“10: In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognise disaster victims as dignified humans, not hopeless objects.
Respect for the disaster victim as an equal partner in action should never be lost. In our public information we shall portray an objective image of the disaster situation where the capacities and aspirations of disaster victims are highlighted, and not just their vulnerabilities and fears. While we will cooperate with the media in order to enhance public response, we will not allow external or internal demands for publicity to take precedence over the principle of maximising overall relief assistance. We will avoid competing with other disaster response agencies for media coverage in situations where such coverage may be to the detriment of the service provided to the beneficiaries or to the security of our staff or the beneficiaries.”
-The Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Disaster Relief (taken from the Sphere Handbook, 2011 Edition, p.370; Emphasis mine)
It takes a lot to floor me. I’ve seen a lot of dumb stuff in the humanitarian industry. I’m moderately immune to dumbassery these days, and tend to keep my righteous indignation in pretty good check too.
However, a document came to me via a colleague in a partner NGO recently. Said colleague works in a specific emergency context involving refugees and refugee camps, and a fundraising office of said NGO had approached them with a request to bring in a TV crew and do some filming of the refugees and their crisis situation.
Not an unusual request, and under the circumstances of trying to raise both awareness and funds, generally a good idea.
As long as your fundraising office has at least half a clue about international standards of humanitarian fundraising guidelines, as outlined in the Red Cross Code of Conduct excerpt quoted above.
I won’t say much more. Instead, I’m going to lift excerpts directly from the media brief that the fundraising office provided, which instructed the country program exactly what stories they wanted to source for the commercial TV crew they were going to send.
Call me mean-spirited, but I have left the grammatical errors in the original request in place, because I think it adds to the flavour.
Detailed Story Request:
Children under 12 are suggested for the story case main character. If the child is too old, we lose the effectiveness.
- AIDS infected, parasite, virus infection and so on. Because of these infections, the child is severely suffering. Please look for disease case that can be seen visually [in the original document, this word is in bold and in red text- MA] such as Elephantiasis, sand flea, one’s arm or leg amputated to protect from further virus infection, severe skin disease and so on. Disease that is so heart-breaking just by looking. Diarrhea and fever are dangerous for children under five but in filming, it is difficult to catch the seriousness of the symptoms because we cannot see from outside. [in the original, underlined and also in red- MA]
With me so far? They talk a little more about emergency medical cases and ‘serious injuries or burns’, and then:
2. Early Marriage
- Because of early marriage… she is not at school getting education but in household to live as young wife.
- She is originally from very poor family and that is why she has to accept early marriage. However she is suffering from disease and her babies are malnutrition and have other diseases.
Are you sure that you want to bother sending a TV crew all the way over here, or shall we just send you some shots of a sad looking kid and you can put your own voice-over onto it, because it seems like you already have the story figured out…
Onwards, and under the section on “Child Headed Family”
- A very young child who is in an age to receive full love and care from parents, but unfortunately the child has no parents (or parents who are very sick) and has to live as the head of the family…
- This child really wants to go to school as her friends in the village but could not go even near to the school. She really desire to get education and better life for the future.
- The child is very young but very loving and attractive child.
Obviously poor kids need to be visually appealing. Cuz, fundraising.
The list goes on. Then towards the end, the fundraising office explains that they want to ensure that “our potential donors can feel the same pain and sadness as if they witness the situation.”
I can think of some ways that could be arranged.
However, to avoid any potential misunderstanding (because it may not have been clear in the run-up), they conclude with a summary of exactly what they’re looking for:
-Children or households in serious poverty
-Children and family suffered by disease, water contamination, inflammation, aids, malaria, malnutrition, etc.
- Situation which was born by extreme poverty
- Sad, abysmal, inhumane scenes and stories that happened by local issues such as conflict, disaster, early marriage, etc.
Final emphasis mine.
So that you don’t damage anything, I am told that the TV crew visit did not go ahead. And I sincerely hope that somebody’s head of fundraising got a firm shoeing.
As the language in the brief suggests, there is a cultural element in play here. Different nations and cultures do have different expectations and standards around what is and is not acceptable in the public domain. Anybody who’s seen an Al Jazeera (Arabic) news report following an Israeli incursion into the West Bank knows that the Middle East has different thresholds for violence on the evening news than you’d expect to find on the BBC.
None the less, the issue of human dignity should be a universal one. The Red Cross Code of Conduct- and other guidelines more specific to humanitarian media and fundraising- are signed by international organizations- I stress that word international- recognizing that we are a global community, and it is simply not appropriate to exploit human suffering simply because our cultural norms say it is okay to do so. Not if we want to remain a part of that same international community, and be treated with any respect whatsoever.
I really wish this was an April Fools Day post. Unfortunately, this level of ignorance still thrives, even within the international aid community.