Tsunami media convergence: not a fair guiding principle for aid

Humanitarian agencies and donors are rightly making commitments and responding quickly to the devastation of the tsunami that hit Asian and African countries, killing more than 200,000 and stripping millions more of every possession. The situation requires an immediate, compassionate response from us all.

However, it is interesting to speculate why there has been this response and why, in many countries, there has been such a huge media and public response. It is also interesting to consider what impact this response might have on other humanitarian needs.

If we place the tsunami in context, then it is indeed among the world's top 10 recent natural disasters, in terms of numbers killed. It has not, though, caused the amount of death and destruction seen in many of the world's conflicts.

The war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has claimed more than 3 million lives, in Sudan more than 2 million, Rwanda more than 700,000 in a few weeks. Afghanistan, Cambodia, and many others have seen war deaths over time in much higher numbers than those killed by the tsunami. If a recent report in The Lancet, the respected British medical journal, is accurate, more than 100,000 have been killed in Iraq in the past 18 months. Preventable diseases have killed tens of millions annually.

This raises interesting questions: Why is there a more urgent, more compassionate response to the tsunami? Why does this generate more television news coverage in a day than protracted conflicts in countries like DRC do in a year? The answers may make us somewhat uncomfortable:

*It's a great media event. Dramatic pictures from different countries, stories of lost relatives, lots of nationals involved from nations with major media outlets. It is also easy news, requiring a lot of sympathy and human interest but with little to analyze and debate. The pictures are the news. One ITN correspondent is frequently filmed helping patients into vehicles or handing out a relief item. The news is personalized for dramatic effect.

• It affects many in developed nations. Significant numbers of us have been to these countries, have friends who've vacationed there; it affects us personally. This is particularly true of the kind of people who set the media agenda. The Daily Mail, for example, has front page headlines on the numbers of British casualties, a small percentage of the total.

• It reinforces our feelings of others as victims. The majority of victims were living in poor conditions. Those happy to give to this event may be less willing to give to alleviate the causes of such poverty. Cause are more difficult, less 'sexy' to portray.

• It appears no one is to blame. There are no complex political forces at work, no armies involved, and little we can do to blame the victims. We should ask, though, why there was no early warning system in place to minimize losses. How much would an appeal for such funds for this kind of system have raised a month ago?

• It happened at Christmas. A time when people may be more likely to think of others and their losses. Would the response have been so great, say, in July when family holidays are on the agenda?

While we sympathize and support these victims, let us also remember the plight of the many more millions caught up in deadly situations of conflict and poverty. Their tragedy is no less urgent and is occurring in much greater numbers.

The response to the tsunami may actually reduce the assistance given to those in longer-term need. Media focus - which often dictates the way money is spent - is lost on the Sudan peace process or the situation in Afghanistan, for example.

There is a real dilemma here for all: Money spent responding to one crisis usually means less is spent on another.

Government money indeed should be spent on the tsunami crisis - to some extent. But it will be money taken from elsewhere. Following the invasion of Iraq and the required humanitarian response, aid money was reduced in several nonstrategic middle-income countries. Research suggests donations from the public are finite over a given time, so this is not an extra sum being found. Funds generated from the public for the tsunami will reduce their donations for other charity.

This may have a dramatic effect on medium and smaller charity income. In the shadow of the current media coverage, it is impossible, for example, for aid organizations like mine, Ockenden International, to seek increased attention and funding for the displaced we work with in Sudan or Nepal.

In a few weeks, the cameras will have moved on. Yet that is when the challenge of rebuilding lives and homes will begin. Next Christmas, the media will return to make those 'one year after' stories. The poverty and human tragedy wrought by this disaster is, though, not just for anniversary coverage, but for years to come. So, too, is the poverty of tens of millions of others not at all effected by the tsunami.

We need a more thoughtful, balanced approach to such disasters and ensure that media convergence isn't the guiding principle for the direction of humanitarian aid.

Graham Wood, head of policy at Ockenden International, a humanitarian and development aid organization, has worked in international assistance in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia for 20 years. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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