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The Trouble with Aid
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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