Media: Open Letter to The Media, re: Nepal Earthquake

May 6, 2015

From AidSpeak

Aid workers, you know how this goes. In approximately one year, the media is going too be all up in our grill.

Why? Because after a gazillion dollars in aid, Kathmandu will still not look like Singapore; some people will still be living in tents (as opposed to two-storey modular homes with Direct TV and WiFi); foreigners will have been seen going to meetings in white Land Cruisers; and, well, frankly no one was “accountable” or “transparent.” At least a few journalists will jump-start stagnating careers by writing books stridently critical of the aid industry (The Big Drone That Flew By, etc.) and at least two will claim to have been “the only foreign correspondent in Kathmandu at the time of the earthquake.” (They’ll refer to themselves as “earthquake survivors” in their bios and interviews.)

At the one year anniversary, major networks will run specials on “where the money went” or “did aid really help Nepal?” Of course, a bunch of new INGOs (some started up by failed climbers) specifically focused on the earthquake will be interviewed and featured at length. They’ll make outrageous (and impossible to verify) claims about how they cut through red tape and outwitted the aid system to deliver life-saving assistance to those who most desperately needed it.  (I’ll never understand why the go-to response by everyone who feels that the aid industry is an inefficient bureaucracy seems to be to start their own NGO, thus adding to the net amount of bureaucracy in the world. But obviously I digress.) They’ll use words like “bloated” to describe NGO salary structures, and point to the fact that aid workers took R&R as proof that everyone in the aid system is hopelessly self-interested.

At some point during year one there will be a celebrity visit that goes wildly/hilariously amuck: Someone (my money’s on Ian Birrel) will latch onto that as proof that “aid doesn’t work”, and do a lot of strident tweeting about it. Wonks from think tanks or universities that end in “ord,” who’ve never implemented anything even remotely close to a relief response, will give soundbites about the importance of innovation, humanitarian UAVs, and big data. Maybe Richard Engel or Ann Curry will fly in and have scripted heart-to-heart interviews with survivors, after which they’ll gaze into the camera and offer pithy one-line analyses in their best weary/soulful voices.

Yes, those of us in the aid industry know this is coming. It happens every time, it’s annoying as hell, and it sucks up precious overhead to deal with it on top of everything else. So maybe let’s just nip some of that in the bud right now.

Media, you’re on notice:

If you want to say that the aid industry was not accountable in Nepal, then articulate the baseline and the standard now. What is our target?

If you want to say that we are not delivering aid fast enough, then do share—what’s the metric that we’re aiming for? At what objectively verifiable rate of delivery will this simply cease to be an issue for you?

If you want to complain that we’re not transparent, then tell us right now what level of transparency, in your expert opinions, is sufficient?

Please do explain right now what state of recovery Kathmandu should be in in one year’s time if we’re doing our jobs properly.

Too many INGOs swarming to Nepal? Okay, how many should there be? Do be specific. Too many foreigners going to too many meetings? Please, what is an optimal, or at least an acceptable foreigner-to-local ratio? And what is the preferred number of meetings per day/week/etc?

This will make all of our jobs (including yours) easier.

Thanks.

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One of the pressing complaints about Western journalism is that traveling reporters drop into the scene where a story is unfolding, tell only a fraction of it, and jet off to the next destination chasing another lede. Marginalized people seeking media coverage also sometimes find themselves at the mercy of journalists who lack cultural context in their reporting, resulting in clickbait headlines that reinforce problematic stereotypes.

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