22 August 2011

Breaking Down the Humanitarian Report Formula

Paragraph 1: Tell the story of the hardship faced by an individual. It is best if it is a women, better if a mother.
Paragraph 2: Explain larger problem in a paragraph.
Paragraph 3: Commend those who are providing aid, make a plug for what you are supporting (ie. your choice government agency or NGO).
Paragraph 4: Say not enough is being done to address the given situation, give a call to action, and say how to support.

Rinse and repeat.

The formula is tried and true. Used recently by Jill Biden and Former Sen Bill Frist, the formula was applied to their recent visit to Somalia. Under the cringe-worth headline "Jill Biden, Bill Frist: Let's save starving Somalis," the two political figures lend their collective clout to raise awareness and funds for people affected by the drought in Somalia. Despite the formulaic style and terrible headline, there is something to like about the column. These paragraphs:
Yet we must also confront the broader challenge of food insecurity that leaves so many people vulnerable to droughts like this one. That's why America has been helping nations such as Ethiopia and Kenya develop innovative and improved crops and irrigation methods, and new ways for farmers to market and transport their products. The goal of our aid is simple: to help create the conditions where such aid is no longer needed.

That, ultimately, is how we can help prevent the kind of suffering we see in Somalia today.
I would argue that the word 'development' needs to be added to the statement about aid eliminating the need for aid, but the goal to get to a point where aid is no longer needed should be said over and over. Heck, if the formula of how a humanitarian topic is here to stay can't we add a section about eventually ending aid before the call to action?

I get that there is a reason that articles are written as they are. The Biden/Frist article is concise and does enough to get people motivated. What gets me is not the article per say, but the fact that so little is done to move past the same narrative. The goal should be to move from this article to one that has more nuance such as this one from More Altitude.

The trick is how to move the conversation forward so that more people will be interested in learning more. Like an infant being introduced foods slowly into her diet, it has to be a well planned and slow process. Strawberries too soon will create an allergy. The same can be said for giving too much information. Every person will not develop the same palate and set of food preferences. However, they move well beyond a diet of only milk.

Why is it that many continue to be coddled and breastfed by simple stories from NGOs, media outlets, and political leaders? Let's star getting some solid food into the diet.


After writing this draft, I came across Frederick Allen's post in Forbes which argues the same point. He says (emphasis added is mine):
The news from the Horn of Africa today is horrific: Drought and famine are spreading throughout the region, exacerbated by the derailment of aid shipments by the militant group al-Shabab, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths with little resolution in sight. As global citizens we need to know this. But I’m worried about the way we are learning it—from reports with the news truncated the same way I just presented it. Though the facts may be accurate, their wholly negative and abbreviated presentation unwittingly creates a future for the region that is overly linked with its past. Let’s change the conversation and help create a new future...

There is enormous opportunity here to rewrite the long, sad story of famine and turn it into something much more promising and much more accurate for the Ethiopia of today as it becomes the Ethiopia of tomorrow—using Ethiopia’s own resources. Ethiopia is not Somalia, but all of the countries in the Horn of Africa are being lumped together in the current headlines in a devastating manner, in part by association and in part because the very real drought does cut across national lines. The Horn is a region of more or less than a million square miles with between 100 million and 200 million people, depending on how you define it. The region’s entire story is much more complex and ultimately hopeful than just the famine. Focusing on only the famine is like saying that all of Europe is financially and morally bankrupt just because of the recent doomsday chatter about Italy.

Let’s enter the conversation and shift its direction by being specific and addressing the region’s potential while bearing witness to the horrific...