Posts Tagged ‘humanitarian’

When I began grad school for journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I had every intention of preparing myself for a career in international reporting.  For me, effectively communicating across cultural tensions is a fulfilling lifelong pursuit.  Journalism is a means of addressing apathy towards issues of human rights abuses, poverty and natural disasters that largely derive from physical distance.

Foreign correspondents recognize this disconnect and seek out the nitty-gritty details and personal narrative in desperate situations that will drive these issues home with their viewers.  I would argue that the best liaisons are able to balance these disheartening exposes with empowering stories of hope and inspiration, which often aren’t celebrated enough.

My celebrity moment: Meeting Lisa Ling when she came to speak at Gustavus Adolphus College.

While I’d still choose coffee with Nicholas Kristof or Lisa Ling over dinner with any Hollywood hunk, I’ve discovered an alternative to foreign reporting that has shifted my international news ideals.  The goal – raising awareness – hasn’t changed, but the strategy has.  Instead of sending Western reporters to report on foreign issues, these media organizations I’m interested in allocate their resources to helping local journalists report on humanitarian issues that they have unique access to in their own communities.  Even a well-intentioned Western reporter may not be fully equipped with the language skill and cultural understanding needed to access sensitive, nuanced issues such as women’s rights and child labor systems.

Since August, I’ve been keeping a list of international news organizations that cater to grass-roots journalists and the growing number of citizen journalists in developing countries.  To varying degrees, these organizations are specifically dedicated to empowering female reporters to report on women’s issues, which are grossly underreported in the media, at large.  Check out the Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media for more details. (more…)


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Five children around the world die every minute because of chronic malnutrition.

Source:  Associated Press article

How long did you contemplate this fact?  Can you translate numbers into faces?  Did you question its accuracy?  What does it mean to you and the life you lead?

Nonprofits, humanitarian organizations and development agencies are infamous for splashing statistics across their websites and outreach materials. These attempts to quantify global human rights issues are necessary for strategic planning, funding and program evaluation.  However, they do little in the way of provoking a level of empathy that translates into individual action.  Numbers are impersonal.

Shankar Vedantam best explains our penchant for helping a single stranger over a large group of strangers in his article, The Little Lost Dog at Sea.  Using the example of an internationally backed rescue mission to save a dog abandoned at sea, Vedantam posits that the same outpouring of support would not have happened if there had been, say, 100 dogs onboard.  We are more likely to help when the issue is presented on a scale we can cope with, one that promises a moral sense of return.  Getting at the ineffectiveness of large-scale humanitarian statistics, Vendantam explains:

Our empathic telescopes are activated when we hear a single cry for help….When we think of human suffering on a mass scale, our telescope does not work, because it has not been designed to work in such situations. Humans are the only species that is even aware of large-scale suffering taking place in distant lands; the moral telescope in our brain has not had a chance to evolve and catch up with our technological advances.

Consider all the statistic-laden reports that humanitarian groups pump out annually on maternal health, water borne illnesses, genital mutilation, etc.  A majority of this data remains buried in Excel tables.

[Enter data visualization tools] (more…)

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By Midwestern standards, this has been an unsettling warm winter. An unforgiving blast of cold is quickly followed by complete calm and dripping overhangs, triggering sentiments of spring. When it comes to wearing appropriate attire, people seem to be confused. Runners in shorts bounce past those in knee-length parkas and clunky winter boots. When it comes to work ethic, the giddy energy associated with the mock spring weather is more distracting than a blanket of snow, which is conducive for hunkering down to work or study.

This mild winter isolates the humanitarian threats and dangers of winter from those fortunate enough to have reliable indoor heating, warm clothing and full meals. But when the New York Times reported that 28 children had died from the cold in refugee camps in Afghanistan, since mid-January, the harsh reality of winter broke back into mainstream media and the consciousness of readers.

Despite the Afghan government’s early denial of winter-related deaths, aid groups such as USAID, Welthungerhilfe and Aschiana, among others, have been working to provide basic winter provisions and bear the weight of witnessing such immense need. (more…)

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In order to attract public support, humanitarian organizations need to create a brand.  They need a distinguished cause, mission, or even a celebrity face that will attract loyal donations and volunteer efforts.   Appealing to the impulses of a consumer culture, a majority of these organizations sell merchandise.  It sounds ideal – purchase something trendy and support a worthy cause, all in one swift transaction.  But I find myself wondering whether this commodification of humanitarianism is compromising something.  Do we favor charity that we can wear?  What are our motives?  Or is humanitarian apparel an earnest option for the socially conscious shopper?


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