LONDON–“Oxfam Are Bandits.” The stark words were daubed on a half-finished housing development surrounded by dirt roads and scrub. I was standing in Lely, on the outskirts of Banda Aceh, the Indonesian city where more than 30,000 died in the 2004 tsunami. The graffiti artist had been an enterprising local, with a beef against aid agencies who were still struggling to reconstruct the area in the aftermath of the wave. The geuchiks (chiefs) pounced on this and organised a protest. It was a wake-up call for me that humanitarian disasters can’t be told in simple headlines like “Heroic Aid Worker Helps Grateful Survivor.”
Since that day in Lely, I’ve spent far too much time thinking about disasters and destruction. I’ve worked for aid agencies, earned a PhD on the subject and even married an aid worker. But that unknown scribbler in Lely has stayed with me, and along with other experiences inspired me to write a play, Aid Memoir that is being performed next week at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London as part of the feminist festival “Women Redressed.”
In the play I wanted to ask the audience a simple question: would we cover humanitarian disasters like floods, famines and quakes in the same way if we reversed the roles–for example, if it was African aid workers coming over to Britain to run refugee camps. Would we resort to the same patronising cliches and oversimplistic explanations? Would we use what the BBC journalist George Alagiah once called the ingredients of disaster reporting: starving child (preferably crying); an aid worker (a white woman battling the odds) and a reporter (breathless and shocked).
In “Aid Memoir,” Britain is in the midst of a humanitarian disaster exacerbated by a financial collapse, and then civil unrest in the wake of the Brexit referendum. Martine, an aid worker from Kenya is running a camp for refugees. Among them is Chelle, a teenager whose middle-class life has been torn apart by the chaos engulfing the country. The situation seems dire, but then Taz, an old journalist friend of Martine’s arrives in the country with the promise of filming a celebrity appeal with the winner of “Kenya’s Got Talent.”
The play is of course fiction, but I drew on as many real life examples from my own life and research as I could (embarrassingly, deep in a newspaper archive you will be still be able to find a piece I wrote about an aid worker in India long ago with the gushing headline “The English Rose among the Lepers”). Martine’s determination to do the best she can to run the camp reflects the difficulties that aid workers I talked to over the years told me – and the frustrations they felt at how their work was often portrayed. Taz, the journalist is obviously drawn on my own experience working as a national print and broadcast journalist (yes journalists do ask each other ‘Is it bigger than the tsunami?’). Meanwhile like many Syrian refugees, Chelle is educated and middle-class and her only possession is her phone – the sort of information that makes some dismiss how ‘needy’ a refugee really is – but are often vital to get access to jobs, money, track their journey and find family and friends.
Does this matter? Yes. Whether reporting makes a difference to political action (the so-called “CNN Effect”) is still hotly disputed. But money undoubtedly flows to stories with dramatic pictures, clear heroes and villains and easy answers.When it’s more messy, forget it. I’ve sat in on a couple of appeals by the Disaster Emergency Committee (an umbrella organisation for the main UK aid agencies). One was for the Syrian refugee crisis in 2013 and one for the Darfur/Chad crisis in 2007. Both were urgent appeals for people who were at real risk, fleeing their homes during conflict – but they were complicated stories. As the public turned off. The 2013 Syrian appeal raised £27 million – Typhoon Haiyan the same year raised £97m. No wonder aid agencies and journalists often decide that celebrity humanitarianism is the answer – as Taz does in my play. But that is a fraught path. Not everyone gets an Angelina as their celeb.
One aid worker friend took out a well-known celebrity to India, who continually insisted on a local following her round with a handy newspaper so she didn’t sit on anything dirty and ruin her vintage Chanel. That was before throwing a tantrum because there was nowhere to plug in her mobile phone. Another friend ended up with a reality star whose (minor) fame had gone to his head. Taken out on a press trip to Jamaica, the star wanted to enjoy the hotel facilities, rather than go and generate publicity about the agency’s AIDS programme. In the end, after refusing to come out of his room, the star went home early with the mutual diplomatic explanation of “exhaustion.”
As a journalist, we could do much better in the way we report disasters. Aid workers need to realise too that they should be held to account and not expect uncritical coverage. But for me the main point of the play was to hold up a mirror to the public, and make us question how we see refugees and those in need. How would we feel if those in Africa or Syria reported on us – and decided not to give money because it was too messy and complicated? Or even worse, just ignored what was going on altogether.
Dr. Glenda Cooper is a writer, journalist and lecturer in journalism at City University of London. An extract from “Aid Memoir” will be performed as part of Sheer Height’s Women Redressed Festival April 10-13 at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London.
Photos from Shutterstock: 1) Syrian girls in camp in Turkey 2) Tented camp in Somalia