BBC & Sky Refuse Gaza Appeal

The BBC and Sky television refuse to broadcast a two-minute appeal for humanitarian aid for the children of Gaza, contending that to do so would risk the impartiality of news coverage.

A coalition of thirteen humanitarian agencies is participating in the Disasters Emergency Committee to provide emergency assistance to the people of Gaza.

Dr. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, had the most concise criticism saying, “This is not a row about impartiality but rather about humanity.”

Media and Development

The agreement between the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) and the Guardian, the London-based daily newspaper, to document a development program in Kitane, Uganda is leading to interesting and valuable insights into the relationship between the non-profit development organization and the journalists covering the effort.

The interaction between development and journalism has long fascinated and frustrated me. It’s fascinating because the expectations raised by the presence of a journalist in an on-the-ground development program are remarkably diverse, and often so divergent as to be fantastic.

People in the local community often have unrealistically high expectations that the telling of their story will have immediate positive results. It’s as if their lives will change overnight for the better. The development staff are likely to be very skeptical and less-than-transparent for fear the telling of the slightest screw-up or failure will put the whole enterprise at risk. Or, they expect the journalists to be an extension of their public relations efforts, or, even better, to become a de facto fundraiser for the project.

The journalist may also face conflicting choices in reporting. If committed to the idealistic goals of the project–to improve the harsh conditions under which people live–how much of the unsuccessful venture should be reported? On the other hand, it’s neither fair nor accurate to fail to report on it.

This leads to a careful dance and many ethical decisions that all concerned must weigh. And this brief list is only a starting point. Drill deeper and you’ll find much more beyond these simple illustrations.

It’s frustrating because development does not reduce well to simplistic stories of good deeds nor well-intended charity yet it is often framed in precisely this way.

Humanitarian aid does not exist in a vacuum. Aid agencies and journalists operate in an environment of living, breathing, ever-changing cultural, social and political interactions. And these introduce competition, conflict and ambiguity as well as cooperation, community-building and civic responsibility. And, of course, there are power relationships, sometimes so obvious they are blinding and sometimes so opaque it’s impossible to discern who’s on first, on or top.

The conversation on the Kitane blogs is revealing. These different expectations well up and create new learnings and present the ethical dilemmas in striking relief.

Among the most interesting conversations is about transparency. As I read the comments I recalled that covering development isn’t as simple nor as benign as sometimes assumed.

Development isn’t normally a front page story. It’s a slow, unfolding progression of steps unlike the cataclysm of war, famine or other shattering events. As a result, development gets short shrift. The drama of development is measured in small increments and the whole story can only be told after years of effort pay off in a functioning community with a sound economic base. These aren’t the ingredients of front-page drama.

The discussion on the Kitane blogs probes these issues with greater depth and with considerably more insight than we’re likely to see anywhere outside of scholarly journals or internal reports of development agencies.

For that reason, the Kitane project is a great contribution to both development journalism and development practice.

Carry the Constitution With You

I carry a copy of the U.S. Constitution in mini-booklet form with me when I travel. That, and a pocketbook-size scripture, plus miscellaneous reading material. I refer to the Constitution, sometimes out of idle curiosity and sometimes because I need to be reminded of its content and promise. Just as with scripture.

The two point to the highest ideals to which we can aspire. Normally I wouldn’t blog about spam but this Friday before Martin Luther King Day and the Inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama a promotional email for a pocket-size edition of the U.S. Constitution got my attention. This weekend it seems a more appropriate item than it might on other days.

Writing as Healing is not Blogging for Publication

A guest blogger on the Lifehack blog caught my attention with a short piece on writing as a form of self-healing. So did an article by Stephen Drachler on blogging by United Methodists. Blogging is personal writing published for the world to see, if you want it to be so. And therein lies the dilemma.

The Lifehack writer makes the point that writing for personal healing is significantly different from writing for publication. Drachler’s article points to the tensions. One blogger asked him to not use her name because she is still unidentified in her blog. And another ticked off a bishop when a blog post expressed something the bishop didn’t agree with.

When I started this blog some questioned my wisdom even if I was not writing about my professional responsibilities in the church. As it turns out, these do creep in. Others felt it was a waste of time because they said the audiences we serve don’t use blogs for information. As the leader of a communications agency, I had my own reservations.

But the communications problem of mainline church leaders is not that they’ve been outspoken in the public conversation, it’s that they’ve been, for the most part, absent. They are unable to garner the media coverage they deserve, or they avoid it.

This blog has not set the world afire, but I’m often amazed and surprised when I get a note from someone halfway around the world commenting on something I’ve written about a global issue. And I get touching personal notes that I don’t put into the comments because they weren’t written for publication. While the comments are paltry in number, I’m also surprised when I speak somewhere and someone comes up and engages me in conversation about something they’ve read here.

I don’t write this blog for self-healing, but I suspect getting something off my chest sometimes has that effect. At the same time, I impose constraints on myself, as we all should when we write for the Internet and don’t want to be fired or lose a job fifteen years from now for writing something carelessly.

I haven’t blasted away with the full emotional force I’ve felt about some controversial issues despite the fact that I’ve found plenty of reasons to do so in the past eight years and occasionally I probably wrote more forcefully than was “safe.”

But the most difficult challenge of blogging for me is finding a voice. Writing for the web is different from other kinds of writing, and it’s an area I’ve not trained for. Moreover, it goes against the grain of much of what I’ve been taught and practiced over the years.

After having my knuckles figuratively rapped by a journalism professor for not being objective, or for putting personal judgment into a piece when it didn’t belong, I began to write with such objectivity my stories were bland. So I had to reassess.

Now, bloggers must write not only for readers but for search engines. The old inverted pyramid is still the best tool for many stories, especially news, but putting as many key words as possible into the lead is still a challenge. And if I were a headline writer I’d starve because my headlines are so neutral and objective I’d be out the door in no time.

And, as you can see if you’ve gotten this far, brevity isn’t my strong suit. I admire those bloggers who are really good at getting key ideas into a few words. At this stage I’m not one of them.

But I keep trying.

Will Media Coverage Derail Health Care Reform?

In a provocative blog post on the Health Beat Blog Niko Karvounis discusses how media coverage of health care could derail health care reform. Karvounis offers an insightful review of health care coverage in mainstream media and says the challenge will be to make sure titillation doesn’t trump the issues.

The potential for this to happen is obvious. We see it in political coverage regularly. The tendency to cover personality clashes and political spats can take the place of reporting on less colorful but more important matters of policy that will ultimately shape the system.

The risk, says Karvounis, is that the insubstantial will detract from the substantial policy decisions that must be made. We will witness more “horse race” reporting and lose perspective about what’s important.

There are plenty of substantial gaps in health reporting already. Karvounis points to Kaiser Family Foundation research that reveals health care policy comprised less than one percent of news stories and just 27.4% of health-focused stories between January 2007 and June 2008.

In fact, the Foundation reports that news about health and health care comprised barely 4% of all news reported in that time period. Health policy comprised a scant 0.9%.

Karvounis quotes Mark Rushefsky and Kant Patel, authors of Politics, Power, and Policymaking: The Case of Health Care Reform in the 1990s, who say “mass media may not tell us what to think, but they are very successful in telling us what to think about.”

While it’s true the media may, to a significant degree, still focus our attention, Karvounis does not give attention to the availability of new media to mobilize and inform. While his assessment is on the mark, the use of these new media–cell phones, blogs, social networking, email–was not a factor in the most recent attempts at health care reform led by Hillary Clinton. These tools have matured and are more pervasive than ever before. So, while the challenge Karvounis issues to the media is valid, it may not be the only definitive challenge that needs to be heard.

The challenge to utilize other media to inform and mobilize is much more relevant today and could be a powerful way to build a grassroots movement for reform. We haven’t tested this yet, but the time is at hand. The model was pretty well tested during the political campaign and, by all accounts, found to be effective.

While I take Karvounis’ analysis seriously, I find myself saying, “Yes, but.” The “but” is that those citizen-based advocacy groups already at work on health care should give attention to creating a nationwide grassroots advocacy network for health care reform and for addressing the diseases of poverty globally using media available to them right now.

What concerns me about Karvounis’ analysis is not that it’s wrong, but that health care reform and public policy affecting global health are too important to leave to the media, politicians or the health care industry. Grassroots advocacy groups discussing strategy right now must expand beyond traditional approaches such as influencing Washington policy-makers one-by-one (as important this is), build communications networks and use digital media to mobilize the grassroots.

Doing so could potentially keep the focus of the mainstream media on the policy issues and keep the attention of the policymakers on what matters. Obviously, another significant challenge is to achieve consensus about policies and reforms. This is no less difficult today than it has been in the past. It’s more than a communications challenge, of course. It’s a matter of managing conflicting claims and competing solutions, and achieving an acceptable compromise that we can all live with. All the more reason to kick a communications network into gear and keep the focus of the national conversation on policy. If we don’t, this is where we will founder.

And if we do, it may be one way to assure that media coverage doesn’t derail health care reform.

Exploited Children

When Nicholas Kristof wrote of his experience with a young woman sold into prostitution in Phnom Penh he reminded me how little distance we’ve covered the past three decades in protecting children from exploitation.

Years ago I was sitting in a Land Cruiser waiting for a ferry in Cambodia when I saw the barrel of a missile launcher bob past the back window. As the weapon carrier came alongside me I saw a boy no more than eleven or twelve, considerably shorter than the missile strapped to his back. This was my first observation of child soldiers. But not the last.

Some years later I was in Mozambique where children were forcibly conscripted into an armed rebel movement known as Renamo. I visited a place where many of these children were being given safe haven because they were unable to return to their families. The families and their home villages were afraid of them. They had been trained to wreak terror, and they succeeded. Now, at the end of the fighting, they were unacceptable and unwanted.

Those who cared for them called them “traumatized children.” And that they were. Some were obviously depressed and withdrawn. Others would fight at the drop of a hat. Still others were so manic they could not sit in a classroom and learn.

Kristof’s story is about trafficking children for sex slavery. Unfortunately, horrific as this is, it’s but one of the ways children are exploited. Forced labor, conscription into militias, fake adoptions into indebted servitude, and children abandoned to exist on the streets are all among the list of horrors to which children around the world are subjected.

My friend Linda Robbins wrote in her Christmas letter, ” I am also persuaded that a pack of Montana wolves is more committed to rearing, training, and protecting their young than most human communities.

It may have ‘taken a village’ in the not so distant past, but today that euphemism is falling short all over the world.  Last weekend, a 24-year-old mother in my neighborhood felt inspired to trek down the street despite a sub-zero blizzard to get cigarettes.  She left her year-old toddler at home alone, to wander out an unlatched door into the alley in the snow, clad only in his diaper.  Wolves would not do this.

CNN today had yet another story of a prominent public figure accused of utilizing the internet to stalk children.  The international traffic in children for their bodies—or parts thereof—is a horror only humans could conceive.  A herd of elephants will quickly form a circle of protection around their young at the sound of an approaching Land Cruiser.  I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, and can’t help wondering:  where is the circle of safety for children today?”

Where, indeed? Here are a few places.

Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation

General Board of Church and Society

Children’s Defense Fund

Nothing But Nets

Publishing, Journalism, Music and New Digital Media

A postscript.

After writing this I discovered a couple of blog posts with different perspectives. Blogger Kelby Carr writes that newspapers are heading in the wrong direction by cutting content and paring down long form journalism.

Erin Kotecki Vest wrote about the journalistic results of the adaptation to brevity, short attention span and unwavering objectivity.

As a result of the proliferation of digital media, the restructuring of nearly every industry that deals with information–publishing, radio, television, journalism, advertising–is breath-taking.

Add to this the effects of digital distribution in the music industry and the arrival of new venues for information and entertainment that have never been a factor in the competition for mind space and it becomes clear just how fundamental is this change.

This isn’t a new thought, of course, but it’s a recurring theme in recent days. What brought it to mind was the move to the web by the Christian Science Monitor and staff reductions and the cancellation of two programs recently by NPR. These reductions also made it clear that the changes we’re living through affect non-profit as well as for-profit ventures. And the pressures are not only economic. They may include the need to reach a more diverse demographic, respond to globalization, find a more direct and efficient way to interact with an audience, provide a multimedia experience and offer new products.

The old models of producing and distributing information, and generating revenue if you’re in a for-profit corporation, are breaking down and new models are yet to be developed. (Did anyone really anticipate ring tones at the start of the cellphone revolution?)

Our non-profit organization recently announced a reduction of seven positions. We did everything within our capacity to assist these colleagues and most have already found new employment. That doesn’t mean the change is less wrenching or worrisome, nor that the issues we face are lessened. The problems aren’t resolved by cutting back. We still need to add skills in digital media.

It’s paradoxical that the strengths of the old models don’t count for much. For example, NPR is enjoying near-record audiences.  The Pew Center for People and the Press reports as newspaper readership declines, online readership is increasing. More revenue streams are available in the music industry but there’s still no clear pathway to viable business plans for content creators.

Digital production is not necessarily less expensive than print. In fact, it can be more expensive, and digital products are not necessarily more profitable.

Demand for information in multiple formats adds to the challenge. Audiences are not only fragmenting, media usage is expanding across a wider spectrum of media as costs rise and income stabilizes or decreases. If reach and audience size don’t matter as they once did, then clearly, the metrics of the old operating models don’t apply right now and perhaps they will never work the same again.

When the Detroit Free Press went to three-day home delivery the managing editor was emphatic that seven-day home delivery would not be restored. The move is not a temporary adaptation, it’s permanent.

Four days later the Free Press announced reductions and redeployment of staff, a plan for digital media distribution and more multimedia content. It’s a microcosm of the publishing industry today.

Each of these industries faces unique problems but, in general, as demand grows for information across various media, new staff skills are required to create and maintain expanded infrastructure, producers are needed to package and manage information, different information is called for as content weaves through and drives users to various media, and new products must be developed and marketed.

The trends identified in the State of the Media 2008 report by the Project on Excellence in Journalism point toward a profound shift in the expectations of readers, how they use information and the fluid nature of news as an ongoing narrative, not a fixed product.

The report also reinforces a trend identified in many other places, namely, the shift from delivering a product to delivering service and empowering the user. A shift marketers identified a few years ago in other arenas has now come to journalism.

Audiences today cross borders and interact in ways not possible before. The dialogue that is the strength of the Internet is now global. Language, once a barrier, is likely to become less so as new transliteration tools are developed.

A key issue for information providers who desire to reach global audiences is how to communicate with them in the language they prefer and that is, therefore, most likely to communicate effectively and with relevance, and to invite them into a two-way conversation.

Adapting to and responding to this landscape is the challenge. And despite the obvious need to manage resources responsibly, the challenge is not resolved by reducing and paring down alone. Nor will increased funding assure success. Paring back less useful skills and shepherding resources may make a difference, but at its core the challenge is bigger than money.

The efforts by the music industry to halt illegal downloading and protect revenue through lawsuits has moderated such behavior at the cost of alienating music fans. Music sales and concert revenues continue to slip. It’s common to read references to this effort in many places as an example of how not to deal with digital piracy with your customer base.

Money is an important part of the problem, but the greater challenge is about creativity, innovation and risk. Adapting and surviving requires a willingness to innovate, the courage to risk and the capacity to fail and get back up and try again. It’s essential to maintain a relationship with end users, listening to what they want, and how they want it delivered. And even then the answers may be confusing or unclear. It’s an ever-changing, fast-moving landscape.

A good supply of antacid helps.

Are NGOs the New Colonial Power?

As the U.S. and European governments use non-governmental organizations to dispense aid funds and services, NGOs are wielding greater power in developing nations. And the result, according to development specialist Henry Zakumumpa in Uganda, is not only development, it is a new form of NGO colonialism.

Citing a report in Foreign Policy, Zakumumpa explains that governments in fragile and failed states are unable or unwilling to deliver basic services that NGOs provide for many reasons. Some governments are corrupt and mistrusted. Others are cash-strapped, their insitutions are inefficent or unable to deliver services effectively.

As a result, as donor nations channel greater sums through NGOs, host nations avoid civic responsibility and change.

Aid skeptic Marcus Mann writes in a blog post that, “The net effect of the trillions of dollars and billions of man hours spent helping Africa and the rest of the developing world prosper has been negligible and possibly negative. The road to poverty appears to be paved with aid dollars.”

Both writers point out that many lives have been saved by NGOs, but they both question how this aid has affected longterm, structural change. Zakumumpa writes that NGOs are becoming more powerful as they receive significantly larger sums for humanitarian work. Mann says they are continuing a culture of dependency that undermines self-development.

These critiques raise one conundrum after another. As donor nations bypass national governments in favor of NGOs, are they also enabling the continuation of the very same policies and practices they deem unacceptable? NGOs operate at the permission of host governments. They are in no better position to challenge human rights violations, corruption, or misappropriation than their donor governments. In fact, they have even fewer pressure points and less diplomatic power.

Does aid through NGOs help to create the infrastructure needed for longterm change, or provide palliative comfort that discourages essential change? For example, health systems in developing nations are notoriously underfunded and staffed. Palliative care, while necessary, doesn’t strengthen hospitals, schools and other civic institutions, and may even take pressure off the need for reform.

As they assume a greater role as the dispensing agents for donor government funds, are NGOs risking the appearance of becoming parallel agents to national systems, or implementing agents of donor nation policies?

These are not new questions, but they take on new relevance as more dollars flow. Zakumumpa and Mann are raising important questions that deserve careful consideration by NGO leaders.

Cambodia’s Canals

A story this morning about the restoration of Cambodia’s irrigation canals by Thomas Fuller in the New York Times brought back memories of my first experience in Cambodia. It was around canal reconstruction following the genocidal regime of Pol Pot known as the Khmer Rouge.

The canals were destroyed by the secret carpet bombing carried out under the Nixon Administration. When Pol Pot fell to the Vietnamese in 1978, the world learned how extensive was the destruction resulting from the combination of U.S. bombing and Khmer Rouge genocide. The country was reduced to near stone age conditions according to some who first entered after the Vietnamese occupation.

The whole of its modern infrastructure had been dismantled. Electrical grid, paved roadways, gasoline powered vehicles (including deisel-powered water irrigation pumps), the school system, modern businesses. The cities were emptied and residents forced to join rural communes where they were forced to engage in agriculture, whether they knew what they were doing or not.

The goal was to re-create an idealized communitarian agricultural-based society free of the exploitation and sins of industrialized societies. Nearly one-quarter of the people were systematically killed. It was this era that gave us the chilling descriptive phrase “killing field” to describe those places where people suspected of being counter-revolutionary were killed and buried in mass graves.

Anyone could be so indicted for the flimsiest of reasons–being educated, wearing glasses, having been accused of someone (including their own children) of making a statement against the revolution. It was one of the horrific nightmares of modern Asia.

After the regime fell, Church World Service, under the leadership of Dr. Paul McCleary, sought to send veterinarians and hydrologists to Cambodia to help vaccinate the national herd and begin canal reconstruction. The needs were obviously enormous and food production was foremost. Healthy draft animals were essential to assist in cultivating the fields and the irrigation canals had to be repaired to deliver water to rice paddies. It was urgent to rebuild infrastructure to re-establish reliable food production.

But this was not so easily done as might appear. First, it was still controversial, even if the world was overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Cambodian people. The U.S. had not resolved its own conflicted feelings about the results of the war in Vietnam and was unable even to consider that the effort there had led to a communist takeover of the the South.  To provide aid to this region was highly inflammatory, and among some it was considered traitorous.

During the war, Cambodia was viewed by the Nixon Administration as a staging area and safe harbor for Viet Cong troops coming into South Vietnam from the North and thus, it was targetted with mercilous bombing by U.S. warplanes, bombing that was kept secret from the U.S. public for several months.

After the war, the U.S. continued a trade embargo against Vietnam prohibiting the transfer of equipment or commercial services directly from the U.S. In this atmosphere many in the U.S. felt any attempt by the church to engage either Vietnam or Cambodia was, to put it mildly, inappropriate. Dr. McCleary, however, was committed to reconciliation between the peoples in the region and in the U.S., and many, including the U.S. government, were open to humanitarian efforts, if not normal relations.

As I recall, the negotiations to get personnel in place were complex and circuitous. First, everything was done legally. The U.S. government provided the necessary licenses. The Vietnamese, who occupied Cambodia and, therefore, were in control of the government also agreed. But each imposed specific conditions, so you can begin to anticipate what a complex knot of relationships would be required to pull this off.

The Polish Christian Council, an ecumenical organization, and the Cuban Christian Council, another ecumenical group, would provide the personnel. Equipment, medicines and seeds would come from Europe and, under certain restrictions, the U.S.

I recall the first of many conversations that led to the agreement. We sat around a table with ambassadors from Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba and Poland in addition to several NGO executives, and probably UN staff, I can’t recall. The questions and explanations circled around the table. English to French to Polish to Spanish and sometimes to Vietnamese. It was laborious and time-consuming. But it was fruitful and months later I was sent to Cambodia to document the work in film.

And the work was well underway. National vaccination programs had made significant headway in protecting the herds and an added benefit was that the cold chain necessary for animal vaccinations was equally suitable for human medicines.

The topologists had trained several survey teams who were conducting a national survey of the topology to provide hydrological information to the engineers. And many canals were already well along in the reconstruction process.

It was a remarkable story in light of historical circumstances and the limits the people faced. There was still no reliable electrical service and the entire grid had to be re-created because the Khmer Rouge had removed the copper wiring.

Stability was uneven, despite the Vietnamese presence. Gunmen attempted to storm our hotel late one night and at least one was killed and as daylight dawned his body lay on the median strip on the street.

While we traveled the country, with Vietnamese and Cambodian escorts, we were to start two hours after sunrise and to be in a hotel two hours before sunset.

Standing in a field overlooking a mass grave I was eaten up with mosquito bites. Despite protective clothing and repellent, they got through. And it was here I first contracted malaria. A few hours later, feverish and mostly out of my head, my colleagues got me to a physician who dosed me with sulfa drugs and got the malaria under control. And we completed our filming.

As I read the story in the Times it reminded me how easy it is to destroy and how difficult it is to build a nation. After winning independence from 100 years of colonial rule by the French, Cambodia endured four years of carpet bombing by the U.S. and eventual annexation into the U.S. war with Vietnam. A decade of national strife led to civil war won by the Khmer Rouge. They ruled for three years before Vietnam invaded and took control. Vietnam remained for ten years. (See a helpful timeline here.)

The children playing in the irrigation canals probably have little if any awareness of what it has taken to give them a swimming hole.

Michael Moore and The Transportation Bailout

Michael Moore’s letter about the bailout of the big three automakers hits the target when he proposes conditions Congress should impose if they are to get the money. Moore writes: “The Big 3 are, from this point forward, to build only cars that are not primarily dependent on oil and, more importantly to build trains, buses, subways and light rail (a corresponding public works project across the country will build the rail lines and tracks). This will not only save jobs, but create millions of new ones.
He’s also on target when he says the problems of depending on carbon-based fuels have been well-defined and ignored by the auto executives for at least thirty years.

Here in Geneva the first thing you notice when the metro bus pulls up is that it’s clean and graffitti-free. An eye-catching LED sign flashes the route number. And, as most buses today, it’s wheelchair accessible and the driver can lower it pneumatically for those needing the extra assist. Step inside and a wide aisle makes it easy to maneuver and the cloth-covered seats positioned along the outer wall are also clean. Oh, did I mention that when you register at a hotel you are given a transportation card for free access to the city’s public transportation system for the duration of your stay?

In addition, Geneva has light rail and electric trolleys, all equally accessible and inexpensive.

Observe traffic and you see mostly small, compact autos, a huge number of motorscooters, bicycles and motorcycles. Smart Cars, those two-seater battery powered city scamps, roll past as well. And Geneva isn’t alone in its transport system. Nearly every major city in Europe and industrial Asia has similar transportation capabilities.

This relates directly to Michael Moore’s point. Fuel-saving alternatives exist and are in use outside the U.S. Among governments that view it their responsibility to save energy and the environment, and also to move people about, enlightened transportation practices have been in operation for decades. It’s the U.S. and our automotive industry that is behind, embarrassingly, maddeningly behind. And now the taxpayers are being asked to bail them out due to their own recalcitrance and short-sighted resistance to change.

If the government does agree to shell out our money, the least lawmakers could do is require the automakers to behave in the interests of the public that’s saving them and the environment they have so callously disregarded for three decades and more.