When transparency and humanitarian aid clash

July 4, 2010 § 1 Comment

A little background

Last week, I wrote about NGO’s and photographers, and cited a paper by Kimberly Abbott (on the Nieman Journalism Lab website) specifically about the new trend in partnerships between NGO’s and journalists in general. In that paper, she makes a lot of references to the complex ethics of such partnerships.

Each side of this partnership has ethical issues to consider. Journalists have to worry about maintaining editorial control and maintaining their audience’s trust in the truth of their reporting. Abbott sums up those questions as, “Can journalists really maintain independence when there is a stakeholder involved? And will the arrangement undermine the audience’s trust in the media, no matter how altruistic the cause?”

On the other side, NGO’s have to be very careful not to compromise the health, safety, and well-being of both their staff and their beneficiaries. Abbott writes, “Long after any collaboration produces a story, NGO’s must continue to work on the ground. If there is a perception that a group is helping one side of the conflict or the other, the lives of staffers, especially nationals, can be endangered, along with their beneficiaries.

“Compromising neutrality can also mean compromising access to vulnerable populations, or risking the ability to work at all. Governments in many countries are often looking for reasons to shut down or silence NGO’s, and affiliation with the wrong news report can give those governments the excuse they need.”

I think she sums up these ethical dilemmas very well. When I was working for the IRC in Tanzania, a number of years ago, an incident occurred that put this very set of issues into perspective for me.

And an anecdote

Our office was responsible for the medical care of about 80,000 Burundian and Congolese refugees in northwestern Tanzania, housed in 4 camps—less than ¼ of the total number of refugees housed in camps in Tanzania at that time. There were somewhere between 6 and 10 different large NGO’s working in these camps in our area, and the UNHCR ran the show.

Security in the camps was provided by the Tanzanian police force. Police came from different parts of the country to staff the camps in six-month shifts. You’d have police from Zanzibar, then police from Dodoma, then police from Dar es Salaam, changing every six months.

According to my colleagues at the various NGO’s, this meant that crime spiked every six months, as police prepared to leave the area, and thus lost any interpersonal accountability for their actions within the community.

Soon after I arrived at my job, one of these shifts was about to take place.

One day a shooting occurred in one of the camps. A fight had broken out in the market, I heard. Somehow, a police officer had been shot.

The police then went on a rampage through the camp, “looking for the perpetrator.” (There was some speculation afterward that it had been a policeman who had done the shooting—the details I learned about the incident were all very confused.) They accosted hundreds (maybe a thousand?) people, and arrested 20. Those 20 were taken to the local jail and tortured.

Because our organization was responsible for all the medical facilities in the camps, one of the doctors I worked with was asked to examine and care for the prisoners. I spoke to him when he returned from seeing them. He found that people had had broken bottles inserted into their orifices, and bicycle spokes inserted into their ears.

It seemed to me, as a newly arrived “program assistant” that we should write about this—that the police should not be allowed to get away with this kind of thing. I started working on an article to be sent out to the head office, in New York.

Meanwhile the NGO’s all held a meeting. They discussed the issue, and what would happen to the various constituencies involved if word of this behavior got out.

On the one hand, the police needed to be held accountable, and this was a terrifying occurrence. On the other hand, if the police (and therefore the national government) lost face, and were made to look incompetent, it would be very likely that major changes to refugee policies would be enacted, perhaps even expelling people from the country (and pushing them back into the war they had fled from). The way stations were already ludicrously overloaded at that time, filled with people who were coming into Tanzania and waiting for official approval in order to move into a camp. Sleeping structures built to house 40 people were housing two and three times as many. Men and women were all crammed in together. Rapes were occurring. People had nothing to do and were despondent. All of those people were being made to suffer already because of Tanzanian politics. And the IRC ran the way stations—they were tied to and responsible for all these people.

The NGO’s decided not to release any information about the torture.

I deleted my article. I was aghast. But I could also see the reasons for their decisions. The long-term benefits to transparency seemed to outweigh the short-term benefits in theory, but in real life, it was impossible to choose to jeopardize so many lives.

That’s just one reason why NGO’s and journalists have to recognize and understand their differences, even as they find new ways to collaborate. Stories like this one need to be told, but it cannot always be the NGO’s who tell them.

And man, these situations are so incredibly complicated. I’m still trying to make sense out of these things…and failing.

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