GENEVA — In West Africa, an American media organization working with Liberian and Sierra Leone journalists provides war-affected civilians with crucial humanitarian information, including guidance for child soldiers wishing to escape.
Similarly, in South Africa, a local media group uses multi-ethnic children's television to promote social harmony. In the Balkans, a Swiss-based foundation working with ethnic Albanian and Serb reporters produces daily radio shows over Kosovar stations to help young people cope with their uncertain futures.
Alongside traditional relief agencies, the media are gradually emerging as a key player in alleviating the plight of populations in crisis. Not only are they helping the international-aid and peacekeeping community respond more appropriately to emergency situations, they're also ensuring that refugees and other victims receive the information they need to survive.
At least a dozen media organizations, plus international broadcasters, such as the BBC, Voice of America, and Radio Netherlands, are now acting as vital links to people in crisis from West Africa to Afghanistan to East Timor. Groups such as Search for Common Ground, Vuleka, Internews, the Hirondelle Foundation, and Media Action International are producing an array of often innovative communications approaches - some of them via the Internet - that are beginning to influence international aid interventions worldwide.
With mainstream broadcasters such as CNN unlikely to report the location of food distribution points or how to deal with rape trauma, such initiatives are bridging what has until recently been a staggering information gap. These include humanitarian "news you can use" broadcasts for disaster victims, distance-education programs for children in war, refugee newsletters, post-conflict youth radio, health soap operas, the distribution of wind-up or solar radios, and even interactive "road shows" to promote anything from peace-building to racial tolerance and HIV-AIDS awareness.
Since the 1994 Rwanda genocide, experience has shown that local populations that know what is happening are far better equipped to confront disaster. Credible, impartial information not only helps victims deal more effectively with rumor, landmines, cholera outbreaks, or the tracing of lost relatives, but it also enables them to understand better the way the international community operates.
Certain organizations, such as UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross, are aware of the media's enormous potential for reaching out to populations in crisis. Numerous others, however, still fail to grasp the importance of outreach.
Countless opportunities are being lost, with millions denied the right to be informed. In Chechnya, hundreds of thousands of refugees facing harsh winter conditions have little idea about the availability of food or medical relief. Yet no donor, presumably because of the political implications involved with Russia, is willing to fund a simple humanitarian newsletter.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 1.7 million people are thought to have died from war-caused conditions. Observers believe at least some could have been saved with access to even the most basic health information.
According to Loretta Hieber, author of "Lifeline Media," one of the reasons communication is being harnessed is that the traditional role of media and information is changing.
"The technological revolution of the 20th century and the Internet have eliminated distances. Satellite transmissions mean atrocities occurring in one part of the world may be revealed in another almost instantaneously, often resulting in a demand for action," she argues.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to credible journalistic approaches as a form of aid is the inability to recognize this change.
Whether through fear or ignorance, many aid groups regard the media with suspicion. Information, they believe, is something to be controlled or used for promotional purposes.
For example, at the Children in War conference in Winnipeg last summer, the Canadian organizers refused to allow the media to take part in most workshops. Journalists attending were often far better informed than the participants.
The United Nations, in particular, has yet to incorporate independent information as a pivotal component of any humanitarian or peacekeeping strategy. Only recently has the UN High Commissioner for Refugees appointed a media representative to deal with the information needs of refugees.
Since the Kosovo crisis, however, there appears to be rising support for such initiatives, particularly if they strengthen local media as an investment for the future. UN officials are becoming aware of the need to develop mass information strategies as part of peace efforts in regions such as Central and Western Africa.
There is also greater readiness among aid groups to accept accountability vis-a-vis the very people they are seeking to help.
"Up till now, hundreds of agencies have swept into crises, imposing their assistance whether needed or not, and under no sense of obligation to explain to the local populations what they are up to," says Dr. Rony Brauman, former head of Medecins sans Frontieres. "It is time that this bubble of deception is burst."
Reliable, impartial, and above all independent media initiatives can dramatically improve the effectiveness of international aid operations. But these approaches will succeed only if they respond credibly to the needs of the populations concerned.
Edward Girardet, a former special correspondent for the Monitor, is editor of CROSSLINES Global Report and a co-founder of Media Action International, a foundation focusing on the information needs of disaster-affected populations.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor