Humanitarian Disaster Tourism: In Search of Victims

Both the ‘solidarity’ NGOs, with a deeper commitment to international involvement in conflict resolution, and the ‘developmental’ NGOs tended to portray the non-Western subject as incapable of self-government and in need of long-term external assistance.

This approach led relief agency guides to take visitors to the worst places, stressing the dependence of the people on outside support and making exaggerated dire predictions of the future. Journalists and media editors knew in advance what a ‘humanitarian story’ looked like. The overall plot has been characterised by Benthall as a moral ‘fairy story’. This ‘fairy story’ had three components, familiar because they are the essence of the human rights intervention ‘stories’ of the present. The first component was the hapless victim in distress. In the famine ‘fairy story’ this victim was always portrayed through film of the worst cases of child malnutrition in the worst feeding centres. In cases of civil conflict the victims were often war refugees who had been ‘ethnically cleansed’. The second component was the villain, the non-Western government or state authority [or Western government(s), surely, or capitalism in general], which had caused famine and poverty through its corruption or wrong spending policies, or had consciously embarked on a policy of genocide or mass repression. The third component in the humanitarian ‘fairy tale’ was the saviour, the aid agency, the international institution or even the journalists covering the story. The saviour was an external agency whose interests were seen to be inseparable from those of the deserving victim.

The search for victims has dominated media coverage of humanitarian crises [including every televised war]. The Kosovo crisis, for example, saw journalists ‘impatient to find a “good” story – i.e. a mass atrocity’. Many Western journalists were dispatched to Macedonia and Albania with the sole purpose of finding a rape victim. Benedicte Giaever of the OSCE was angered that ‘almost every journalist who came to see her asked one thing: could she give them a rape victim to interview’. This approach, which takes the humanitarian crisis out of a political context to tell a ‘fairy tale’ or moral story has been termed the ‘journalism of attachment’. This style of journalism has been forcefully criticised:

Far from raising public understanding of the horrors of war, their reports mystify what conflicts are really about. By abstracting acts of violence from any wider conflict over political aims, they remove any possibility of people seeing what caused the war. The result of imposing a ready-made Good v Evil framework on every situation is that conflicts can only be understood as the consequence of man’s atavistic, bestial urges. Instead of ‘humanising’ a war, this approach ultimately dehumanises all those involved.

Alex de Waal terms the outlook of the international humanitarian agencies, and the media promotion of their cause, ‘disaster tourism’; in humanitarian crises they selectively saw the worst and assumed the worst. The lack of knowledge of the severity of the famine, drought or civil conflict led to exaggerated predictions of the death toll, and, of course, the need for support for the agency’s declared rights-based humanitarian aims. The predominant approach of humanitarian interventionists to the conflicts in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda demonstrates the dangers inherent in this perspective. The humanitarian NGOs have explained the civil conflicts as the products of local circumstances, from which it can only be concluded that the people of these regions are uncivilised, prone to violent and savage ethnic passions or at the very least easily manipulated by government propaganda because they lack independent critical faculties.

SOURCE: From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond: Human Rights and International Intervention, new ed., by David Chandler (Pluto Press, 2006), p. 36-37 [reference citations removed]

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