Let’s stop dumbing down humanitarian work

Public perception and understanding of humanitarian emergencies is at a dangerous level.

Aid agencies and governments have gotten in the bad habit of creating media, educational and fundraising content that over-simplifies the reality on the ground, creates public expectations about humanitarian work which simply can’t be fulfilled, and will inevitably come back to haunt us.

This was the framing argument of my presentation last week to the 2011 World Conference on Humanitarian Studies, as part of the Media and Information Technology in Humanitarian Action panel.

I was at the conference to talk about Inside Disaster Haiti, the educational website and “serious game” about the response to the Haiti earthquake that I helped produce last year, as part of the PTV Productions team.

I presented Inside Disaster as an example of what I called “strategic complication” — letting the public in on some of the messy but fascinating realities and contradictions of humanitarian work.

Simplification is inevitable… but dumbing down isn’t

Humanitarian emergencies and the organized response to them are really, really complicated.  Forces of nature collide with a volatile human mixture of historical, political, economic, cultural, and power dynamics.

That makes them hard to understand, especially for people experiencing them as filtered through media, on the other side of the world.  The interesting thing is, this is not a new problem.  Here’s Walter Lippman struggling with the same issue in 1922:

For the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety … to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it. – From Public Opinion

Today we still face the same quandary that Lippman was writing about 90 years ago — but exacerbated by our 24-hour fire hose of information from around the globe.

So to even process, let alone understand what’s happening around us, some kind of simplification is inevitable. In talking about humanitarian emergencies, I argue that we’ve done it in two key ways: the Big Picture perspective, and the close-up.

the close-up

The close-up delivers just one story: someone is suffering, and someone is alleviating that suffering.

Smart bloggers like Alanna Shaikh have already pointed out that these images do work, but in a very problematic way.  They’re usually presented through perspective of journalists and aid workers, and frame the beneficiaries as passive problems to be dealt with.

the big picture

Giving the public the key bullet points of an event through a “Big Picture” view is also very standard practice, both in journalism and in the kind of new media education work that I do.

As an example, check out Stop Disasters!, created by the UN-ISDR, which gives you what I call the “God’s-eye view” of a humanitarian challenge — in this case, that a town full of people will be swept away when a tsunami comes.  The game gives you all the information you need to make a decision, in the sidebar, and infinite power to make everyone do what you tell them to. Just like in real life!

Another “big picture” view is the much-maligned Facebook game The City That Shouldn’t Exist.  In his one you’re a white muscular humanitarian hero who gets woken from his bed in Brussels at 3am with the news that “refugees are on the move”.

You sit down at your computer and up comes your “Resource Channel” on the left, and a link to the the camp on the right:

And through your screen, you begin to literally grab refugees from outside the camp and drag them inside, then throw food, water and medicine at them — which they voraciously consume.  And if you don’t do it fast enough, they get reduced to piles of bones.

So this was problematic in a few ways.

These kinds of “big picture” educational games create the impression that humanitarian agencies are all-powerful beings, who can control things which, in reality, are not actually under their control.

And when we raise expectations that people and resources can be moved around as easily as on a laptop screen, that makes it very hard for the public to understand why aid delivery is so slow in chaotic, messy environments like Haiti.

Piles of garbage and debris spill onto the street


Both the big-picture and close-up perspectives make promises which are extremely difficult, if not impossible to deliver in the real world.

When an organization implies it will alleviate the suffering in Haiti I’m seeing on my television screen, and I give it money to fulfill that promise, and then two years later I’m still seeing that suffering —  there’s a credibility gap that gets created.

Shallow, disingenuous communication about the reality of humanitarian work may be effective in the short term, but I think it will lead to pubic blowback for fundraisers and governments in the long term.

Inside Disaster & “Strategic Complication”

Inside Disaster was a multi-platform documentary storytelling project about the Haiti earthquake and humanitarian work that tried to do things differently.  The project had four key components:

  1. A multimedia blog from Haiti that launched the same day as the quake;
  2. A three-part documentary series following the IFRC response in Haiti;
  3. An educational website for people who want to know more about the past and present of humanitarian work, and how it was applied in Haiti;
  4. A first-person simulation that allows users to make decisions in the aftermath of the earthquake from the perspective of a journalist, survivor, or aid worker.

The combination of incredible documentary material, a solid budget, long timeline, smart advisors and a great production team gave us the chance to create “strategically complicated” media that would help users understand some of the real-world challenges and complexity of the Haiti operation…

…. including some of the political and economic context that exacerbated this “natural disaster”:

… give advice to people on how to be effective donors:

… … and how not to be, from the “Donations Hall of Shame“:

Over 20 people in Canada, Haiti, and Europe worked directly on this project, in addition to the hundreds of academics and journalists whose work we drew on for every aspect of the site (for an example look here).

The project took a year to produce, and cost close to half a million dollars, which was mostly from public funding in Canada.  So this is not a realistic standard for humanitarian agencies on a fundraising drive to compare themselves to, but I hope it will provide an example of the kinds of big picture, messy and very interesting conversations about humanitarian work that I sincerely believe the public is ready to have.

Highlights from the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies

Toronto — Wanted to share a few of my favourite moments from the 2011 World Conference on Humanitarian Studies (WCHS2011), held June 2-5 at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.

This is the first in a series of three quick posts about the conference, covering:

  1. My personal highlights of the event
  2. A short summary of my presentation as part of the Media and Information Technology in Humanitarian Action panel
  3. What I’d like to see at the next WCHS, to be held in 2013 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

WCHS 2011 Highlights

I told my friends at home I felt like I had arrived in “nerd heaven” in Boston, surrounded by engaging academics and practitioners, big ideas, and the city’s superabundance of sunny, tree-lined campuses.

Below are some of my favourite moments from the conference.  Take these with a grain of salt, however, as I was only able to attend a tiny fraction of the 80+ panels presented over four days – and missed the opening keynote and first morning because I was working on my own slides; alas.

“Art of Darkness” Panel

Avril Benoit, Director of Communications of MSF Canada, speaking (in an individual capacity) about a media that’s become “drunk on accountability” in its ongoing search for the next “Three Cups of Tea” scandal, as well as the coming technology-driven increase in exposure and transparency for humanitarian organizations — whether they’re ready for it or not.  This entire panel was excellent, actually.

“Solutions in search of a problem”

Nathaniel Raymond of the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) taking a subtle but useful dig at fellow disaster & development technologists on his panel, arguing that too many humanitarian tech projects are “a solution in search of a problem”, rather than the other way around.

Something about this rings very true to me — how many of these new tools, which generate so much media attention (including from my own project) are genuinely changing workflows and outcomes for humanitarians in the field?

The George Clooney-backed SSP, conversely, has a tightly-defined mission: using satellite imagery to create evidence of impending atrocity — including troop and munition built-ups, and newly-built military roads — and then publicizing the evidence to prevent the event from happening.

We all know how well this kind of “early warning” worked out for Romeo Dallaire in Rwanda — but the hope is that today there’s greater awareness and political will to prevent (visible) atrocity.

That being said, in April the SSP did publish evidence of upcoming attacks on Abyei, Sudan — but ultimately weren’t able to prevent the event from occurring.  At the end of the day, is it evidence, or political calculations, that really makes the difference in how these events play out?

Responding to Protracted Crisis

This was an exceptionally thoughtful and well-run panel, chaired by my friend and colleague Mareike Schomerus of the London School of Economics, and featuring:

  • Bram Jansen discussing how in South Sudan, the power and numbers of humanitarian organizations have made them a de-facto surrogate state, “challenging the authority, and legitimacy of the official government” — but that humanitarian ideology doesn’t allow them to admit that this is so.
  • Michael Mahrt of Save the Children Denmark using examples from his field work to show how protracted wars destroy existing social institutions (age relations, family structures) and create new ones in their stead.
  • Jogien Bakker of Oxfam Novib arguing that gender-targeted programs to counter sexual violence in conflict empower women at the expense of men, which could actually exacerbate the problem it was meant to solve.  As you can guess, this led to some fascinating debate and discussion. [On a different note, I admire her photos from the field, found here, as well].

As well as a critical analysis from Ronald A. Atkinson on recent developments on the conflict in Northern Uganda and surrounding countries.

One of the many good things about this panel was that speakers respected their time limits, eliminating the zero-sum time game that usually leaves the final speaker rushing through their presentation; this setup also allowed time for a good discussion with a very knowledgeable audience.  These are nerdy details perhaps, but ones that make a big difference in the atmosphere of a panel (and by extension, the conference as a whole).

Altruism vs Humanitarianism

“That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it […] By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him …” – Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

The Altruism vs Humanitarianism panel, with Ali Arbia and Gilles Carbonnier, ended my conference experience on a reflective and philosophical note.  Carbonnier used the above quote from Adam Smith as part of a larger discussion on different explanations for humans’ altruistic behaviour, and their relationship to the humanitarian ethic.

One thing that stuck with me from this panel was Carbonnier’s suggestion that a lack of reciprocity in aid relationships weakens social bonds, and increases tension with beneficiaries.  The most glaring example is in Afghanistan, where the “bunkerization” of aid work and “pump and dump”  delivery strategies have degraded the humanitarian environment to an all-time low.  In short, we humans are sensitive to “exchanges that create ties,” and need to have the chance to reciprocate them — and having that denied fuels resentment.

“Altruism is human nature,” Carbonnier concluded, “but it needs nurturing”.

Next up

So there you have it.  My favorite moments from the approximately 5 of 80 panels (!) I was able to attend at the conference.  Have any fellow attendees done public write-ups of their experience?  If so I’d love to read them.

Next up: a short summary of my presentation, a case study of Inside Disaster Haiti, which asked, “How can a new media project help donors and stakeholders deepen their understanding of humanitarian relief in disaster zones?”.

Learning on the job with Inside Disaster Haiti

International Support


Toronto – My behind-the-scenes article on the production of Inside Disaster Haiti is published in this month’s POV Magazine (use password POVdigitalsub to read the digital edition — then subscribe!).

The magazine’s interactive issue is packed with great content, including articles on Kat Cizek’s Highrise, and the exciting work going on at Mozilla Drumbeat’s Web Made Movies.

I tried to use the article to provide a big-picture of view of how the project came together, the great team and advisory board behind it, and some of the lessons I learned along the way.  Among them:

  1. It’s better to be relevant than to be perfect — get your website up at the beginning of production, not the end.
  2. Sharing your content through a Creative Commons license can lead to surprising and beautiful outcomes (all our Haiti photos are available through a CC license).
  3. Love and cherish your documentary film collaborators; their work makes your work possible.

UN soldiers ordering the crowd to sit down

Here’s the introduction to the article; you can check out the full piece here:

Five hours after a massive earthquake devastated Haiti on January 12, 2010, the email arrived in my inbox.  The subject line was short and to the point: “We’re going.”

This was day one of Inside Disaster Haiti, an ambitious multi-platform documentary project about humanitarian relief in disaster zones.  As the project’s Interactive Producer, my job was to launch the Inside Disaster website and prepare for incoming reports from our website’s Field Director, Nicolas Jolliet, who would be working alongside the documentary crew in Haiti.

The documentary’s director and producer, Nadine Pequeneza, had spent over a year negotiating unprecedented access to the International Red Cross’ Field Assessment and Coordination Teams (FACT), elite disaster managers drawn from over 70 countries with experience in relief, logistics, health, sanitation, and more.

With producers PTV Productions and lead broadcaster TVO on board, the film had been green-lit in September 2009, with the understanding that the documentary and web crew would be following the Red Cross FACT on their next major natural disaster response.  On January 12th, after four months of waiting, planning, and false alarms, that day had arrived.

Launching the Haiti blog was the first big step in creating the interactive component of Inside Disaster Haiti, which would eventually include a wide-ranging educational website about humanitarian work and the earthquake, as well as a first-person simulation that used documentary footage to allow users to “experience” the disaster’s aftermath from the point of view of a journalist, survivor, or aid worker.

For me, it would become the opportunity of a lifetime, combining my love of research, storytelling, global issues, technology, team-building, and social activism.  By the time it launched, the Inside Disaster interactive project would involve over thirty collaborators from Canada and Haiti, cost close to half a million dollars, and win multiple educational and gaming awards.

But that wouldn’t happen for a long, long time.  On January 12, 2010, I was as close as you could come to having no idea what I was doing.

Interview 1