Please read my introduction post Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism: An Introduction before continuing reading the post here.

Part 1 of this 5-part series is here: Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 1: There Is No Other But Us

Angel Of Mercy, Have Mercy!

[I am]…against portraying aid agencies as unmitigated agents of good. They play a complicated role: sometimes important but we shouldn’t set them up as stock characters who are ‘goodies’

Ben Rawlence, author of Radio Congo: Signals of Hope In Africa’s Deadliest War, in a personal email exchange discussing the video game Zero Hour: Congo. 21/04/2013


Aid is a very emotional thing and it’s very difficult to be rational if you are confronted with those pictures of starving children. There’s always this micro picture of this one human life saved, but there’s also a macro picture that we don’t often get presented about damage that aid can do and about the political and military agendas behind aid operations and behind donors. Aid is not necessarily choosing the weakest and the poorest on this earth. Most of the time it is sort of an our own agendas, and I believe it is the duty of journalists to expose that and to make it known to the public.

Linda Polman, in a radio interview with Marco Werman, October 2011

There is a strange modern phenomenon where advocates of new technology innovations often continue to rely on some very old fashioned models of thought. This can be clearly seen in these discussions about the video game Zero Hour: Congo – it is positioned as a cutting edge and innovative attempt at advocacy, and yet retains within in some rather conventional, populist ideas about how the world works.

Humanitarian and aid organizations have come under some severe scrutiny recently. This fact seems to have escaped many photojournalists who continue to speak about and represent such organizations in the most naive, and un-informed way. The scrutiny of the operations, behavior and influence of the massive industry called international humanitarian aid is absolutely crucial, and people are slowly beginning to bring a much needed critical eye to these organizations. There is no doubt that the sheer financial scale and political influence of humanitarian organizations makes is critical for us to understand and scrutinize how they drive policy, affect society and determine popular public perception about their works and about the regions they operate in. The recent criticism and push-back against Amnesty International’s campaign in support of the NATO occupation of Afghanistan was an example of how the inner workings of the organization were bought to the public and the closer relationship of its current leadership to the American political establishment was revealed. It was a clear reminder that journalists can’t just get into bed with aid and humanitarian organizations, but must act as watchdogs against their practices and prejudices.

This has been a much needed and important development as too much about their operations, operating procedures, intentions and impact has for too long been ignored. The mythology of ‘angels of peace’ or their being on ‘missions of mercy’ – aid organizations comfortably adorning the myths that were being shed by discredited missionary and religious organizations in the post-colonial era, they have long been garlanded with assumptions of neutrality, apolitical presence and principally humane concerns. But anyone who has spent any time working alongside an aid organization knows well the challenges they face, and the compromises they must make to simply operate on the ground. And the simple fact is that this compromises can very often undermine the very mission these organizations claim to be on.

Linda Polman, a dutch journalist, has written two extensive books about the problems with the very idea of international aid and humanitarian organizations – The Crisis Caravan and the more recent War Games: The Story Of Aid And War In Modern Times, In an interview she gave recently, she pointed out that:

The reality is that aid is not being given a choice. Aid is being used by parties that are at war with each other. Even if aid wants to be neutral, the choice is made for them….If an aid organization cannot decide itself how to distribute aid, when to distribute aid, to whom to distribute aid, if the aid organization doesn’t have the power to make decisions about its own aid, you can do two things. You can say, “Well, that is just reality.” Or you can say, “We will not deliver the aid.”…Medecins Sans Frontieres [Doctors Without Borders] does it sometimes. Sometimes they make the moral stance, and sometimes they don’t.

Again, in a recent review of her book in The Guardian she arguments were summarized to say that:

All too frequently…the result is not what it says in the charity brochures. [Polman]  cites a damning catalogue of examples from Biafra to Darfur, and including the Ethiopian famine, in which humanitarian aid has helped prolong wars, or rewarded the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and genocide rather than the victims. Perhaps the most striking case in the book deals with the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda in which the Hutu killers fled en masse across the border to what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). There, in Goma, huge refugee camps were assembled and served by an enormous array of international agencies, while back in Rwanda, where Tutsi corpses filled rivers and lakes, aid was not so focused. The world was looking for refugees, the symbol of human catastrophe, and the refugees were Hutus. This meant the militias that had committed the atrocities received food, shelter and support, courtesy of international appeals, while their surviving victims were left destitute.

Peter Uvin of Tufts University was amongst the first to explore the ways in which international aid organizations – even if driven by the most altruistic and benevolent of intentions, can find themselves complicit in the slide towards a society’s dismantling and destruction. Focusing on the role of aid organizations and NGOs in Rwanda prior to the genocide, Uvin examined in works such as Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Africa,

…the way development was defined, managed and implemented was a crucial element in the creation and evolution of the many processes that led to the genocide….What will become clear in this book…is that the processes of development and the international aid given to promote it interacted with the forces of exclusion, inequality, pauperization, racism and oppression that laid the ground work for the 1994 genocide.

In other locations and catastrophes we have seen how aid organizations can distort local realities, and even compel Governments to renege on their own responsibilities – a culture of charity and hand-outs that begins to seep into the highest echelons of power, where the massive international funds slosh around not where they are most needed, but where they are most easily stashed. As Wargny, writing about the flood of NGOs that stormed Haiti after the last storm, pointed out in a recent piece in Le Monde Diplomatique called Haiti In The Hands of the NGOs that:

Alongside the UN agencies, there are some 10,000 organisations around the world helping to support Haiti. More than 1,000 are on the island. Half are unknown to the state, yet identifiable by their logos to all Haitians. Following the old colonists, American and European NGO officials are in just about all the camps. With their luxury vehicles and expensive equipment contributing to the traffic snarl-up, they offer “work for wages” to more than 100,000 people employed in the clean-up. The wage, 200 gourdes (under $7 a day), is a small fortune, which in 2009 President Préval found too costly for the Haitian economy; he would not pay it despite a long struggle with the workforce. But in today’s Haiti, NGOs have more financial muscle than the state.

In fact, Haiti is a classic example of a country laid waste by international humanitarian and aid organizations. In a biting and brutally critical piece in this month’s London Review of Books, Pooja Bhatia has penned perhaps one of the most dismaying and disheartening pieces about the consequences of international aid and humanitarian in post-earthquake Haiti. Titled What Next, Locusts?, where she reviews two new books about post-earthquake Haiti, Bhatia offers a panoramic examination of what has happened to the country under the guidance of the international air regime:

It began with hubris and extravagant promises. Within days of the disaster, powerful people around the world were speaking of ‘Marshall Plans’, ‘building back better’ and a ‘new Haiti’. At a donor conference in March 2010, two and a half months after the quake, rich countries announced pledges of $8.4 billion for Haiti’s reconstruction, a sum bigger than its annual GDP, and spoke of changing the way aid was done. Haiti was already known as the ‘Republic of NGOs’, and its reliance on them was strangling the country. As foreign aid groups delivered basic services – including water, medical care and electricity – the state’s capacity to do so weakened. Ordinary Haitians had little or no say in what went on.

…the biggest problem with aid in Haiti, both private charity (such as the American Red Cross, which received almost half a billion dollars in private donations) and public aid: it’s opaque and unaccountable. It’s hard to find out even how much is spent on foreigners’ salaries and benefits versus services and goods for Haitians. Many of the sins that Haitian officials are accused of – dishonesty, incompetence, lack of transparency – are manifest in their accusers’ own practices….

…The aid apparatus has taken on many roles of the state. It allocates resources, sets priorities, implements programs and, along with the peacekeepers, shares the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence. But the aid organizations, like the peacekeepers, are not accountable to Haitians, either in cases of gross negligence or simpler affairs, such as the way the resources should be used. It’s hard to know who is responsible for what – the Haitian government, the US government, DFID, USAID, the NGOs that contract aid money to other NGOs, the NGOs that implement projects etc. At least under the American occupation from 1915 to 1934, Haitians knew who was in charge.

By the way, one of the books in her piece is Jonathan Katz’s appropriately named The Big Truck That Went By: How The World Came To Save Haiti And Left Behind A Dissaster.

Perhaps the most damming evidence of how the massive amounts of international aid money targeting ‘fashionable’ causes in the blighted Third World was a report funded by the Swedish International Development Agency and authored by Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern, titled The Complexity of Violence: A critical analysis of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) . The report is a critical examination of how crimes of sexual violence in the Congo are depicted, documented and reported on. Specifically the report questions the need to focus on sexual violence as something ‘abnormal’ and different from other forms of violence, and the undue and highly publicized attention given to it by international health, aid and media organizations. But perhaps most devastating was this paragraph about how the massive amounts of financial and other attention given to the issue of rape not only influenced actions of the actors on the ground, but increased the likelihood of the use of rape as an act of violence. The researchers argue that (see page 13 through 15 of the report):

sexual violence in the DRC has tended to be conceptualized as “abnormal” and fundamentally different from and outside of other forms of violence, which are presumed to be ungendered. By “ungendered”, we mean that the gendered aspects of other types of violence are not seen to be significant or relevant. Conceptualizing sexual violence as somehow “abnormal” or outside other forms of violence by being gendered has ultimately contributed to dehumanizing those who rape (and also ultimately those who are raped)…

the specific, often exclusive, focus on sexual violence is problematic in that it hampers our understanding of the relationship between sexual violence and other (supposedly) “ungendered” violence. Emphasising and commenting on only the sexual violence mentioned in testimonies that also talk of other forms of violence hinders our understanding of the relationship between sexual violence and other violence. These forms of violence are, to a large extent, manifestations of the same systemic failures and mechanisms as those contributing to SGBV…

the DRC experience shows that a singular focus on sexual violence within a very wide repertoire of human rights abuses by state security forces risks feeding into the “commercialisation of rape” or the perception of “rape as an income earning strategy”. In a context of a corrupt judiciary, rampant poverty, decreasing stigma and the almost total absence of basic health and social services, the focus on sexual violence as a particularly serious crime and the resources provided specifically for survivors of rape give rise to situations where allegations of rape become a survival strategy.

Read that last line again – the focus on sexual violence as a particularly serious crime and the resources provided specifically for survivors of rape give rise to situations where allegations of rape become a survival strategy.. I wrote more extensively about the report in a post called Unintended Consequences Or Why Men Rape In War And Why Development Aid Can Kill, where I discuss some more of the details of the work.

Much is being challenged and questioned about the relevance, role and methods of international aid and humanitarian agencies working across the world. They have come under some intense scrutiny for their complicity with power, their ability to contort local societies, their overwhelming influence in determining social behavior, and the impact their massive budgets have on the situation on the ground. A lot more can be said about this, but my point simply is this: aid organizations are not neutral, nor are the apolitical. As journalists, and as photojournalists, our responsibility is to not simply ‘piggyback’ onto their trucks, but to also examine them critically and with scepticism. It is not enough to present even ostensibly humanitarian organizations a benign, and above critical scrutiny.

The possibilities and dangers of collaboration between journalists and NGOs were discussed at events organized by the Neiman Journalism Labs at Harvard University for example, where a number of speakers were incredibly excited about the possibilities, but many others warned of the explicit dangers of this close association between journalism and aid work. Ethan Zuckerman pointed out that:

In the near future, international news reporting will involve fewer reports from news-wires and foreign correspondents, and include more content from citizen media (reports from ordinary citizens via blogs, Twitter, photo and video-sharing services), from local media reaching international audiences through websites, and from NGOs, including religious organizations, reporting news either as their primary focus, or to support their primary activities. Such a broad set of citizen and professional reporters may help alleviate scarcity, but it also opens a set of questions about reliability, accuracy, and the challenge of triangulating between media sources. While there’s a longstanding debate about the reliability of citizen media in news reporting,1 there has been less discussion about the role that NGOs play and the reliability of the reporting they produce.

Indeed, in fact one could argue that there has been little or no discussion at all in the photojournalism community that seems to rely overwhelmingly on a close collaboration with NGOs, and many photojournalists offer their services and talent to aid organizations for a pittance. And yet, I can’t remember the last time a photojournalism seminar was able to raise this point. Once again, it is as if the developments in other fields – developments that directly impact the nature of photojournalist work, are of no interest to the members of the community.

And this, the video game Zero Hour: Congo is able to simply present the NGO and international aid organization in the garb from another age – when the white man’s burden stood no questioning, and the mission civilisatrice did not need to justify itself. In the game, or at least the way it has been spoken about, international aid agencies and NGOs are presented as neutral, with purely humanitarian and altruistic intent. Play and give them money, and we are done. The game assumes that they are ‘the good people’, the ones that the game will generate revenue for because the international aid agencies and other NGOs are neutral, apolitical, and not complicit in what is taking place on the ground. That is, it assumes that their text of their brochures is pretty much all that matters, whereas the realities of the business of international aid, its questionable collaboration and accommodation with existing structures of local political, military and economic power are not worthy of being highlighted.

The entire premise that aid agencies are purely actors for good, and not complicit and embroiled in the political, economic and social realities and demands of working in some of the most difficult regions of the world defies fact and reality. That this assumption continues to be bandied about by even the most experience journalists, photojournalists and activists, is quite a surprise. In fact, it can be argued that this assumption of humanitarian neutrality has stood for too long and that any serious engagement and desire for impact has to begin by adopting a more realistic understanding of the roles and influences of the various actors on the ground.

This is not a questioning of the motives and inspirations of the many individuals who may staff our international aid organizations, but a statement about the reality of the enterprise of development and humanitarian aid. It is not even a questioning of the intentions and goals of the aid organizations – many that do indeed do powerfully important humanitarian and medical work. But it is to point out that that is not what they all do, and that the business of international aid and humanitarian effort is far more complicit and muddied that we would ideally like to believe. I can’t understand why journalists would not be more skeptical, and certainly not simply claim that raising money for these organizations is the extent of their responsibility. I think a far more critical engagement and sense of distance is required. I understand the arguments about economic necessity, but it is one thing to live with an NGO or travel with them, and it is another to continue to simply be naive about their role, place and influence, and to continue to perpetuate the myth of their neutrality, altruism and apolitical posture. Particularly when so much has been written about this issue and that it is no longer even something much questioned. Certainly there are heated debates, but how are the issues in those debates being echoed by the photojournalism community? They are not. The civilizing mission, a massive hang over from a previous heritage of Euro-centric though, continues to confound most working photographers from The West, and seriously damage the seriousness and importance of their work.

A lot has been written about this issue and it is quite remarkable that so many journalists seem to be completely ignorant of the reality of NGOs and aid, and its close political collaboration with power, politics and the military. It is a collaboration that has often led to some seriously inhumane, and immoral compromises, and resulted in acts that have worsened the humanitarian situation, if not outright led to the further suffering of the very people the aid agencies claimed they were there to help.

I believe that anyone serious about advocacy and change has to also be serious about understanding how humanitarian and aid organizations act as agents, and how they influence and constraint the broader socio-political environments in which they work. A genuine pursuit of change compels us as journalists to not lose sight of the need to remain distant, critical and independent of the mythologies of aid organizations. We cannot continue with our heads in the sand, nor encourage others to keep their in the sand too. New models of advocacy must not only offer us sophisticated technical solutions, but actually work to use new political and social relationships and methods as well. Too many decades have gone by with us running into young kids with brochures and pamphlets from Care, MSF, The Red Cross or Amnesty on the street corners of our cities asking for a few minutes of our time, and a few wads of our cash. And too many have willingly just handed over the money, and then simply forgotten about the matter. Too many photojournalism and documentary works retains this model, and the idea that international aid organizations are somehow immune from the realities of the world and work outside and beyond the political, social, personal, financial and operational realities that affect everything else around them. This has to change.