Media Distortion and Western Bias – Why Do Some Disasters Attract More Cash?

Media and Aid

#ForeignPolicy comes first motives behind #Humanitarian interventions are seemingly increasingly #Political in nature

By ‘Students Speak’, The Guardian

Aid agencies jostle for public attention as they respond to humanitarian crises: natural disaster, war, famine and disease. The Disasters Emergency Committee, which comprises 14 British NGOs working internationally, has appeals open for Gaza and Ebola. Yet while its tsunami-earthquake appeal in 2004 raised £392m, its 2008 appeal for the Democratic Republic of the Congo generated only £10.5m. Why do some emergencies receive more support than others? We asked students to share their thoughts on the reasons behind funding imbalances and whether a fairer system was possible. We received lots of responses, including some excellent articles from students at Holmes Chapel comprehensive school and sixth form college. Here are some of our favourites.

Separate aid from politics

Aid is political. Politics causes competition. Competition creates havoc. When a natural disaster occurs, governments and NGOs rush to help out. They build tents. They hand out blankets. They provide food. But the underlying incentive of all these organisations is the same: trying to capitalise on the public’s pulled heartstrings and setting themselves out to enhance their own popularity and prestige. After the Haiti earthquake in 2010 the US pushed its military to support the relief effort, due to its close proximity to the affected area. Thus a large consortium of US NGOs caused many instances of “flag-raising”, without clear co-operation between the organisations and the locals. Support was therefore misguided and not well received by Haitians.

On the other hand, the Kashmir earthquake in 2005 initially received only $100,000 in aid from the US – the same given to them by Afghanistan after Hurricane Katrina. Although later upped to over $100m, original skepticism by the Bush administration highlighted tension between the two nations, regardless of such a catastrophic death toll. For fairer distribution, an apolitical department of the UN could be created to co-ordinate and authorise the NGOs in the immediate wake of a disaster. The department would give aid based on a category of severity, with each nation pledging a set amount in proportion to its GDP. During relief, the organisation will manage NGOs effectively to maximise efficiency and reduce egotistical incentives.

Harry Thompson, Holmes Chapel school, UK

Change the way the media reports crises

Human nature is such that we respond more forcefully to emotional appeals than to facts. As a result, some emergencies, like natural disasters, receive more support because of the way they are perceived by the public. This is based on the presentation by the media. For example, media and social media present natural disasters as unexpected, undeserved and random. Civil wars, on the other hand, are presented and perceived as somehow more deserved and therefore receive less funding. This creates an environment where relief is largely determined by factors that have nothing to do with need.

The media tends to focus on the disaster as it happens, ignoring the warning systems and long-term implications. Decisions are made about which disasters to cover, and natural disasters, due to their seemingly sudden onset, make more shocking news and therefore receive more coverage. This focused attention ignores key facts and can distort the humanitarian response.

One example of this was the difference between the coverage of the tsunami in 2004 and the earthquake in Kashmir in 2005. Images and stories from tourists on holiday in the region, the event happening on Boxing Day and the extreme language used by the media led to a much greater response for the former. The earthquake received little coverage, money or sympathy as it occurred soon after the tsunami, to a nationality the west was wary of. The system would have to be completely reinvented in order for fairer allocation of funds.

Lucy McCray, London School of Economics, UK

Change the way funds are allocated

The cultural relevance of a particular humanitarian crisis to an audience, along with the volatility of the crisis, impacts upon the media presence and consequently the level of support received. As an audience you need a point of identification with a humanitarian crisis. Humanitarian agencies often spend considerable amounts of time and resources in an attempt to humanise a crisis; to ensure that there is greater visibility in an attempt to attract donors. However with humanitarian emergencies seemingly becoming a regular occurrence within the media, I question whether this high level of exposure that appears necessary to attract donors is sustainable.

Emergency appeals are launched, at the outbreak of a humanitarian emergency however the finances are needed imminently. If funds were allocated on a continuous basis, operating on levies based upon the GDP of a country then there would be no need for humanitarian agencies to jostle for centre stage in the media spotlight and funds. The UK’s levy would come from our already assigned foreign aid budget and be allocated to humanitarian agencies on a “need” basis ensuring that money is not withheld and humanitarian needs are met.

Liam Upson, University of East Anglia, UK

Find new ways to make the public care

“In with the new and out with the old,” as they say. While such a colloquial phrase, such as this, is deeply embedded into our global society, is it possible to veer away from such a narrow-sighted mentality? Demographically speaking, notions including age, sex, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, nationality and religion are all contributing factors that influence national or international onlookers – be that individuals from the civil, political, and/or private sectors. Referencing today’s trending disaster, Ebola exemplifies the aforementioned. A deadly disease spreading like wildfire in the global south apparently does not warrant international attention or timely WHO mediation, until the virus slithers beyond west Africa’s borders, making this an outbreak that penetrates the semantics that segregate developed from developing countries.

While there is a silver lining to this story, other stories currently being written into history are lacking our attention and support—how do we repopularise the situation in Syria? How can we sound the sirens for the ‘coffee rust’ disaster, which is ruining an exorbitant amount of livelihoods and displacing vulnerable populations? Can social media pull us out of our narrow-sighted view and refashion response to humanitarian emergencies?

A fairer system for funding allocation is possible, but only if we as an international community hold those responsible of the funding accountable. Top-down policies from an honest and responsive government and bottom-up voices from an active and accountable civil society can certainly foster an environment whereby funding is allocated in a much more effective and efficient matter.

Nick Skenderian, University of Copenhagen School of Global Health, Denmark

Foreign policy comes first

Rapid responses to humanitarian emergencies are rare, despite continuing and developing conflicts which result in civilian casualties and food shortages, this trend of lethargic, half-hearted response or inaction is unlikely to change. Arguably, the three largest humanitarian relief missions in recent years, in Haiti, Japan and the Philippines, have one factor in common – natural disasters.

Countries affected by natural disasters that alter their geographical, economic and societal landscapes tend to receive greater amounts of aid and with less conditions attached than countries experiencing civil wars or terrorist insurgencies that result in similar if not more severe consequences.

One reason for this could be the greater likelihood of success associated with post-natural disaster interventions where potential domestic political or social divisions within a country are temporarily tolerated while the more immediate concerns are overcome. Also, in such situations, there is often more unconditional support from the international community that do not have fears of jeopardising foreign policy objectives or risk greater regional instability and when the political and human costs of intervention are arguably lower than in countries currently in conflict. However, since the debacle following the Haitian cholera outbreak in which UN forces were blamed, even supposedly peaceful non-military interventions are under increasing scrutiny.

If governments and international organisations decided on whether or not to intervene purely on moral grounds to avert human suffering, then funding for such operations would surely be greater and more unconditional yet the motives behind humanitarian interventions are seemingly increasingly political in nature.

Timothy Sandars, University of East Anglia, UK

We only worry when the west is threatened

Ebola is an infectious disease with a high potential to spread across the world. The more prominent the disease is in western Africa, the more threatening it becomes to the richer countries – most of which are in the west – so African countries are granted more aid.

There are humanitarian emergencies that do not or have not received equal aid as the Ebola outbreak, whether this is financial aid or emergency supplies. For example, the 100-day mass genocide in Rwanda in 1994 was completely devastating and an estimated 500,000-1,000,000 Rwandans were slaughtered. Yet, despite the huge threat to innocent Rwandans that this had, Russia, the UK and America insisted on only a small, cheap peace-keeping effort. It would be limited to Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali, and there would be no seizing of weapons – only observing.

Famine and civil war are still at large in South Sudan, yet western governments choose to ignore them. This is a country in desperate need of financial aid, yet it seems to be only Oxfam that funds the supply of emergency aid into South Sudan.

The difference between the Ebola outbreak and the above crises is that Ebola isn’t limited to just Africa. The trend seems to be that if the disaster is limited to a certain country or area and can’t affect the richer corners of the world then less aid is given. Does the current aid attempt in western Africa aim more to protect the western Africans or the western world?

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