Journalists should not be the public relations team for NGOs | 

MSF press briefing.
MSF press briefing.
Médecins Sans Frontières

The following post is by Mike Jennings and originally appeared on his blog.

When I read a review of a hotel in the travel section of my favorite newspaper, the fact of who has paid for the accommodation is usually stated somewhere at the bottom: accommodation was provided by a travel company / the hotel, etc. In the Observer restaurant review, Jay Raynor pays for his food himself, and actively resists the freebies that might accrue from a chef desperate to curry favor. In refereed journals, published research should as a matter of course identify the funding which supported the work.

Different examples, but one common theme: I want to know whether the review I am reading might possibly be colored by a complimentary bottle of Petrus or a freely-provided suite. And I especially want to know whether research that tells me how good ACME Cure-fast is for healing all ills has been funded by the ‘independent’ ACME Foundation for Encouraging Tame Researchers to Say What We Want Them To. The same applies to stories on the news: have they been ‘placed’ by a PR company, ‘spun’ by the spokesperson of a government department, and who has written the narrative – the journalist or someone else?

This week George Alagiah was presenting a number of pieces on South Sudan across the BBC news platforms. They were interesting and good reports. One was on maternal and child health care services, and the tragedy of the number of newborns who die within 24 hours of birth. The interviews with mothers who had recently lost their children were sensitively done for the most part.

But in this report, a few things stood out. The health clinic with whom the reporter was travelling was, we were told, supported by Save the Children. Save the Children logos on the clothes of those being filmed, and on the cars George and his team were travelling in, were prominent. The story was linked to a report and campaign being launched by the NGO, and its Chief Executive Justin Forsyth spoke from South Sudan to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.

Now of course, there is nothing wrong with this campaign, nor with its being reported. But it is a reminder of how many news stories across much of sub-Saharan Africa are driven (and the narrative shaped and controlled) by NGOs. This is by no means an egregious example – this is certainly not the mess of media reporting that was Goma in the late 1990s.

Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Save the Children, from ensuring its branding is on display, and being identified as the sole supporter of the hospital at Nimule, is in the driving seat. At one point it was reported that ‘according to Save the Children’, around 4,100 children die within their first 24 hours of life. But this isn’t a figure that comes from the NGO. It comes from WHO statistics. It may seem a rather petty thing to be concerned with, given the tragedy and horror that statistic points underscores, but surely responsible reporting should be going to the source (I would, for example, expect my students to go to the original source)

There is widespread concern that too many media stories are driven by NGOs who provide not only access, transport, and ‘facts’, but more worryingly, the narrative as well. Indeed, I have heard George Alagiah himself voice concern on this precise issue. This is not to say NGOs should not get their campaigns, findings or concerns on the news; nor that journalists should not engage with NGOs. But more care needs to be taken to both assert media independence and provide full transparency.

Where reporters are given access via an NGO, use their transport, are taken to particular areas or facilities by an organisation, this needs to be clearly stated during the report. Surely no-one believes any more than just because the organisation is a humanitarian one, it is free from questions of self-interest in the shaping of narratives?

NGOs have private interests, as much as altruistic humanitarian objectives. Just as we should be careful of the PR experts who spin government stories, and rightly mock the shambles of Mastercard’s PR company trying to dictate what journalists should say in return for tickets to the Brits, we also need the media to ensure full and open independence from even those organisations whose humanitarian motives would seem to be honorable and decent.

Above all, let’s not forget that NGOs have increasing numbers of very professional, very skilled PR teams whose job is to raise the profile of the organisation and its campaigns. And the job of journalists should be to make use of, but not be driven by, those PR teams, no matter what kind of organisation they work for.

Hey NGOs! Stop fighting with each other! | 

If you’re sincere about fighting poverty, you shouldn’t be trying to out-compete someone else who’s also fighting poverty.

Bookda Gheisar
Bookda Gheisar

You should be supporting their efforts and sharing resources. That might seem like an obvious point, but too often, NGOs are squabbling with one another. Even in Seattle (where everyone is supposedly nice to each other but really rather passive-aggressive), nonprofits are competing for grant dollars more than they’re collaborating.

So says Bookda Gheisar. And she would know. She’s the outgoing executive director of Global Washington, a membership organization that counts prominent philanthropic groups – from MercyCorps to the Gates Foundation to smaller groups like Burkitt’s Lymphoma Kenya Fund – among its constituents. Gheisar talks with Tom Paulson on this week’s podcast about why NGOs don’t work together as well as they should, the pros and cons of labelling the NGO sector an “industry,” and the rare instances where nonprofits have acted as a unified front. If you work in this sector, you’ll want to listen to this.

Before the interview, though, Tom and I discuss the hottest headlines on Humanosphere from the past week, including the new global momentum towards universal healthcare (and how the US lags behind), and why Americans are still clueless about foreign aid.  No, we are not hating on America. We just think to those whom much is given, much is expected.

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Rohingya Refugee Postscript: Video | 

I discussed the issue of Bangladesh and the Rohingya refugees of Myanmar a bit yesterday. This short report from Al Jazeera provides further information about the ethnic conflict that has lead to the displacement of the Rohingya and how the refugees are living in tents and rely upon food aid.

Worth a watch.

PATH ranked world’s 6th best NGO; Gates Fdn doesn’t make top 100 | 

Old Dominion University

All those magazine rankings out there — of the best hospitals, best doctors or best sushi bars — are popular but often highly suspect if not downright absurd due to organizations manipulating the evaluation process, weird and arbitrary criteria or just plain old sloppiness.

That said, Wikimedia Foundation has been ranked number one by Global Journal’s listing of the top 100 NGOs (non-governmental organizations).

Global Journal is a Geneva-based magazine aimed at becoming the insider’s guide to what it describes as the “global issues” scene. It also says at its (pricey) subscription site online that it is devoted to promoting “global governance.” Not sure that’s likely to sell too well in the U.S.

I do appreciate the Wikimedia Foundation, and its primary product Wikipedia. But is the online encyclopedia really more influential as a global issues player or doing more to make the world the better place than, say, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or World Vision?

Neither of these two local mega-NGOs made the Journal’s list. I asked Global Journal to explain this, but haven’t heard back yet. Still, a few other Seattle-based or Northwest organizations did make the grade.

PATH was ranked by Global Journal as the 6th best NGO in the world — preceded by Partners in Health, Oxfam, BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) and the International Rescue Committee. Other local organizations on the best 100 NGOs list included Mercy Corps and Landesa. Continue reading

Two views on disaster relief in Japan | 

Flickr, jchong

More than a month after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that struck northeast Japan, experts are still analyzing the cataclysmic event and coming to startling conclusions — such as the recent announcement the tsunami was more than 120 feet high in at least one location.

Another surprising observation made early on by some aid experts was that, despite the size and scope of the tragedy, Japan didn’t want or need disaster relief assistance.

Some aid watchdog organizations, like GiveWell, have consistently recommended against donating to the relief effort — and specifically questioned a $1 million Gates Foundation grant to Mercy Corps for Japan relief work.

Throughout the crisis, the Japanese government had asked that private, outside relief organizations stay away because of the pressure outsiders put on the already strained infrastructure and resources.

Some did, some didn’t. But many did actively solicit funds to assist Japan.

One aid worker who wrote a post for Humanosphere anonymously called the fund-raising done by many aid groups an “ugly game” because it was unlikely the money would be needed in Japan, the third wealthiest nation in the world.

Others said it may have been misleading, but it was a legitimate opportunity to raise funds that could be used elsewhere to help those in crises given less media attention.

Japan did seek and receive assistance from governments, the U.S. military and the International Red Cross. But it’s still not clear to what extent private relief organizations have been able to assist.

Here are two views.

One is from Joy Portella of Mercy Corps, which did offer active assistance in Japan. Portella says:

If you had asked me two months ago if Mercy Corps – which normally works in impoverished places like Afghanistan, Somalia and North Korea – would ever respond to an earthquake in Japan, I would have said “no way.” That was before this incredibly unusual event, and before I saw Japan’s devastation and need with my own eyes.

Another view is offered by Derek Sciba of World Concern. The organization decided early on not to try to offer direct assistance in Japan. Sciba says:

World Concern’s mission is to serve the poorest of the poor in developing countries – those who have no means of responding themselves, or rebuilding their lives. Because of this, we have elected to not mount a direct response in Japan – or to solicit funds on a large scale. It was a decision that we did not take lightly, but it has to do with who World Concern is called to serve.

You can read their full perspectives below. Continue reading

Guest post: The ugly game of relief for Japan | 

Flickr, jchong

Note: This is a post written by an aid worker I know who, for reasons of employment, doesn’t wish to be identified.


Over the last day, my email inbox has filled with appeals for aid to Japan.

I’ve heard from International Medical Corps, the World Food Programme, the American Red Cross, MSF, and JustGive. That’s the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Oh, and Lady Gaga has a bracelet.

How many of the groups raising money for Japan are actually in Japan providing aid? The Red Cross, kind of.  It’s supporting the Japanese Red Cross, I guess, although the Japanese Red Cross has been quoted saying they don’t need assistance right now.

IMC doesn’t have a presence of any kind in Japan. Neither does Doctors without Borders, Save the Children, or anyone else. World Vision has an office in Japan, but it’s a fundraising office devoted to getting donations for work in Asia. They’re not exactly out there with a helicopter and a search dog. Continue reading