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The Trouble with Aid

John Mitchell

By John Mitchell on 13 December 2012.

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I sat down to watch Riccardo Pollack’s BBC 4 documentary ‘The Trouble with Aid’ knowing that it was going to raise vitally important issues about aid neutrality. This is good news and it is healthy that such issues are brought to the attention of the public and also that the humanitarian community is seen to be held accountable by the media.

The film’s hypothesis was simple: aid agencies offer simplistic solutions to complicated problems and that aid workers are politically naive, are quickly out of their depth in difficult situations and end up feeling disillusioned, let down, angry and/or guilty. Cue several key shots accompanied by emotive music; an ex-SCF worker walking across a meadow, collar up; a well-known figure from MSF in existential pose in a French café; a lingering head shot of an ex-Oxfam nutritionist reflecting on being let down by his organisation after Cambodia; an ex-Care Country Director standing like a statue and staring into the distance; and another ex-MSF field worker alone on a landscape. The point is clear – aid has not delivered the solutions it promised and, in the face of defeat, agencies would be well advised to pack their bags and go home.

'The Trouble with Aid' is ‘good TV’ and it successfully tells a powerful and emotive story but what is unfortunate, and a sadly missed opportunity, is that the film does not follow the most basic steps that all good journalists are expected to use – attempting also to disprove, or at least test, their own hypothesis that aid sometimes does more harm than good. As a matter of good practice I would have thought that the programme should have done three things.

First, it should have considered many other contexts, including natural disasters, which might suggest aid does more good than harm. Second, it should have used the enormous amount of data that exists (especially the State of the Humanitarian System Report which was offered to the programme) rather than solely relying on a very small group of contributors, none of whom legitimately represent affected populations. And thirdly, it should have seriously considered counterfactuals or alternatives: what if there had been no support to Cambodia or Ethiopia, or the Rwanda camps? This approach would have resulted in a more accurate picture and would not have detracted from a compelling story. There even may have been room for a shot of one or two aid workers enjoying a celebratory beer in the pub after a job well done!

In the panel discussion afterwards the journalist Ian Birrell said that he wished that the media could be more effective in holding the aid community to account.  But in the light of this programme I can’t help feeling that we should ask another equally important question. Who holds journalists and film-makers to account for presenting a one-sided picture? Should there not be some mutual accountability here?

Helping people is always complicated - in families, welfare and in war (Poverty Matters Blog by Hugo Slim in The Guardian)

The Debating Chamber - “The Trouble With Aid” shows the trouble with documentaries (AlertNet blog by Hugo Slim)

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10 comments

Paul Harvey

Paul Harvey (Humanitarian Outcomes) 14 December 2012, 14:11

I'd add a fourth thing. It should have talked to some recipients of aid in disasters. When asked, as we noted in the State of the Humanitarian System report, they are generally supportive of humanitarian aid whilst recognising its shortcomings.

Peter Walker

Peter Walker (Tufts University) 14 December 2012, 15:29

Working with the guys who made this film, for the past year and a half, I was disappointed in the final product. Without making the story too complex, the film could have aired the perspective of those caught up in crisis, and it could have highlighted some of the positive changes that critique are stimulated, including the birth and evolution of ALNAP. I do appreciate having the historical narrative laid out like this, bits of the film will make great teaching aids, but I'm left with the feeling that the strap-line for the film was "never let the facts get in the way of a good story-line."

Tony Vaux

Tony Vaux (Humanitarian Activities) 15 December 2012, 13:39

John, as you know I was involved in the programme. I feel that your charge against Ricardo Pollack is very unfair. If, as you say, the hypothesis is that aid sometimes does harm then all Ricardo needs to do is show that this is the case. He does not need to show that aid has sometimes done some good, or that there is a lot of other information about aid or that aid might have done some good at the same time as doing harm. I may have missed something but I do not think Ricardo ever asserts that as a general proposition aid is bad. You may not like the message but please do not shoot the messenger.

brendan gormley

brendan gormley (self employed) 16 December 2012, 10:04

I was surprised that there was really no attempt to acknowledge all that was done in terms of Do No Harm, Smart Aid, Red Cross code etc. as we struggle to adapt to a world of shrinking and manipulated humanitarian access.

It was also rather the usual suspects who agonised about their partial knowledge and limitations. I hope they will be happy about the selective use of their quotes to build the case. There was little feel for the fact that all the cases the documentary showed had lengthy and fraught debate and decisions from senior staff in HQ.

I readily accept that humanitarian action is often a fig leaf for lack of political action, but rather tough to always blame the humanitarians. Also the film maker's approach seemed to bundle up the role of humanitarians, the media and political action without showing what their respective roles for good or ill really could or should be.

I am in the Kouchner camp as he railed against all the generalisations and often sweeping charges of the critics.

Maurice Herson

Maurice Herson 16 December 2012, 20:58

To add to the other comments rather than repeat or comment on them...

I have tried to think what this might look like to an audience that was sitting watching it without, as I was with, my own memories and constantly nodding in agreement or shaking my head at the accounts and interpretations of events that I 'know' differently. Would that audience have clues about the authoritativeness of the speakers or of the overall narrative? Probably not, I think, and most especially because there was almost no mention - and no analysis - of the role of the media in the history being portrayed. This was not a story of the politics behind the need for aid in such circumstances, nor of the media coverage, but for the medium not to acknowledge its own complex interplay with such events was a profound lack.

Also, despite its attempt to tell a relatively complex story, it somehow failed to be complex, or maybe complicated, enough. What it did show, if you look for it, was an account of a business/profession/activity that has been making efforts to learn how to develop and find out how to do its business with greater understanding in a changing world. I'm sorry that there were largely only older faces - what would the current, new lot of humanitarians be saying about what they are trying to do now? That would have been telling.

Finally, this story cannot be told without at least acknowledging two things: one is the story of humanitarian responses to natural disasters, where there are also complex issues that shed light on the issues shown here. And the other is the actual achievements, despite the real mistakes and in some cases failures.

All that said, I hope this is not a one-off - it would be great to have more reasoned, if imperfect, exposure to public scrutiny. I'd recommend thoughtful friends to watch this, and I'd also probably recommend it to younger humanitarians whose institutional memory, I hazard to guess, does not stretch back far enough.

Glenda Cooper

Glenda Cooper (City University London) 18 December 2012, 12:17

Ricardo Pollack's provocative BBC4 documentary The Trouble With Aid which set out to prove the birth and death of humanitarianism in 40 years from Biafra to Afghanistan, has fired up the aid community.
Simplistic. Unfair. Skewed. These reactions are understandable given the seven scenarios that Pollack chose include traumatic events such as Goma and Mogadishu.

Yes, it would have been interesting to hear from recipients of aid. Yes, it would have been valuable for it to be made clearer that Medecins Sans Frontieres' particular remit may make it easier for its workers to take the decision to leave disaster zones than others. Yes, this was a documentary that had a particular point of view. Yet, I believe this was a valuable one that managed to examine some unpalatable issues, and raise key questions.

The film had sourced some stunning archive footage; it secured several important interviewees such as Bernard Kouchner, Alex de Waal and Tony Vaux. And while the historical structure did not build a cumulative case against the aid community, the case studies each typified problems that aid agencies must address. What has been the role of celebrity? How has aid work changed post Kosovo and Afghanistan now aid workers - like journalists - appear to be seen as targets? And why do aid agencies continue to oversimplify messages - much as they accuse the media of doing.

The truth was however that for all the critique of aid workers that there may have been in Pollack's documentary, what came across is that this is a difficult job with no easy answers. For every comment that seemed to suggest a bad decision, the emotive footage of workers on the ground trying to do their jobs countered that. And Pollack's treatment of how aid workers behaved in Goma is pretty tame for anyone who has read Nik Gowing's account of aid worker naiveté and squabbling in the subsequent Great Lakes crisis of 1996-7.

I'm concerned that the reaction to the documentary from some seems to perpetuate the belief that the aid community is always getting a bashing in the media. There are pockets of criticism, mainly in the right wing press over development aid. But emergency aid, which this documentary dealt with in the main, has mainly had a pretty easy ride from journalists who - after all - depend on their ride to disaster zones via aid agency flights and cars. (The academics Simon Cottle and David Nolan even coined the phrase "beneficent embedding" to describe this phenomenon).

In fact, given the rise of social media, and the opportunity it gives to increasingly vocal and communicative beneficiaries, aid workers may well look back with nostalgia in future for a time when their main critics were journalists and film makers.

Richard Blewitt

Richard Blewitt (HelpAge International) 20 December 2012, 18:00

I watched with some sadness the documentary, it was frustrating, most humanitarian are not naive, they choose like medical doctors or nurses to do a very tough job in very difficult circumstances. Increasingly these people are not western and this positive reality was not shown on a documentary based on an old narrative, neither were the heroic national staff who work for NGOs, for many of them my experience is that this is their vehicle to find meaning and achievement in support of their citizens facing terrible difficulties. Many of these workers have sadly been killed in the line of duty; just yesterday take the amazing women and men doing polio vaccination in Pakistan. The INGOs and their local partners of course could do better, but compared to other actors like the military with their hearts and minds "civilian actions" in Afghanistan, they are much the preferred solution in times of emergency.

The Rwanda case presented is very dear to me personally, I visited the camps in Goma and Karagwe when working for Save the Children, and found it personally very difficult having a family who had lost members to the genocide in Rwanda. But 2 million people on the move not all of whom were killers with no basic humanitarian support is not a tenable human response to the innocent among the killers. The real Rwanda story for me for the last eighteen years that needs telling is how the survivors of the genocide have been ignored by the world, including journalists, aid workers, UN agencies and most of all the major powers who were complicit in the genocide. It took us 10 years to get ARVs for the survivors of the Rwanda genocide, while the killers were receiving ARVs in the UN prison in Arusha, this is a real humanitarian travesty not the narrow view presented in the documentary.

Tony Vaux

Tony Vaux (Humanitarian Activities) 21 December 2012, 17:44

I am interested by Paul Harvey's conclusion from the State of the Humanitarian System Report that recipients of aid were generally satisfied. The Tables on p48 do not correspond with this conclusion unless you assume that people do not want to be consulted or listened to and don't mind only very moderate quantity and quality. Sorry to niggle but have I missed something? I see that CDA has just come out with what appear to be similar conclusions to the SOHS survey at least as per p48.

Paul Harvey

Paul Harvey (Humanitarian Outcomes) 3 January 2013, 16:55

In response to Tony's point above about the State of the Humanitarian System survey findings and my comment that aid recipients are 'generally supportive of humanitarian aid whilst recognising its shortcomings'.

I should have been clearer that I was referring to the first State of the System report that I was more involved in writing and where we reviewed the Listening Project reports, HAP reports and others sources of beneficiary feedback.

As you correctly point out the survey results from the more recent State of the System report are mixed with substantial percentages of the respondents dissatisfied with the level of consultation, sufficiency, timeliness and quality of aid received. How you view these results is a but of a glass half full or half empty exercise - I was surprised by the high percentages of people who were satisfied - but they could certainly be much improved. It's worth noting that the survey was a very small pilot one and there's a crying need for more systematic and widespread surveys of the views of disaster affected populations. There's also a need for the more qualitative type of opinion gathering that the Listening Project undertook.

John Mitchell

John Mitchell (ALNAP) 8 January 2013, 10:10

Thanks so much to everyone who has contributed to this discussion. It has provided much food for thought and this is a good moment to take stock of where the discussion has taken us.

This blog reflects a general response from humanitarians whenever a critical piece appears in the media. The perception is that journalists build their criticisms on highly selected evidence and ignore the good things about humanitarian aid and the countless lives it has saved, even in very difficult situations. Although scrutiny by the press is generally accepted and welcomed, it is nearly always one-sided and the concern is that the public is presented with a skewed picture. A lot of people increasingly feel that journalists have an obligation to more thorough and accurate in their programming.

But is this perception right? Some contributors to this blog think not. They point out that agencies are defensive and unable to accept criticism. Indeed, one contributor asserts that the practice of 'embedding' results in agencies cosying up with journalists and getting an easy ride. Most interestingly perhaps, it is suggested that it is unfair to expect journalists to be balanced in their documentaries or broadcasts. They have the right to say whatever they want and the humanitarian community needs to accept this.

This makes for an interesting discussion as none of this is particularly clear cut. It is true that there is some defensiveness in agencies and in the system as a whole - just like in any industry - but the evidence is that we are our own biggest critics - just look at the JEEAR, the TEC and the reports on ALNAP's Haiti Learning and Accountability Portal.

I am not sure how the practice of 'embedding' has affected our relationship with the media but my observation is that the most recent broadcasts on humanitarian aid have been relentlessly critical and prompted reactions from many including Sir John Holmes and Dame Barbara Stocking that the reporting was 'unnecessarily negative' and 'misleading'. See our blog on Ed Stourton's prime time radio broadcast 'Haiti and the Truth about NGOs'. If embedding does lead to uncritical reporting on some occasions, journalists need to apply principles of healthy scepticism and consider alternative views to both overly positive and negative accounts.

At the heart of all of this is whether there really is an obligation on the media to make balanced, evidence based programmes. Is it realistic for us to expect that journalists adhere to the principles of good research - or does the humanitarian community need to accept that the media works to a different script? Tony Vaux, for example, believes that the makers of the programme simply had to demonstrate their hypothesis that sometimes aid does harm but had no obligation to show that aid also may have done good.

The National Union of Journalists has a 12-point Code of Conduct which includes the need to ensure that 'information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair' and 'differentiates between fact and opinion'. I am not sure if this extends to the individuals who make 'historical documentaries' like 'The Trouble with Aid' but I am told that filmmakers have a duty to 'honour the viewers' trust' and 'the trust of their subjects' as a guiding principle in their work. I wonder if the makers of these programmes are happy that they have abided by their own principles?

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