Flying the Colours

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International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs), or aid agencies, get a lot of [metaphorical] flak for what is perceived as self-promotion through judicious use of their logos. They get stamped like marketing badges on the products we hand out until, in a relief camp, they appear as a cacophany of colour and styles. Tarpaulins from CARE stamped with their circle of yellow and brown hands. Water tanks from Oxfam with their green loop. Jerrycans from World Vision with their orange triangle. Tents stamped with the blue letters UNHCR. Outside a Save the Children Play-Safe Area, a large signboard displays the typology of a child reaching up for an embrace ringed in red, while across the muddy pathway from an MSF therapeutic feeding clinic sits beneath a fluttering flag with their red scrawl on a white background.

The signage doesn’t stop there. Detractors of the international aid industry point to the plethora of badges slapped onto the fleets of white Toyota Land Cruisers that ply the unsealed roads of previously unheard-of third-world towns turned relief headquarters, such as Darfur’s Nyala, DRC’s Goma and Sri Lanka’s Vavuniya. One government recently slammed INGOs [however myopically] for their work in a conflict-riddled portion of their country, claiming that their activities amounted to little more than supporting terrorists and putting up large signboards with their names on. Photos to our donors of the work we do invariably try and promote our particular flavour of assistance with a carefully framed banner or vested aid worker brandishing the organization’s colours.

The cynic will say this is nothing but commercial branding of the most heartless kind, trying to make money from the suffering of innocents. The pragmatist recognizes that in part, this is a necessary push to claw well-needed dollars and cents through the door so they can be sent back out to a world of need which can absorb just as much assistance as is thrown at it, in part it ensures that the people we are trying to serve know who it is their assitance is coming from so they know who they can approach with confidence. And working in insecure environments, our logo is more than just a corporate identity. It becomes a part of our protection.

I was reminded of this the other day travelling down a road in a highly militarized part of the world on a humanitarian excursion. Not only does our logo grant us passage through the checkpoints that prevent ordinary citizens from crossing into no-man’s land, but once there, in theory, the flag we fly helps identify us as a neutral party to the conflict, not to be mistaken for an agressor by either side. Our logo is stencilled down both sides of the truck. It flies from a flagpole mounted towards the rear of the vehicle, high so it can be seen through traffic or in the midst of the bush. Both I and the driver beside me wear shirts that bear our name and logo front and back, so that once we exit the vehicle we are identifiable as we mingle among the people we are travelling to help. It is even painted onto the hood of the pickup, and over the roof, so that from the air, a helicopter gunship or a strafing jet doesn’t accidentally mistake us for something we’re not.

It’s actually a war-crime under international humanitarian law for parties to a conflict to target aid-workers bringing assistance. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen. Once upon a time, the station of aid-worker was widely held as protected, exemplified most highly by the respect given the Red Cross and Red Crescent of the ICRC almost universally. This began to change from the mid-90s, after a group of ICRC workers in the Caucasus were murdered in their beds by nationalist extremists. While there have been a number of targeted killings of aid workers since then, probably the most highly publicized were the bombing of first the United Nations headquarters, and a couple of months later, the Red Cross headquarters, in Baghdad- at which point it became clear that, in that part of the world at least, it was open-season on international humanitarian workers. I myself have been at the receiving end of a situation where, despite travelling in a logo’d truck and wearing my organization’s badge, we were targeted by significant violence.

I’m glad to say that this is still very much the exception, rather than the rule. While aid workers killed overseas get a lot of publicitiy, there are tens of thousands of us each year who are given the opportunity to access insecure zones, without ever carrying a gun, using an armed escort, or wearing a flak vest (though the latter two do occur on rare occasions). It is often the very fact that we eschew these symbols of military security that we are able to maintain our identity as non-combatants with benign intentions. I have heard military operators express the fact that they think aid workers are insane for travelling into war zones with nothing but a colourful badge to provide them protection, when no uniformed soldier would dream of going in without a kevlar vest and an assault-rifle. It’s an odd paradox that finds us better protected without body-armour and a gun, but with our own branded uniform instead.

Happily, the conflict zone I’ve been travelling in recently has not proved a great threat to international aid workers- although some of our national counterparts have been placed in some jeopardy given the nature of the situation. Travelling back from this recent site visit, we met a military convoy coming back the other way. The infantry fighting vehicle at the front of the queue had a heavy machine-gun mounted in a turret on top, and as we approached, the gunner swung his weapon to track us. Car bombings against military convoys are not unheard of, and the soldiers inside were understandably twitchy. With the muzzle following us and nothing but a half-inch of safety-glass as a barrier, I found myself musing once more that the logo splashed on our bonnet seemed like such a fragile shield. But out in the field, I try not to leave home without it.

3 comments on “Flying the Colours

  1. Pingback: Writing Repost: Flying the Colours « WanderLust

  2. Not to take away at all from what you wrote about, can I just say that the accompanying photo is one of the most beautifully spectacular photos I have ever seen. Unbelievable. I don’t think there is any way it could be improved on. Amazing, Tristan!

  3. Thanks Rachel. That shot was taken over the Indian Ocean earlier this year. We had a string of fantastic monsoonal sunsets, really wonderful colours amidst the clouds. Glad you enjoyed. :)

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