moment for human communication.”

And not just Ericsson, but many other mobile phone makers and network operators are rolling out new products and services. The new mobiles are easier to use, more versatile and durable, and come with longer-lasting or renewable sources of power. Wind-up phone chargers have been on the market for some years, and some new mobile phones come with a hand-cranking charging device that makes them entirely independent of mains electricity. With all this, the instruments keep getting cheaper too.

And if aid workers ignore these and other aspects of mobile realities, they shouldn’t be in their business!


Rima described another Ericsson initiative called Communication for All. It’s trying to harness the power of shared network, across commercial telecom operators and networks (but with some development funding from the World Bank) to deliver coverage to rural areas that aren’t as yet covered fully. The rolling out of coverage would have profound implications for disaster managers and aid workers.

As James Darcy, Director of humanitarian aid policy at the UK’s Overseas Development Institute, noted from the chair, the future of humanitarian communication is already here — but the sector needs to have more imagination in applying already available technologies for new and better uses.

My colleague Sanjana Hattotuwa, ICT researcher and activist from Sri Lanka, made the point that 3.4 billion mobiles raise new ethical considerations. For example, while it is now technologically possible to track the movement of every mobile phone – and therefore, in theory, each unit’s owner – this knowledge can be abused in the wrong hands. (I’ll write a separate blog post on Sanjana’s other remarks.)

Not everyone in the audience was convinced about the future being mobile. Soon enough, the predictable naysayer popped up: saying only 2.4 per cent of people in Sub-Saharan Africa as yet owned mobile phones, and Internet access was limited to only one per cent. Blah, blah, blah! (I was half expecting someone to blurt out the now completely obsolete – but sadly, not fully buried – development myth that there are more phones in New York city than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. That didn’t happen.)

Funny thing was, we were discussing all this at the Palais des Nations, the European headquarters of the UN, which is just literally across the street from the headquarters of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the authoritative monitor of telecom and ICT industry data and trends! It seemed that the gulf between some humanitarian workers and the telecom industry was much bigger than that.

Of course, being connected – to mobile, satellite and every other available information network – is only the first step. We can only hope humanitarian workers don’t end up in this situation, captured in one of my all-time favourite ICT cartoons (courtesy Down to Earth magazine):


Read about Sri Lanka’s pathfinding action research by LIRNEasia and others: Last Mile Hazard Information Dissemination Project

All Geneva photos courtesy UN-OCHA Flickr on Global Symposium+5