A Marriage Made In Hell

On the one hand, the humanitarian sustains a self-­ narration as a benevolent political subject working to amend the damages of oppressive regimes. On the other hand, this subject disavows its material and ideological entanglements with neocolonial power.

– Julietta Singh

US journalists have increasingly hitched rides on NGO SUVs and found a bed for the night in the comfortable, walled compounds of international aid and humanitarian organizations operating worldwide. As budgets have been cut and international news coverage reduced, journalists have felt it convenient to rely on the logistics of international aid agencies to get out into the world. On the other hand, these organizations have collaborated with journalists not only because media coverage is good for their business but also because they can help frame the coverage.

This marriage of convenience has been a disaster for journalism.

In the winter of 2009, the Center for Global Communication Studies (CGCS) at the Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania, and the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University launched a series of discussions to explore the growing relationship between non-government organizations (NGOs) and the news media. [See here].

This was a new and, for many, exciting new frontier of collaboration and partnership, and seen by some as a potential solution to the declining footprint many major newspapers had in international markets and frontline conflict zones. The introductory text on the website declared: “Civil society actors such as NGOs and advocacy networks are becoming increasingly significant players as shrinking audiences threaten the traditional news media model, the availability of free content online, and the declining fortunes of mainstream media.” [Monroe Price, Libby Morgan & Kristina Klinkforth, “NGOs as Newsmakers: A New Series On the Evolving News Ecosystem,” Neiman Labs, Harvard University, November 9, 2009].

The participants recognized that international NGOs were already producing their reports and acting as newsmakers and reporters from the regions and crises in which they operated. By 2009, international NGOs had already demonstrated their interest in producing reports from the field. Newspapers and journalists were already working closely and in collaboration with them. They had done so without seriously wondering, as one of the attendees at the conference noted, about the implication of working with organizations that may “have their agendas and have not traditionally been expected to hew to the journalistic standard of objectivity. As they move into this arena, what consequences does this indicate for journalistic standards of objectivity and verification?” [Monroe Price, Libby Morgan & Kristina Klinkforth, “NGOs as Newsmakers: A New Series On the Evolving News Ecosystem,” Neiman Labs, Harvard University, November 9, 2009].

In the first essay in the series, Kimberly Abbott, then the North America Communications Director for the International Crisis Group (ICG), discussed the many different pros and cons of such NGO and media organization collaborations. [Kimberly Abbot, “Working Together, NGOs and Journalists Can Create Stronger International Reporting,” Neiman Labs, Harvard University November 9, 2009].

The ICG had previously worked with American television news programs like ABCs “Nightline,” and Abbot used these collaborations as an example of what could be achieved. Her conclusion, which we are to believe is not biased by her employment at the ICG, was unequivocal;

“The partnership worked well for two reasons: first, because ICG enjoys a reputation as a credible, independent organization, and second…because Nightline was clear with the audience about what was happening. As news organizations continue to cut budgets for foreign reporting, partnerships like this can ensure that the mainstream media deliver solid, comprehensive, and richly detailed foreign news stories to an under-served American audience.” [Ibid.]

Most participants were celebratory at the new collaborative opportunity and the new avenues and possibilities it offered to journalism. In a concluding essay, Laura McGann, then an assistant editor at Neiman Labs, stated, “Faced with the alternative (of nothing), NGOs with experts on the ground have an attractive potential to produce valuable news.” [Laura McGann, “Milton Wolf Seminar: Parting thoughts on NGOs as newsmakers, fragmentation in the media field, and the politics of platforms,” Neiman Labs, Harvard University November 9, 2009].

NGOs could replace journalism for her, as it seemed there was “an inevitable shift in who will produce our international news.” [Ibid.] Despite her easy conflation of blog posts, Twitter feeds, and undefined terms such as experts, it is evident that their feeling was that the closer reporters worked with NGOs, and the more open news organizations were to receiving information from them, the better serve the market and audience would be.

But there were voices of skepticism, caution, and concern, and some of the essays offered important critiques and concerns. Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, warned that our reliance on NGOs, religious organizations, and citizen journalists might alleviate scarcity, but “it also opens a set of questions about reliability, accuracy, and the challenge of triangulating between media sources…there has been less discussion about the role that NGOs play and the reliability of the reporting they produce. [Ethan Zuckerman, “Advocacy, Agenda, and Attention: Unpacking Unstated Motives in NGO Journalism,” Neiman Lab, Harvard University, January 19, 2010]. Glenda Cooper was quite blunt in her concern, “If aid agencies act as reporters, they must consider whether they are acting as journalists or as advocates…the aid agency is usually there to get a message across: to raise money, to raise awareness, to change a situation.” [Glenda Cooper, “When lines between NGO and news organization blur,” Neiman Lab, Harvard University, December 21, 2009]. It is not there to do journalism.

A few authors raised concerns about the political agendas of new social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and the growing presence of governments and their interventions in such platforms. But these are tangential to the overall tone of the discussions, which seems overwhelmingly optimistic about the promise NGOs and their logistical capabilities held for a news industry facing economic cutbacks and retreat.

However, the conference never addressed the elephant in the room: humanitarianism and development aid NGOs have their roots in the histories of European colonialism and retain their relevance in the imperialist structures of our so-called post-colonial modernity. They exist because of the political and economic privileges colonialism bequeathed the Western nations and are crucial for maintaining the West’s economic privileges and political hegemony. Several NGOs discussed in the conference were human rights and humanitarian aid organizations operating in the global South. Others, like the ICG, were groups that purported to “advise” the state on policies and practices related to conflicts and humanitarian crises.

Furthermore, none of the essayists examined the relationship between international NGOs and state power, the role of humanitarian and development aid discourses as justifications for military intervention and war. International humanitarian NGOs have been used as a form of imperial power projection and domination. They are entrenched in projects of economic and military power and, to quote a US Foreign Secretary, are “force multipliers.” [“September 11, 2001: Attack on America Secretary Colin L. Powell Remarks to the National Foreign Policy Conference for Leaders of Nongovernmental Organizations;” 8:55 a.m. EDT; October 26, 2001, Yale Law School, The Avalon Project].

And definitely, no one bought up the relationship between human rights discourses, humanitarianism, and Western colonialism, whose dark shadow continues to inform global economic and political power interests [Colin Samson, The Colonialism of Human Rights: Ongoing Hypocrisies of Western Liberalism, Polity Press, 2020; Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law, Cambridge University Press, 2012; Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Harvard University Press, 2012; Didier Fassin, Humanitarian Reason, University of California Press, 2011].

What was also assumed by the conference attendees was that NGOs and humanitarian groups had a better, and more substantial understanding of the political, economic, social, cultural, and circumstantial situation on the ground by the mere fact that they were operating on the ground. This was assumed even though none of these questions are typically of interest to an NGO or the focus of an NGO’s work.

These and other pertinent and fundamentally critical issues never become the focus of the Neiman Lab conference. These are the more essential questions and are fundamental to understanding how NGOs and humanitarian discourse have played a crucial role in undermining political movements and people’s struggles for change in their communities and distorted the goals of journalism.

Before I go further, let me offer some clarifications of terms.

Throughout this chapter, I use terms like “development aid,” humanitarianism, development agency, human rights organization, and NGO in a very flexible and mixed way. This reflects the nature of the space, where lines are blurred as organizations move between different roles and, at times, carry out these functions simultaneously. As the transnational space for nongovernmental intervention has grown, these terms and the professionals who move across them have become difficult to keep apart. The blurred and flexible use is, of course, a result of the blurred lines between emergency relief and long-term development aid work. These uses are part of the humanitarian discourses that emerged in the 1980s and became a driving force based on what Didier Fassin labeled “humanitarian reason.” [Didier Fassin, Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present, University of California Press, 2012].

Development regimes colluded with human rights regimes throughout the early decades and continue to do so today. The UN Commission on Human Rights 1969 adopted a resolution that the universal use of human rights “depends to a large degree on the rapid economic and social development of the developing countries.” Thus, economic development was not independent of human rights, and fundamentally, development and human rights “are connected through common knowledge formations based on linear notions of progress that use North-South inequalities to claim that the North has human rights (with a few aberrations) and the South needs to achieve them” [Inderpal Grewal, Transnational American: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms, Duke University Press, 2005:132–133].

Furthermore, I refer to NGOs as the many kinds of “private organizations that pursue activities to relieve suffering, promote the interests of the poor, protect the environment, provide essential social services, or undertake community development. In broader usage, the term NGO can be applied to any non-profit organization independent of the government. NGOs are typically value-based organizations that depend, in whole or in part, on charitable donations and voluntary service. [The World Bank Operational Manual].

The humanitarian aid caravan and the economic development industry have been two of the most potent means for retaining and entrenching colonial political and economic continuities. Taking a page from Western imperial and economic agendas, Western journalists frequently use the liberal and humanist discourses associated with these two industries to veil and distract from the violence and injustices inflicted on nations by Western states.

The collaboration between NGOs and journalists has long been taken for granted and never questioned. Too many journalists and photojournalists unthinkingly adopt the discourses of aid agencies and humanitarian organizations and pass their works off as journalism. Too many NGOs are happy to let them do so, as are editors at publications and newspapers. But a closer look at the stained histories of humanitarian and development aid discourses offers caution and highlights why journalism and NGOs do not mix.