Tag Archives: Media

The Three Ds of Search and Rescue

A hand stretches from water and another from the side of a boat. A rare moment of purity in humanitarian work.  The hands clasp, and a life is saved. It is far from coincidence that this purity flourishes on the open sea, in a space beyond the borders of states, a no-man’s non-land where, unaided, human survival can be counted in minutes.

Source: AFP

We can be proud that there in the Mediterranean the humanitarian imperative to save lives defeats the savagery and oppression that force millions into a desperate displacement, defeats the policies of democratic nations that eliminate safe and legal alternatives for people to reach Europe and defeats the evil greed of the smugglers (misnomer alert!**). Those victories are, however, short-lived.

Last week search and rescue (SAR) operations pulled over 11,000 people from the sea, from boats so densely packed they recall the slave ships of centuries past. That is a spectacular number of hands. But the purity of search and rescue is a deceptive purity, one that masks costs borne by the humanitarian organizations engaged in SAR, by the fundamental principles and ideals of human rights and by the people pulled from the sea themselves.  Because once that moment of purity has passed we leave the sea for land, where the humanitarian ethos collides with political reality, fear and gutless self-interest.

The image we have of rescue in the Mediterranean is a naïve one, for in fact the human quest for freedom and security and refuge often leads to the not-so-Hollywood ending of low-budget incarceration.  From the sea and into the realm of mankind we might better append three Ds to SAR: Search and Rescue and Delivery into Detention and Deportation.  Official containment policy propels this punitive approach, and research has shown the “highly detrimental impact of detention on the health of migrants and asylum-seekers”, not to mention the degradation (see this article in the excellent June 2016 issue of Refugee Survey Quarterly).  SAR teams deal with consequences; they struggle with their inescapable complicity in the matter (see this analysis of MSF’s difficult and lengthy internal debate). As humanitarians they choose the life of those at sea over DDD, but they do not have to like that choice.

Humanitarian organizations and other activists alike have lifted their voices in protest, against the conditions and policies of detention, against the failure of our ideals and legal obligations to protect people in danger and against the human cost of political leadership’s deliberate failure to establish anything close to a functioning safe and legal alternative to reaching Europe. Those protests have not fallen on deaf ears, but they have fallen on ears that place political survival above principled commitment.  From a different angle: their protest is drowned out by the protest of those more anti-immigration in persuasion. The Aylan Kurdi moments of overwhelming public compassion prove too brief to sustain policy.  And almost cruelly, humanitarians must ponder their role in that as well, for the power of humanitarian purity renders much else invisible.  In this case, the mediatique drama of the rescue at sea obscures both the prologue and the epilogue.

** What does sending thousands of people into the sea on unseaworthy boats have to do with smuggling? What are the smugglers concealing and conveying?  They aren’t even on the boats any longer. This is not smuggling. This is mass murder.

The trouble with refugee summits

[Apologies for the long absence – I have been working on two large projects and distracted from my usual flow of sideways thinking.]

Is Tuesday a good time for a scattering of ideas?

1. The real problem with hype.

The UN Refugee Summit – all hype and no substance? A typically good read from IRIN. The question we have to ask as a sector, and I think within the framework of research rather than accusation, is whether the emptiness of hype constitutes the full extent of the damage. Do summits, conferences and other grand ‘change change change’ plus ‘build back better’ moments actually produce more negative than positive outcomes? Specifically – and I’ve blogged on this before, in the aftermath of Angelina Jolie and William Hague’s 2013 proclamation of a ‘historic moment’ in ending rape in conflict – do these well-hyped declarations actually function to diminish the likelihood of positive change? Did Bill Clinton’s ‘build back better’ speech help doom Haiti to the not-so-built-back future it would soon discover?

Mechanisms? The obvious question is whether the well-reported declarations of world leaders take the winds out of the sails of public pressure? Will people across the West now sleep better, knowing that the refugee problem is being dealt with by no less than Barack Obama and the entire United Nations?  More important than public urgency, what about pressure from within the sector? Do these global launches generate too much of an opportunity for the aid system to capture momentum, political will and (surprise surprise) funding, only to transform it into conferences, evaluations, policy discussions, guidelines, and the unproductive yet satisfying busy-ness of saving the world? One might ask, “Where’s the beef?”

2. Fight the fear, not the violence?

The Viet Nam war produced the incongruous situation whereby young black American males were removed from the civil rights struggle and shipped off to fight in Viet Nam. A journalist/historian named Wallace Terry interviewed these soldiers. As I listened to this fascinating BBC program on Terry’s work, one moment caught my ear. One of the soldiers interviewed talked excitedly about the Black Panthers, justifying their violence because blacks had to fear the police and fear the KKK, so it would be a positive and fair change if white people also had something to fear.  I couldn’t help wondering if that same logic hasn’t fused with jihadi anger against the US or Europe.  Which prompts the strategic question of how to get rid of their fear?

3. Respond to the fear (and to the suffering, loss, hopelessness, anxiety…), not just the violence

And while I am on the topic, the news from the US when it comes to inner city gun violence will be one of the great producers of phd theses a hundred years from now. It defies comprehension. Here’s a recent headline: In Chicago’s Deadliest Day Of 2016, 9 People Killed In Shootings On Monday. Get that? On a Monday.

In a timely BBC piece, the journalist attaches himself to a local rapper to penetrate one of the most violent Chicago neighborhoods. The report quickly transports. I slipped into voyeurism, appalled and yet enthralled by the combination of youth, energy, guns and lurid deaths. The entertainment ended at 12:53, when our tour guide broke through to my human side. Worth the watch.

Parts of Chicago must surely define a humanitarian crisis. I say that less because of the violence than because of the pain, the unfathomable grief, anxiety, powerlessness and waste that produce urban landscapes seemingly imagined by Cormac McCarthy. Trauma wounds may be dealt with at the hospital, but where is MSF with its psycho-social programming for the tens of thousands of victims? Because ‘this shit will fuck you up’ and because you know that the US healthcare system isn’t offering mental health care? Where is Save the Children with its ‘Child Friendly Spaces’? Or, more simply, how do we respond to these Americans who desperately need to ‘get out’ of a place that ‘ain’t normal’?

4. “Where’s the tofu?”

Tired of the gloom? Here is a rather devastating take on humanitarian action, cleverly disguised as a restaurant review. “It’s the good intentions that sink vegetative restaurants. They are selling the goodness of their intentions in the hope that you’re more interested in filling the karma bank than your stomach. The explanations of the ingredients are always longer than the recipes. Vegetarian places are to restaurants what the Big Issue is to journalism… It’s a commitment to niceness and oneness and caring and nurturing. The Big Issue is vegetarian journalism.”  That’s the brilliant AA Gill’s Table Talk review of Tiny Leaf restaurant (Sunday Times Magazine 21 February 2016). By the way, he gave the restaurant two out of five stars.


Jubilation in the Streets

Back in youger days (not exactly youth, but pre gray hair) I decided to escape the tedium of law school by volunteering for the American Red Cross.  I ended up spending Wednesday nights driving around New York, providing coupons for assistance (temporary shelter, replacement clothes and furniture, food, etc.) to people affected by house fires.  A little known program: the ARC visited almost every fire in town almost right after the firetrucks left.  The acrid smell of wet, burned furniture used to hang in my nose for a day or two.

Fires practiced an active discrimination along class lines, so we spent the wee hours of the morning driving to high rise projects in the Bronx, crack den infested row homes in Bed-Stuy, or a part of the Rockaways nicknamed “Dodge City” by my colleague.  These were parts of town I’d never seen, and would not feel safe to visit even in the afternoon.  Streets pulsing with drugs, dereliction and anger; teeming with people right off the grid of basic citizenship.

To my disbelief, the ARC logo on our jackets and car provided the sort of shield humanitarians can only dream of (not to mention a license to park on the sidewalk).  It took a little while to get used to this freedom of access where my eyes delivered pant-peeing images. Once inside the building, we would visit the site of the fire and then the neighbors, including two or three floors above, to assess smoke damage, and three or four floors below, to gauge water damage (I’d never thought of what happens when you blast thousands of gallons of water into a 15th floor apartment). 

In those visits came the revelation; the clarity of my misjudgment of the local reality.  Leaving the mayhem and violence on the street, knocking on doors, resident after resident after resident opened a minimum of three locks to reveal small neat homes crowded with religious icons and proud photos of high school graduations.  These were the quiet poor, by far the majority population of those neighborhoods, who seemingly bunkered themselves to survive the night.

That’s more or less where I came to believe in the 5-95 principle for urban neighborhoods, where the density of people meant that a mere 5 percent rate of dysfunctionality reflected close to 100 percent of the visible inhabitants at night.  I guess it’s another variant on the “tip of the iceberg” problem, except that the ice below the surface probably looks pretty much like the ice on the top.

Cut to Tripoli yesterday, where we watched or read about scene after scene of jubilant crowds, rejoicing in the departure of Colonel Gadaffi.  Some of these (mostly under-30 male) celebrants were also feting the arrest of Gadaffi’s third son, Saif al-Islam, except that he showed up to later in the day, and apparently had addressed his own jubilant crowds.  Aside from the war, then, Libya seems awash in jubilant crowds.  What I wonder about is the invisible majority we don’t see.  Where are they and what do they think?

There’s nothing new in the way TV images can distort reality on the ground, whether it’s an impression of overwhelming contempt for Gadaffi, or the way in which a focus on 200 protesters becomes the prevailing image in a perfectly calm metropolis the size of Luxemburg, or how the media-and-NGO-selected starving baby show generates a public who expect all African children to be severely wasted.  No, nothing new there, and a fairly duh blog if I stop here. 

What interests me more is, first, the way in which we seem to accept these distortions when they conform to our world view.  I’m not talking about the public here, I’m talking about us insiders, sunburned aid workers, savvy diplomats, and perhaps even the media themselves.  We are quick to accept the truth of the jubilant anti-Gadaffi crowds and suspect foul play – a propaganda exercise of paid supporters! – when the scene is reversed.  There’s a lot of cultural bias in our filtering of info!  Hence, what interests me even more is the degree to which we base our program decisions on an understanding of the world that is shaped by our penchant for misperception, for believing our eyes even though we know that we’re seeing only the 5 percent (and that’s if we’re really really lucky).  I’m worried about the way a manager based in London might impose a curfew on a field team having watched a news report showing images of rioters in the center of the city, but even more about the way we seem convinced that Gadaffi is so universally despised within Libya that we’ve taken sides and are hungrily expecting peace and harmony to follow the “mission accomplished” moment of his demise.