World Aid Groups Snuggle Up to the Camera

Facing post-cold-war donor fatigue, NGOs hone PR to seek funds

WHERE in the world is Goma?

For most of the world, it took a humanitarian crisis to find the answer. After countless refugees from Rwanda's war started flooding the Zairian town, the world's media followed suit, putting the town - and the crisis - on the map.

The ensuing media free-for-all in such disaster areas creates both opportunity and ethical challenges for aid groups, many observers say. Aid groups use the media to raise awareness about their work and boost donations, while media may use such groups for access to dangerous areas.

Some experts say this symbiotic relationship erodes the quality of care that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provide. One journalist who covered Goma said many refugee camps looked like a campaign trail.

NGO staffers sported T-shirts bearing their various logos, and stickers were plastered on every available crate, pole, or tree, says Lindsey Hilsum, a freelance reporter for BBC World Service. Workers for British aid agency Oxfam did virtual stand-ups for the cameras in front of a water tank painted with the agency's name, Ms. Hilsum says.

"If you're not there when the camera is there, you lose money,'' says Simone Westermann, head of public affairs for Bonn-based German Agros Action. "We lost about [$140 million] because we were not there in Rwanda from the start. In a sense, the media pays us. That's why we rush to a crisis."

Organizations like German Agros Action don't get funding if they aren't seen getting out of the office, said Ms. Westermann.

In the end, one can hardly distinguish between agency press releases and the news, says Michael Keating, director of London-based MediaNatura, an organization specializing in media strategies for NGOs.

"There is a connection between exposure and media,'' Mr. Keating says. "There is a very cozy relationship between journalists and aid agencies. Aid agencies have not received the scrutiny they should. So there is less accountability to the beneficiaries than to the donors. Goma was the epitome of this. Aid agencies had their face to the cameras and their backs to the people."

War and natural disasters might sell newspapers, push television ratings, and increase funding for NGOs. But that kind of reporting neglects the long-term projects used to combat problems in poor countries, says Ron Waldman, technical director of the BASICS project in Washington, which is financed by the US Agency for International Development.

Since the former Soviet Union and the United States no longer use Afghanistan's countryside to fight the cold war, for example, most of the world doesn't realize there is an ongoing civil war there and thousands of displaced people.

And according to BASICS, the US put more than $450 million into Rwanda during fiscal 1994 and 1995, but has a budget of only $75 million over five years for worldwide child-health development.

Yet with post-cold-war donor fatigue on the rise, perhaps it's no surprise that NGOs feel compelled to get on television and hype the disaster of the moment. Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has pushed to slash the US foreign-aid budget. And many people, even if they live in wealthy countries, may find it hard to justify generous foreign aid when faced with serious domestic concerns, such as inner-city poverty in the US or budget cuts in France.

Yet the need for humanitarian aid grows daily, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. There are now 31 ongoing wars, 26 million internally displaced people, and 23 million refugees who cross borders, according to the federation. It predicts that a natural or man-made disaster will strike 350 million people by 2000.

"The cold war kept a lot of this stuff under wraps,'' says Phyllis Oakley, assistant secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration in the US State Department. "But now we have a succession of failed states and we have to see what steps humanitarian organizations and governments can take together."

To that end, some experts in humanitarian aid say NGOs search for media coverage enhances care.

"I don't agree that the quality of aid is eroded by the quest for media coverage,'' says Sylvana Foa, chief of public affairs for the United Nations' Rome-based World Food Program and former spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "Media coverage just gets things done.''

Ms. Foa said countries started paying attention to the famine in Ethiopia in 1984 only after a BBC crew began reporting on the crisis.

Foa did concede, however, that cameras also can hurt humanitarian aid. Using the war in the former Yugoslavia as an example, she said UNHCR hasn't had a hard time getting the $500,000 to $1 million a day it needs to maintain a presence there. But the agency has had to fight for every cent of the $15 million it needs to run a refugee program in Tajikistan.

Of all these examples, perhaps one NGO has largely succeeded in avoiding the hard sell. At least one US government official remains enamored with the subtle approach of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) despite its recent launch of a worldwide media campaign to ban land-mine use.

"I've been very impressed here about the insistent, but gentle prodding that the National Societies [of the Red Cross and Red Crescent] and the ICRC do on governments, not just for financial contributions, but for taking stands on humanitarian issues,'' says Ann Richards, former governor of Texas and head of US delegation to the 26th conference for ICRC.

"The US has to remain unfalteringly supportive of these organizations," she adds.

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