A Global Village
Issue 4 » Engineering Development

The Media and Humanitarian Aid

In the Eyes of the Beholder

Salman Waqar, Medicine, Imperial College London

Human history has seen no shortage of wars, famine and natural disasters. Reflecting on the aftermath of the recent catastrophes in Haiti and Pakistan, an interesting question emerges – why do some humanitarian aid appeals generate more media coverage and funds compared to others?

We are living during an information age. The power of the individual via social media platforms has become apparent and 24-hour news coverage is now standard. One cannot doubt the role, and the increasing influence, that the media plays in shaping our thoughts, perceptions and actions.

The aid industry represents big money. With a budget of over $150 billion per year, distributed by over 200 bilateral and multilateral organisations1, it is clear that attracting a piece of this pie is paramount for disaster response efforts. The majority of aid budgets don’t come from public donations, but from governments and international aid agencies that have large strategic reserves for emergency relief: for example, in 2009 $100 billion was spent by national and international agencies whilst $50 billion was spent by NGOs and private organisations1.

Some $1.6 billion was pledged
to Haiti within 10 days
of the quake amounting to a
staggering $495 per person

This article will explore the media’s role in the international community’s response to aid appeals from both a public and policy perspective. For the sake of illustration, we will compare and contrast the response to two recent natural disasters: the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and flooding of Pakistan.

2010: A Year of Disaster
2010 was a year struck by Mother Nature. The insurance company Swiss Re estimated that in 2010 alone, natural disasters claimed more than a quarter of a million lives and caused $222 billion of damage worldwide. The response to the two mega-crises in the year, the Haitian earthquake in January followed by the summer flooding in Pakistan, together ate 96% of the UN aid budget with Haiti receiving $3.5 billion and Pakistan receiving $2.4 billion in assistance2.

Haiti’s earthquake caused massive destruction on the small Caribbean island, one of the poorest countries in the northern hemisphere. The epicentre was 25km from the capital, Port-au-Prince, and more than 316,000 people – 3% of Haiti’s population – died3. Furthermore, the proximity of the earthquake to the capital caused a near total collapse of the Haitian government and central infrastructure.

The Pakistani floods that followed engulfed the country, submerging nearly one fifth of the land – an area the size of England. The total economic impact was estimated to exceed $43 billion4 and the Pakistani government estimated that nearly 20 million people were affected by the floods and more than 1,600 lives were lost5.

The Aid Response
The humanitarian response to the Haiti earthquake got off the ground quickly with harrowing pictures and updates broadcast hourly around the world. Some $1.6 billion was pledged to Haiti within 10 days of the quake amounting to a staggering $495 per person6.

In contrast, the initial response from the international community and aid donors to the Pakistan appeal was sluggish. Oxfam was highly critical of the international community, stating that in the first 10 days of the appeal less than $134 million was pledged, which breaks down to just $3.20 per flood-affected person6.

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, urged the international community to donate an initial $460 million in funds to Pakistan while on a fact-finding mission in the region: “in the past I have witnessed many natural disasters around the world, but nothing like this.”7 His words proved to be ineffective, and within a couple of weeks only 20% of requested funds had been received.

Such was the extent of impact of the floods that a few weeks into the disaster the spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) claimed that “this disaster is worse than the 2004 tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti earthquake”8. Over 13.8 million people were directly affected by the disaster in Pakistan compared with 5 million for the South Asian tsunami and 1.5 million in Haiti.

So what was it about Haiti that prompted the international community to donate 80% of the requested funds within 10 days, yet not surpass 20% for Pakistan despite the flooding being acknowledged by the UN and other aid agencies as being the most serious disaster of the year?

The Media Response
The Haiti appeal enjoyed broad support around the world. A specialised television appeal featuring several prominent personalities and many of Hollywood’s finest was broadcast to 83 million people worldwide raising $61 million in funds. The star-factor did not end there, as a music album titled ‘Hope for Haiti’ was released and soon reached the top of the worldwide music charts including the UK and US. Later, another music single was released, featuring a plethora of industry stars such as Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, and was launched at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics 2010. The micro-blogging site Twitter had Haiti as one of its 4th most popular global trend in the year 2010. People were seeing, hearing and tweeting about Haiti.

The tone of Pakistan appeal was far more reticent. Pakistan is widely seen as a troublesome and volatile hotspot due to its chequered history and association with terrorism and corruption. Indeed, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, visited the region only a few weeks prior to the onset of the floods and rebuked the Pakistani government for failing to combat tolerance for terrorism. The President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, was also derided in the media, both at home and away, for his refusal to return home from a trip abroad. Public preconceptions, coupled to the slower-moving nature of the disaster and perhaps an element of media and public fatigue, contributed to a muted and ultimately unsuccessful campaign.

It has also been suggested that there may have been a perception that Pakistan is an emerging economy and should be better able to cope with the disaster than Haiti. Yet the per capita income in 2010 for both nations was comparable with $710 for Haiti9 versus $1,067 for Pakistan10.

We must ask, to what extent does the tone and scope of media coverage influence and dictate the outcome of a humanitarian appeal?

The Media and Aid
There was a significant contrast between the media response to Haiti and Pakistan. The mainstream support that the Haiti appeal generated added serious credibility to the large sums of money that were being sought. Despite a similarly chequered political history, the Haiti appeal relied on a positive portrayal of the resilient Haitians who had also suffered devastating tropical storms in both 2004 and 2008. The mobilisation of entertainment industry personalities enabled access to a broader donor base and bestowed a certain kind of legitimacy on the appeal.

Yet, in stark contrast to the Haiti appeal, few news agencies ran reports on the situation in Pakistan without mentioning issues surrounding terrorism and corruption in the region.

The International Red Cross reported in 2005 that, “News judgment reflects established criteria. News must be new. Editors sort stories by death tolls.” They go on to argue that disasters that cause considerable death or destruction in accessible places get more coverage. In a quest to provide news entertainment and chase ratings, they propose “it’s understandable that sudden, dramatic disasters like volcanoes or tsunamis are intensely newsworthy, whereas long-drawn-out crises (which are difficult to describe, let alone film) are not.”11

This insight seems to describe what we saw in Haiti and Pakistan. A sudden quake that provoked dramatic scenes of carnage and a high death toll in a very poor country ensured that the Haiti quake was immediately newsworthy. In contrast, the Pakistan disaster was a gradually unfolding catastrophe and the floods ‘only’ went on to claim the lives of 1,600 people.

This phenomenon did not go unnoticed in the media. Several papers and news outlets commented on the lethargy of the aid community in responding to the Pakistan appeal. It was thought that the timing of the Pakistan floods proved to be a decisive factor.

Just Bad Timing?
In the midst of a global economic downturn and against the backdrop of government austerity measures, raising immense disaster funds was indeed a tall order. Furthermore, some of the reserves that might have gone to Pakistan were simply already spent in Haiti; for example, the $1.03 billion USAID budget of for disaster responses was already depleted by a third in response to the Haitian relief efforts12.

However, despite the economic downturn, UNOCHA still managed to raise more money this year than in previous years, indicating that the health of the economy – at least for now – is not a reliable prognostic indicator for donor appeals. In order to combat potential future shortfalls, the UN has launched a $7.5 billion appeal for 2011 to better equip international aid agencies for disasters in the coming year.

It has also been argued, in the case of Pakistan, that there was an element of ‘donor fatigue’. In an interview with the BBC, Dr. Marie Lall, a Pakistan expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs said, “I think there is donor fatigue all around – the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2008 Burmese Cyclone, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, and this year’s Haiti earthquake – it is getting too much; we are in a recession and people are short of money.”12

The discrepancies between the
Haiti and Pakistan aid appeals
provide much food for thought
and highlight the critical role
that the media plays in dictating
the discourse surrounding aid

We could also consider the possibility that the countless disasters and conflicts have led to so-called ‘media fatigue’. With tens of hotspots around the world, from Sierra Leone to Cote D’Ivoire and Sudan, many long-running conflicts and crises have stretched the resources and attention of the world’s media. The Red Cross notes, “Forgotten disasters are often chronic and diffuse, changing little day by day. Unlikely to qualify as news, such crises may feature as current affairs stories – especially on the websites of news organizations.”11

The discrepancies between the Haiti and Pakistan aid appeals provide much food for thought and highlight the critical role that the media plays in dictating the discourse surrounding aid. It is clear that, in order for us to be able to rapidly mobilise the international aid community, governments, private sector and individual donors, we must pay greater attention to the public’s perception of a disaster as it unfolds.

The media is no doubt aware that they have a huge responsibility to report the truth – as ambiguous and potholed as it may be. Aid agencies are all too aware that over or under exposure of events can adversely affect their funding streams. It is about striking a balance between accurate and truthful reporting and creating and promoting narratives that encourage donor generosity.

Understanding this dialogue is key to ensuring collaboration between news media, the entertainment industry and other associated media streams and aid agencies, so that we can be better prepared to garner support quickly from a wide array of donors when the next disaster strikes.

Salman Waqar is a fifth year medical student at Imperial College London.

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[1] de Haan A. (2009). How the Aid Industry Works: An Introduction to International Development. Kumarian Press.
[2] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (2010). Natural Disasters 2010: Summary of Contributions.
[3] CBC News (12/01/2011). Haiti Raises Quake Death Toll on Anniversary.
[4] Tarakzai S. (2011) Pakistan Battles Economic Pain Of Floods. AFP.
[5] BBC (20/08/2010). UN Says Pakistan Urgently Needs More Aid Helicopters.
[6] Oxfam Press Release (10/08/2010). Pakistan Floods: Mega Disaster Needs Mega Response.
[7] Al Jazeera (15/08/2010). UN Chief: Pakistan Needs More Aid.
[8] AFP. (10/08/2010). Pakistan Floods Worse Than 2004 Tsunami: UN.
[9] IMF. Haiti: Gross Domestic Product per Capita, Current Prices (US dollars).
[10] IMF. Pakistan: Gross Domestic Product per Capita, Current Prices (US dollars).
[11] International Red Cross (2005). Humanitarian Media Coverage in the Digital Age, World Disasters Report 2005.
[12] Sheerin J. (21/08/2010). Who Cares About Pakistan? BBC.