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The stories humanitarians tell (and why they need to change) | Rethinking Humanitarianism

‘The narratives of the humanitarian sector are really about self-preservation. They are about helping the sector – not necessarily about fixing the crisis.’

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When crises hit, a host of questions arise, among them: Who needs humanitarian aid? How much? Who delivers it? And who has the power to make all of those decisions?

How aid agencies and the media choose to frame this information doesn’t always help.

“The narratives of the humanitarian sector are really about self-preservation,” argues The New Humanitarian’s Senior Editor for Inclusive Storytelling Patrick Gathara. “They are about helping the sector – not necessarily about fixing the crisis.”

For the last year, researchers at ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) have been trying to understand narratives and the role they play in humanitarian response and policy. What they’re finding so far is that human stories are more powerful than data when it comes to influencing change in the sector, and yet humanitarians don’t take their role as storytellers seriously enough.

In this bonus episode, we get a snapshot of HPG’s ongoing exploration of humanitarian narratives from one of its main researchers, and we bring together a local organisation founder, a researcher, and a journalist to discuss the power humanitarians have to shape the stories that affect crisis response.

Guests: John Bryant, research fellow at ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group; Leen Fouad, research officer at ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group; Mohamed Ali Diini, founder of Iftiin Foundation and chair of the Shaqo Platform; Patrick Gathara, senior editor for inclusive storytelling at The New Humanitarian.

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Show notes

Transcript | The stories humanitarians tell (and why they need to change)

Melissa Fundira

When crises hit, a few questions arise: Who needs humanitarian aid. How much? Who delivers it? And who has the power to make all of those decisions?

 

A lot of it comes down to narratives, or more simply put, the stories we tell about humanitarian crises. For the last year, researchers at ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group have been trying to understand narratives and the role they play in humanitarian response and policy. What they’re finding so far is that stories are more powerful than data when it comes to influencing change in the sector. And yet, humanitarians don’t take their role as storytellers seriously enough. On this bonus episode, we get a snapshot of HPG’s ongoing exploration of humanitarian narratives from one of its main researchers, John Bryant. And we bring together a local organisation founder, a researcher, and a journalist to discuss the power that stories have on crisis response… and the power that humanitarians have to shape those stories. 

 

From Toronto, Canada, I’m Melissa Fundira. This is Rethinking Humanitarianism, a podcast about the future of aid in a world of rising crisis.

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Melissa Fundira

John, welcome to the podcast. 

 

John Bryant

Hi, Melissa. 

 

Melissa Fundira

So, John, let's set up a baseline here. What are humanitarian policy narratives?

 

John Bryant

Well, we define them in our work as stories with a purpose, right. We all know, through I think our collective experience with the humanitarian sector that the system really struggles with change despite reform commitments. What we wanted to really emphasise through this work is that there's far less reflection about how important it is to successfully manage narratives in order to genuinely achieve change in the sector. 

 

Melissa Fundira

So essentially, policy narratives are the stories that we tell about who deserves aid? About how aid works? What are the stories that are being told exactly?

 

John Bryant

It's about who, who should do what, and how, and when, and why in order to address policy dilemmas, right. And I think it's really important to emphasize, you know, one of the reasons that we wanted to do this work now was our observation that currently, I think concerns over the digitised spread of kind of misinformation, and sort of fake news, make it really tempting to frame narratives in opposition to this kind of empirical, quite sober kind of evidence-based policymaking. And we don't think that's a particularly helpful distinction, actually. And regardless of whether we might find particular coverage or narratives around aid good or bad, we really want to stress that all narratives, to an extent, pick particular facts and string them together to put together a compelling narrative, right, a compelling story. So our work really looks in depth at some of those examples and what impact that has had on practice in the sector.

 

Melissa Fundira

Tell me a little bit about that impact. So far, you've had two case studies published with another two on the way. Tell me about the research you did on Germany, for example, and the country's role as a rising humanitarian donor. 

 

John Bryant

Germany is a really interesting case, right. Germany saw an increase in its humanitarian budget from €82 million in 2011 to over €2.6 billion in 2021. So Germany became the second largest bilateral humanitarian donor globally. And narratives regarding the sort of moral imperative of aid, and humanity, and solidarity were put forward by advocates for increased spending and were largely unchallenged, we argue in our work. And that created a sort of wider enabling environment for the expansion of the German humanitarian assistance budget. And for many, that momentum came in part from high-level political aspirations to really modernize Germany's foreign policy to become more ambitious. But we also saw humanitarian actors having important roles in utilising and amplifying sometimes quite simplistic narratives about how aid can decrease migration to Germany, despite emerging evidence to the contrary. And that narrative was really seized upon by German politicians and the media and became a really enabling factor in increasing the humanitarian budget. There were explicit comments from the sort of top levels of political leadership in Germany that connected the scale of migration to Europe and Germany in 2015 with insufficient contributions to the humanitarian system for things like managing refugee camps in affected countries. And that's still a common connection that is made as recently as last year, when the then Health Minister said there was a mistake committed in 2015, and that mistake was to not provide sufficient assistance to the Middle East. This research found that there was considerable temporary benefit in linking assistance with national interest, even with those kinds of narratives, which I think, perhaps don't really hold up to rigorous kind of examination. But we also argued that without a strong kind of foundation, that basis for aid became quite fragile as the contexts change, right, as it's since has done in Germany. Germany has since had quite dramatic aid cuts. 

 

Melissa Fundira

Tell me a little bit more about those limitations. What does it say about how narratives need to be grounded in order to be effective long term, for example, in this case of Germany, where initially, aid funding went up, but then very quickly was able to be reversed with a changing political context.

 

John Bryant

I think this is common to all of the case studies that we decided to do, not just Germany. But I think there's something to be said about not challenging those kinds of underlying narratives, and instead choosing to go for quick wins, right. That has temporary benefits, but makes any change quite fragile, and quite vulnerable to changing political climates. To draw on another example, we've seen that with the rise of cash, right. [A] really successful, by many metrics, change in the humanitarian system, but one that we argue in our work still does rely on those underlying narratives around, you know, benevolent givers, grateful, quite passive recipients. Those narratives do remain unchanged. And we propose that makes any kind of gains any kind of progress quite vulnerable to sort of political backsliding. 

 

Melissa Fundira

Who's actually telling these stories and how are they sharing them? Are there some stories that have more weight than others? 

 

John Bryant

The humanitarian sector is very good at framing itself as quite reactive to external compelling narratives in the wider media, right. That's undoubtedly true. There is an element of reactivity. But I also think that stories around benevolent aid providers and grateful passive recipients are tacitly reinforced in many humanitarian communications and fundraising campaigns, and many other pieces of advocacy, right. Humanitarian organisations have a considerable, quite authoritative, and still quite trusted – relatively – role in setting narratives around crises and around crisis response. It's often those organisations that are the key actors in terms of telling stories about who deserves humanitarian assistance and what the role of humanitarian organisations should be in a crisis. And I think that's the element of this that perhaps we need to take a step back from and be a little bit more reflective of, right? There will always be an excuse that humanitarian organisations are reacting to urgent crises. That's absolutely true. But I think just a little bit of reflection as to where that has got us over two, three, four decades in terms of humanitarian narratives and what is a sustainable set of stories that we tell each other, that we tell ourselves, and that we tell the wider public, I think is a really important thing to do? 

 

Melissa Fundira

Just how important are narratives, when it comes to humanitarian response. Obviously, there are many variables – narratives are just one of many that lead to a particular outcome, or a particular policy. How important are narratives in that equation?

 

John Bryant

A really good concrete example of this is the Disasters Emergency Committee in the UK and how that model operates. The third appeal criteria, which decides whether to run a public appeal in a crisis in a crisis response, is how likely it is for that appeal to be successful. So that dictates whether an appeal is launched. There's that circular logic, right, that is a really good reminder that issues of story and attention and deservingness are completely hardwired into the aid system. And this is not a sort of beard-strokey academic exercise. 

 

Melissa Fundira

How do you even measure that? Like, for example, with the Disasters Emergency Committee, do you have a sense of how governments, donors, humanitarians measure what the impact of a story or a narrative will be? Or do they just kind of throw things at the wall and see what sticks?

 

John Bryant

I think all of this is naturally very difficult to assess. I think the issue arises when you have a small, unrepresentative group of people making those decisions, when you don't have that diversity of voices. I think that can lead to a quite narrow series of narratives, perhaps, really being dominant in the system, and the system remaining quite closed, and quite exclusive to the detriment of, perhaps, forgotten crises, or different aspects of crisis response that should really be more emphasized and are not. 

 

Melissa Fundira

We've spoken about the role that donors and governments play in setting narratives, the role that humanitarians play, the media, of course, what about affected people? Where do their narratives fit into all of this? How much legitimacy and credence is it given in setting narratives that then impact humanitarian response?

 

John Bryant

There's obviously still a gap in terms of formal reform processes around things like participation of affected people in crises – that agenda still has a long way to go. You also have perhaps a more critical view now around alternative channels for narratives to be challenged – things chiefly like social media, right. I think there was more optimism in the previous decade, I think now there's a bit more of an understanding that marginalisation is just kind of copy pasted into the digital world as well. So its potential for amplifying marginalized voices in humanitarian crises, I think, is mixed at best. Ukraine offers a really interesting example, I think, because you have a very online group of affected people that, in contexts like the UK, have been very vocal about what they see as some of the good and bad of the traditional humanitarian response. And I think that's brought up a lot of quite interesting tensions around how the humanitarian sector communicates its work in a context like Ukraine, which is obviously from the perspective of Ukraine's largest donors, very partisan and a challenging place in which to uphold humanitarian principles like impartiality. I think some of the strongest criticism we've seen is actually from Ukrainian diaspora organisations, groups that are actively supporting Ukrainians in the country, outside, entirely, of the humanitarian system.

 

Melissa Fundira

So who do you hope this research influences? Obviously, humanitarians are one cohort. But who else? And what do you want them to take away from your findings?

 

John Bryant

I think the broader humanitarian community, which includes donors and civil society organisations, I think they can learn from what has been demonstrated to be successful, if only temporary, in driving forward progressive humanitarian narratives, right. Arguments do need to be straightforward and intuitive to those outside of advocates. Something like cash is intuitively more straightforward – that worked to its advantage in a way that I think, you know, arguments that challenge, perhaps, existing power dynamics may have a more difficult time. The pursuit of simplicity and that kind of opportunism, though, may be detrimental in the long term, right? The fact that such a focus in Germany, for example, was placed on aid to prevent migration, that undoubtedly makes a less robust narrative than ones grounded in more solid evidence basis. And perhaps instead of the opposite of simplifying being complicating, perhaps in this context we could talk about clarifying maybe, you know, what the kind of humanitarian elements of this story, and that is not just the preserve of the traditional humanitarian organisations, right. That has a far broader remit that includes basically everybody concerned at humanitarian crises today.

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Melissa Fundira

That was John Bryant,  research fellow for the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI. 

 

So what does this research mean for humanitarians at large? How are we seeing humanitarian narratives at play today? And how should humanitarians use narratives to improve how we understand crisis and respond to it? Here to mull these questions over are three guests who think about the power of humanitarian narratives from three different perspectives.

 

Leen Fouad is a research fellow for the Humanitarian Policy Group. She is one of the authors of HPG’s ongoing research on this topic, including its research on the rise of cash, which comes out today. And more recently she’s written about the impact of narratives on humanitarian response in Gaza. Leen joins us from London. Welcome, Leen. 

 

Leen Fouad

Thank you so much for having me, Melissa

 

Melissa Fundira

Mohamed Ali Diini is the founder of the Somalia-based Iftiin Foundation. He also chairs the Shaqo Platform, which is a localisation alliance that helps young Somalis find jobs. He joins us today from Nairobi. Welcome Mohamed. 

 

Mohamed Ali Diini 

Thank you for having me. 

 

Melissa Fundira

And last but not least, we’re joined by The New Humanitarian’s own Patrick Gathara. Patrick is our Senior Editor for Inclusive Storytelling, and he also writes the monthly column Decolonise how?, which charts efforts to build a global media ethics for the 21st century. Patrick also joins us from Nairobi. Welcome, Patrick.

 

Patrick Gathara

Thanks for having me. 

 

 

Melissa Fundira

Mohamed, I want to start with you. Because this research in a way is aimed or targeted at people like you, right folks who run local organisations, civil society organisations. What is your reaction to what you just heard from John?

 

Mohamed Ali Diini

John really nailed it in the head when he pointed out that the stories we tell in the humanitarian sector really shape everything from policy decisions to public perceptions. And, I've seen that in Somalia and in my work in Somalia. And I really can't underscore how important narrative is and how it impacts whether it's the humanitarian sector, or development sector, or aid sector. It's essentially kind of like the operating system running in the background influencing every action and reaction. I remember when I started working in the development sector and founded Iftiin Foundation about 10 years ago, the overwhelming narrative about Somalia was one of hopelessness and chaos. The story being told was one about terrorism, famine, and piracy. And so you can imagine with that specific narrative, it impacts the type of programming, and the type of funding, and the type of interventions that donors are willing to support. The predominant narrative can often be that local organisations don't have the capacity, they don't have the accountability and the transparency, and as a result, it's important to create a buffer between donors and local organisations by having institutional intermediaries. So local organisations aren’t trusted to receive funding directly, and local organisations being seen as not having the capacity. They're not given the freedom to design their own interventions. So often, what you see is a top down approach where interventions are designed in the US and Europe and they come to civil society organisations essentially ready-made, and the civil society organisations are told to go ahead and implement it, which is really somewhat of a paradox because, at the same time, it's civil society organisations and local organisations that are on the ground that have the greatest knowledge about these programmes and what works and doesn't work. But yeah, that narrative creates mistrusts and impacts how donors have worked with local organisations.

 

Melissa Fundira

Are there specific examples that kind of illustrate your point about these programmes not being fit for purpose because they're not being created by the people who actually implement those programmes on the ground?

 

Mohamed Ali Diini

Yes, I remember a few years ago, at the time, there's significant funding for the rehabilitation of ex-combatants for Kismayo, which is a town in south central Somalia. The donor allocated funds for about several hundred former combatants to be trained as hospitality workers. And it was a small town, I think there's a handful of hotels, and most people, most hotel workers were unwilling to hire someone who had just left a military group. And so a lot of these young people didn't find jobs. And often because of that narrative of mistrust, local organisations are afraid to push back. So they end up implementing the intervention, which leads to poor outcomes for these communities. These stories also impact the type of programmes that are funded. I remember a few years ago, there was a significant focus on countering radicalisation and counter-extremism. And a lot of organisations, in order to get funding and to get the available funding, reframed and change the narrative around their programmes in order to kind of market it as a counterterrorism program. So I remember a small local NGO a few years ago that was working on maternal health and giving out baby formula to new mothers, reframing their programme as a program, “Mothers Against Terrorism”. So you see that sort of impact when it comes to narrative and how powerful it can be.

 

Melissa Fundira

Leen, I want to bring you in here because, you know, John mentioned that cash study, and that's what you've been working on as part of HPG’s research. It seemed to me that the cash study was framed almost as a good news story about how narratives can be used to shape humanitarian response, but maybe with a caveat. So what is it that you learned in that case study about what does make narratives effective?

 

Leen Fouad 

I like that you said with a caveat, because this is what I was going to say: It is framed as a successful and positive narrative, but with a caveat. So in the past 15 years, cash has gone from less than 1% of the value of humanitarian assistance to almost 20%, which is considered a success in a sector that is dominated by INGOs, UN agencies, governments, and donors – all with different interests. So while successful, its adoption had to be argued for many, many years, using a combination of both empirical evidence, trials, and pilot schemes, but also narrative setting and advocacy to convince skeptical donors and aid providers. And I think the important thing here is to understand which were the arguments that “won the debate”. So there were different arguments that emerged over time that were used to target different audiences. And these arguments ranged from pragmatic to idealistic. So you had, from one side narratives around cash, that cash represents a better value for money, cash goes further, and cash is more efficient than in-kind assistance. And on the other side, you had cash is a dignified option, it enables recipients to act as independent economic agents, and therefore it increases their decision-making and it provides them with dignity of choice. But these two narratives, if you really think about it, they target different audiences. There was another layer to that. Some of the strongest proponents of cash, they viewed the introduction of cash as a positive, disruptive, transformative force that could challenge the existing aid system. However, this latter argument was far less successful, because cash today is still yet to achieve its full potential, its full transformation potential. In other words, I would say that cash has been adopted insofar as it does not disrupt the power and mandates of key agencies and donors.

 

Melissa Fundira

A recurring theme in your research is just how sticky and entrenched existing narratives in the humanitarian sector are. Patrick, I want to bring you in here because you have an interesting way of looking at how narratives are formulated in the humanitarian sector. You call it the drip drip effect? What do you mean by that?

 

Patrick Gathara

When people when they hear about a crisis, they they put it in a context. But it's how that context is created that, for me is interesting, because it is actually created not by one story, but by a series of stories, you know, so that it establishes the background understanding of how then events are interpreted. If, for example, you think of Somalia as essentially a violent place, because you have heard, over a period of time, lots of stories about violence, not too many stories about what's working, what's not, all you've heard about is chaos, then anything you hear that comes out of there. You will already put it in that context, that's how you will understand it. That's how it will make sense to you, you know. And I think that for me, that background understanding is really what the narrative is: it's not the one story, you know, it is that drip, drip, drip effect that then creates a narrative about a place, a story about a place, you know. And that overall story, for me, is what constitutes the narrative.

 

Melissa Fundira

John was talking about how some narratives are also… they're looking for a quick win. And so that background, as you say, that's sort of formulated by multiple narratives, is telling an incomplete story. And as far as the story is that the sector tells itself, you know, now, what do you find is missing from that narrative? What's getting missed about what humanitarian crisis actually requires? What response actually looks like?

 

Patrick Gathara

To a large extent, media reporting and media representation of crisis and crisis response is actually misrepresentation.What's missing many times is life. You're not really allowed to see the people in a crisis in their fullness. You know, how many times do you hear stories of people dating in a crisis, you know, getting married, you know. It's always assumed that they're suffering. That's the only thing that defines them.Even when you look at the response, for example, ODI did a study in 2019 that showed that even in the worst crisis, international humanitarian aid constitutes less than 2% of the resources and the help that people receive. Lots of what they get is local. Lots of what they get is diaspora, it’s neighbour helping neighbour, it’s local government. And I think the researchers do actually pick this up because they say that the narratives of humanitarian aid, I mean of the humanitarian sector, are really about self-preservation. They are about helping the humanitarian sector – not necessarily about fixing the crisis. And they do point out that they're very exclusionist, you know, in terms of who can be classed a humanitarian actor, you know, who is excluded from that. And when you hear what's happening in Gaza, you rarely hear of local actors, you rarely hear [them] being called humanitarians. Never hear of diasporans, you know, Palestinians in the diaspora being considered. It's only a small group of countries, you know, and organisations that are termed to be humanitarian actors. You don't hear people talking about humanitarian aid from China, for example. So it's really important to understand how these narratives are built, essentially, are created for the sector itself, not necessarily to help us better understand and respond to crisis.

 

Leen Fouad

I really liked that tou mentioned the self preservation and exclusionist kind of narrative, Patrick, because I think from our research, we saw that narratives are essential to the survival of the humanitarian sector, because they're necessary for them to maintain financial and political support from donors. And I think to do that it requires presenting all situations as humanitarian crises. So when you present all situations, that humanitarian crisis that need humanitarian aid, intervention, assistance and relief, you kind of show a narrative of exceptionalism, that these situations are exceptional events that require a self contained humanitarian intervention, but that places the donor and the organisation at the center, perpetuating the perception that people in crisis are resourceless, they lack agency ,and they rely on the benevolence of saviors. We've seen that, from one side, in our research on cash, as John mentioned, despite its widespread adoption, the fundamental narrative that underpins the humanitarian action remains unchanged. The sector continues to operate on the basis of distinguishing between benevolent benefactors and the deserving recipients. But I think these narratives are increasingly at odds with the sector's commitment to localisation and decolonisation because it maintains the power dynamic and the status quo.

 

Patrick Gathara

In terms of the definitions of even what a humanitarian crisis is, Leen is quite correct – the language is very fuzzy. What distinguishes disaster from an emergency, you know, or a crisis? And all these terms are used kind of very interchangeably, as if they all mean, the same things. And you're right about this idea of everything is urgent, you know, and the response is only, primarily through donations. You know, we had David Jeffries, who wrote a piece for The New Humanitarian talking about this. He was tracking appeals by humanitarian agencies through his Instagram feed, and one thing he noted was they erase the causes, the root causes, of conflict. They don't talk about political action that's required to actually fix things. It's all about ‘Send money, save a family.’ It's just about the immediate thing. They end up with very little incentive to actually talk about the real action that's needed on the ground to actually fix crisis and to actually solve problems. So I think for me, it's certainly important to keep that in mind that it that it's an example of how they are about self perpetuation, rather than actually fixing the problems they claim to be fixing.

 

Mohamed Ali Diini

Patrick, I really agree with what you said about self perpetuating and lack of interest in actually making a change. From the research paper, one thing that really stood out is the criticism about “not broken, but broke”: the system is working, it just needs additional funding, and more cash – which really isn't the case from a civil society organisation, for example, from our standpoint. Programmes are very short term, they're very immediate, they're looking for a very quick impact. So if you're looking to create a job for one young person, it involves multiple years of skills-building, training, investment. If you're starting up a business in order to create jobs for young people, it requires multiple years investment and support. But a lot of these programmes are very cyclical, they’re one year, six months, “We need you to train X number of young people within this period of time, so we can reach these numbers and go back to our policymakers and say, this is the type of impact that we had.” And it really undermines these programmes and interventions, and these communities kind of become distrustful of these interventions, they don't see them as effective. 

 

Melissa Fundira

Mohamed, how do you reconcile those two things. The fact that on the one hand, you have to tell the right story to get the funding that's available in order to have some programming and to keep the organisation running, but at the same time, you know from your expertise that that's not actually going to address the root causes of development and aid needs on the ground. So how do you balance those two things?

 

Mohamed Ali Diini

It can really be very challenging, I think, very early on. A lot of the kind of the mistakes that I made personally as the head of a local NGO is the fear of not pushing back. Obviously, when you have a donor-recipient relationship, there's a significant power imbalance. And when you're receiving funding for a specific program, there's a fear that if you push it back, or criticise the program, or say this is not going to work, that the funding will dry out. Definitely, I've learned to speak up and actually push back against these interventions. And over the last few years, I've really seen a dialogue coming up about localisation, empowering local organisations, and listening to local organisations. There's still some challenges, I think there's terms like co-creation, where local organisations are brought on to that last end of the programme designed just to get a rubber stamp. But I've seen donors who are willing to listen to local organisations. So for example, we launched a localisation alliance consisting of only local civil society organisations, which is supported directly by a donor. And the story that we've been trying to tell is that by empowering local organisations by giving them the opportunity to design these interventions, and even if they do make mistakes, they're able to learn from these mistakes and allow them to iterate, you have you can have greater impact.

 

Melissa Fundira

It sounds to me like you've managed to use narratives to your advantage to a certain extent. How does it change the relationship that you have with donors when you're the one who's setting the narrative first, as opposed to trying to make your programming fit an existing a narrative imposed by donors, for example? 

 

Mohamed Ali Diini

Yeah, so one example I often like to tell people is that, when you come up with an intervention, a donor comes with an intervention, it’s equivalent going to an entrepreneur with a ready-made business plan and telling them, “Here's a few thousand dollars We want you to follow this business plan to the tee and just start this business.” And that really resonates with a lot of donors, this idea that this top down approach just doesn't work. And research is coming up and showing that these interventions aren't working. After two to three years, for example in a job creation program, you're not seeing a retention of jobs. If you design programmes from a top down approach, you're unable to learn and iterate and really change the program. 

 

Melissa Fundira

I want to talk a little bit more about how stories can be used to disrupt dominant narratives in the humanitarian sector. Patrick, just to go back to your drip drip theory, which you should probably copyright that has a nice ring to it. In your understanding, what would it take to actually disrupt humanitarian narratives that don't serve affected people?

 

Patrick Gathara

I mean, the first thing is, obviously, to recognize that there's a problem. I think, while in circles people will talk about, you know, the need to decolonize the representation of people in crisis, etc., I think in general, that's not something that our mainstream press, for example, engages with with any vigor. So this needs to become a much wider discussion. There has to be a much wider acknowledgement of the fact that essentially, media is failing when it comes to telling people what it looks like to live in a crisis. The second thing I think that needs to happen is we need to have many more local voices, many more local reporters, being given the platforms to explain what the crisis looks like, from their perspectives. The other day, Christiane Amanpour of CNN was in problems because she went to say that there are no journalists in Gaza, because Western journalists are not allowed, you know, which was clearly untrue. And I think that it's really important that we don't disregard what local journalists say, or allow international press and Western media to speak over them. You hear, In many crises, lots of local journalists are treated as essentially second-class journalists. They’re fixers, they’re not really journalists, you know, they're not the people in front of the camera. That’s somebody else, they’re just doing the background stuff. There’s this hierarchy of credibility, where it's seen almost as if Western reporters are much more credible than local people explaining things that are happening in. The third thing is the sorts of stories that then media goes out and and gets, and I think this is where humanitarian agencies have the most impact. In many cases, it is these humanitarian agencies that spotlight you know, particular people, because they have access, they’re on the ground. They will take journalists out, they will show them around, they'll tell them “This is a story to do.” They will put out their press releases that then inspire journalists to follow particular stories, you know, or to adopt particular storylines. I think, in the research Leen, did, they do speak about how humanitarian agencies kind of downplay or don't fully acknowledge the power they have to in setting narratives. So I think this in being able to highlight other stories that actually show the crisis in its fullness, you know, the people living crisis in their entire humanity, you know, then that will start changing the expectations. Then that background understanding, that drip, drip, drip of those stories will change how people understand what it means to be in a war zone. I’ll give an example. When I went my first time in Mogadishu was in 2010, and I remember I was being driven from the airport to Villa Somalia, and I saw somebody selling tomatoes. And I was very shocked, because I was thinking, “Who sells tomatoes in a war zone?” But it was just my idea of what a war zone is that was problematic. And it's that narrative, that background understanding, that we can change by telling different stories. And by changing first who tells those stories, but also encouraging humanitarian agencies to spotlight different aspects of a crisis and to go beyond sort of the immediate suffering thing that they’re used to doing.

 

Mohamed Ali Diini  

I would recommend that the next time you Google or search for Mogadishu, you use the Somali spelling. You'll see when you use the Somali spelling, the stories and the videos that you see are completely different than when you use the English spelling. You see stories of inspiration, and of hope, of innovation. You see YouTubers visiting businesses and local entrepreneurs. You see startup incubator presentations. So the stories that you see that local people are telling themselves, and Somalis are telling themselves are very, very different from the stories others are telling about them. 

 

Patrick Gathara

That's the exact point I'm making, that if you actually give a platform to local journalists, they would tell very different stories because these are the communities they live in. These are the people they live with. They will humanize them, you know, as opposed to a journalist will be parachuting in, spends maybe a week and then goes away. So his allegiance and his obligations are not to the people who are experiencing the crisis, [they] are to his audience. And I think we need to change that dynamic. 

 

Melissa Fundira 

I want to push back on this idea that, you know, if people on the ground just told their stories more, or were able to tell their stories more, that it could have some sort of material change. Because Leen, as you write on the HPG website, the battle of narratives in Gaza, for example, is perhaps the most contentiousthat we're seeing right now. So while on the one hand, you're seeing Palestinians telling their own devastating stories about Israel's invasion of Gaza, [and] while a majority of Americans have been swayed by those stories, and a majority of them now disapprove of Israel's actions in Gaza – which arguably would have been inconceivable before October 7 – ultimately, their government still continues to support Israel, which creates the conditions for the need for humanitarian aid, and is also the root cause of the crisis in Gaza today. So how far can narratives really go, especially in the face of dominant forces?

 

Leen Fouad 

I think narratives here are very important, because as you mentioned, a lot has been documented. So Gaza, Syria, Sudan, elsewhere, everything has been recorded, everything has been broadcasted. My social media – at least my social media because of my algorithm – I see a lot of the everyday life of Palestinians, and yet we still find ourselves having to explain what is happening. It shows that evidence are important, because we can present them to support the narrative to our allies in the Global North. I'll go back a bit to the cash research. The way that the cash research was being framed it was in terms of gains and losses, and that had kind of great influence on decision making, in terms of potential losses, such as aid diversion or misspending, but proponents showed cash for its potential gains, like better value for money or efficiency. But then I think the question here is: whose gains and whose losses? And the narratives today in the sector, the narratives today in politics are still framed around Western and Global North narratives. And I think this is the issue here in terms of Gaza. I think it took a genocide for the Global North – or some of the Global North – to change the narrative. And, as you said, we've been researching a lot on the battle of narratives around Gaza, how this violence has been framed and portrayed to the public. But I think the humanitarian sector has a lot of value to add here. The humanitarian sector can confront Israel’s settler colonial military tactics, because it has a decolonisation commitment. And it shouldn't just be another buzzword, it should be a true and genuine commitment. And I think the sector can learn a lot from the ways in which humanitarian need was framed around the struggle in South Africa in the Apartheid [era]. And I think, for the sector, decolonisation should mean amplifying the narrative of affected people, and it means we should center the voices at the heart of the response. 

 

Patrick Gathara

We tend to look at, the whether it's the moment against Apartheid or even what's happening today in Gaza in the narrative space, as if it's this exceptional moment. As Leen says, it's taken a genocide to change the way people talk about or understand Gaza. But I think you really need to see what was happening before October 7, that actually, the ground had been laid for this big shift in public perceptions, you know. In essence, what the genocide has done it happened within the context of people who are already questioning what Israel was doing. If you were to look at the polls of youth in America about Israel, even prior to October 7th, especially amongst Democrats – it was already losing that battle. This is something that has just kind of amped it up now, and we are seeing it and we are noticing it. But the fact is, it's part of a trend that's been happening. And that's what I mean by drip, drip drip: you've had this background discussion, this background understanding being established for a long time. It didn't happen overnight. And then comes the genocide, and then, you've got a big mass of people who are shifting, you know. But they're not shifting in a vacuum, that was already happening, and I think we need to acknowledge that. With regard to South Africa, it was the same thing. It took a long time for even people like Mandela to be sort of sanctified and to become the hero of South Africa. That was deliberate, and it took a long time to seed this story and to seed these ideas into the public consciousness. 

 

Mohamed Ali Diini

I wanted to just quickly jump in and, Melissa, go back to your earlier point about whether changing narrative will have a material impact. And I think, no, storytelling isn't necessarily a magic bullet, but I've found that often the stories and the narratives that we tell about humanitarian crises in Africa and the development sector in Africa, are informed by research conducted by so-called international experts or non-African researchers, and a lot of stories are based on this. Specifically in Somalia, you see a lot of international researchers parachute in, spend a few weeks in a specific city, gather some data, and come up with research. And I think when talking about narrative, a lot of that narrative is pushed by data and research coming from sources that really don't have a good understanding of the local context. I mean, earlier I mentioned the example of a programme investing in ex-combatants becoming hotel workers. That programme was designed based on research done by an international expert who spent like a week in Somalia. So I think centering local voices, local expertise, I think is really important and can actually have a material impact. 

 

Melissa Fundira

You know, I think if you were to tell a journalist or an academic that the work they do shapes narratives, they wouldn't bat an eyelash. I think that's the generally accepted. But to your point, Leen, humanitarians have not acknowledged the power that they have in this domain. And, you know, as you mentioned, there's this whole push and pull between saying things as they are, for example, you know, in Gaza, or Sudan, or Myanmar, and wanting to uphold these deeply entrenched Western notions of impartiality, neutrality – these pillars of the humanitarian sector as we know it today. So what would it look like for humanitarians to tell a different story? What story should they be telling about Gaza for example?

 

Leen Fouad  

The humanitarian sectors or humanitarian actors need to recognize that they're not passive recipients of external narratives. I think, as Patrick mentioned, the first thing is to recognize that power to set narratives. Every call for funding for a new crisis is a demonstration of the sector's power to set stories and to prescribe humanitarian assistance as an effective relief to suffering. I think humanitarian actors have also power to challenge dominant narratives, and the current narratives in the sector do not interrogate power dynamics, because powerful narratives are created, invented and often placed on people by the powerful players that are not located in Gaza, or Syria, or Sudan, or Somalia, they're still located in the Global North. As long as they keep emanating from the Global North, they will maintain the status quo. What we need to do is kind of as both Mohamed and Patrick mentioned, we need to kind of center the voices of the Global South and have that becoming the dominant narrative. I think we've seen a bit of this kind of, I would say, South-South, more locally-emanating narratives in relation to Gaza, where Global South actors are shifting the narrative away from Western centric focuses and framing of the genocide being a humanitarian crisis. And they're focusing more on a narrative of justice and solidarity. And I think the most striking gesture of this kind of South-South narrative solidarity was from South Africa that took Israel to the International Court of Justice to prevent the ongoing genocide. We've also seen a lot of other examples from other Global South countries like Algeria, Chile, Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia, that took or filed complaints to the International Criminal Court against Israel on possible war crimes. We see more and more countries become empowered to expose the Global North's hypocrisy and double standards. To go back to our research, we have done research on Ukraine, on narratives emanating from the response to Ukraine, and we've seen that these narratives differ quite significantly from what we're seeing now, when it came to Gaza. When it came to Ukraine, there were narratives around strong solidarity with Ukraine from governments, and communities across Europe, and the wider West. And it justified assistance to Ukraine as part of this, like, political stance against Russian invasion. And we're not seeing that in Gaza. We don't usually see that in other crises. We see them as kind of framing of vulnerability, framing of lack of resources, lack of agency, and this is why humanitarians needs to step in. And, of course, Global North countries were not shy to offer solidarity with Ukrainians, and rightly so. But the double standards were very obvious. I think we have to look at narratives of solidarity, but they need to also interrogate power dynamics.

 

Melissa Fundira

You know, to bring up the South Africa example, again, I think we've seen that playing that long game. when using narratives to try and disrupt power structures or the status quo – it's not easy. It's not easy. People have have paid the price. People have lost their lives when trying to disrupt dominant narratives. They've lost their jobs. Mohamed, to your point, you have to consider the ability to continue to pay people's salaries to keep the lights on in the offices and there's a constant cost benefit analysis that you have to make. I'd like to know, even on a personal level, how you keep yourselves motivated to consistently introduce new narratives into our common understanding of how the world works and should work? How do you keep yourself motivated to play that long game? Because I don't want to discount how difficult that is, especially when you're pushing when you're really, really knocking on the door of deeply, deeply entrenched power structures.

 

Patrick Gathara

For me, I think there's basically no choice. I mean, you're right, that this is, it's hard. Establishing narratives is difficult. It takes a long, long time. It takes a lot of commitment to actually doing. The stories that we are bombarded with ,the narrative that we are bombarded with, it really takes intentionality to actually try and subvert it, you know, and sometimes it can get very exhausting, but I think there's really no choice. I mean, what else? It’s either you give up and you accept that which you know is unjust, or you just keep pushing against the wall until one day it falls down. And that's the funny thing is, when it does actually fall down, everybody thinks, “Oh, wow, it's just one event,” and they do not see the work that went in before, you know. So I think for me, keeping in mind that eventually, these walls do fall, is one thing that keeps me going.

 

Mohamed Ali Diini

I agree. I think within the system, often you're thinking about the organisation that you're supporting, your staff members. And I think for me, there's two things that really keep me going. I think one is hope. I've seen some changes happening on the ground. Sometimes it's really incremental, but I've seen changes, and I'm really hopeful for the future. Especially with Somalia, there's been a significant change over the last 12 years. Where we were 12 years ago is very different from where we are now. The voices that you're hearing from Somalia are more amplified. So I'm really hopeful. And I think the second is responsibility. I feel a sense of responsibility to my community, to my country, and a sense of responsibility to a lot of the young people that our organisation works with. Whether it's young entrepreneurs, or young people who are looking to gain new skills, there's a responsibility on my part to make sure that they get effective programming, that the funding that's coming through is not just being thrown out, that it’s actually impacting their lives positively. And I think the latter is really what keeps me going, this responsibility to these young people.

 

Leen Fouad

I also echoed this sense of responsibility and hope, but also that there's… we don’t have any other choice. I think for me, I'm Syrian. I have been a refugee here in the UK for the past five years. So I feel like I've been given another opportunity to kind of bring the voices of my own community, of my country to this Western system. So I think for me, it's all around opportunity and taking this opportunity to try to push for change, to try to get this Western system to recognize that it is colonial and it is not localized, even though it tries to kind of prides. So, I have been able to reach this place, I have the language skills, I have the education to be able to relay what my country ,or what people like me, or other refugees want to see happen.

 

Melissa Fundira

You know, there might be some humanitarian workers who listen to this and they say, “Listen, man, I'm here to do a technical job. I'm here to provide humanitarian aid. I'm here to provide logistics. I'm here to do a technical job. What you're asking me to do here is communications work.” What do you say to that person? And what would be one thing, one practical thing that you suggest they do differently when it comes to engaging with narratives? 

 

Mohamed Ali Diini

So for me, on a practical level, as someone who's managing an organisation, I think it's a challenge that we see daily. Stories are important. The stories of the people in the communities that we work with are important. It's important that we tell honest stories, stories based on the local context. And, often those stories, it's people in the field who are privy to those stories, you know, it's people who are in the field who see these stories on a daily basis. But it can be very difficult to capture their stories and take those stories up the value chain to the leaders of the organisation, or to donors who often just look at data and don't look at stories or impact. So we often tell them: you can have greater impact if you're able to effectively tell the story of the people that you're working with. So we have like communication trainings, and storytelling trainings for our staff members. And I feel like that really helped, especially in helping them capture those stories, and translating those stories to actually something tangible that they can share with other organisations and donors as well.

 

Leen Fouad

I do agree with you, Melissa, that a lot of humanitarians will look at this job as a technical kind of task. But I also think that a lot of other humanitarians are doing this work, because as Mohamed said, they hear the stories, they engage with the stories and they care about making a change. And I think change for me is very important to kind of highlight here, because they do have the power to change the system, they do have the power to change the narratives. And we can change. I think the more of us are embedded in these systems, we have the power to change the narrative from one that is about pity and heroism to one that is about independence and agency, shared values, partnerships and progress. And these stories are and these values are not just coming from the affected communities, but they're also coming from the public in donor countries. So I think, looking at what happened in Gaza, for example, being here in the UK, I'm not convinced that the UK does not want to, you know, engage in Gaza or does not want to talk about Gaza, because I went down to the streets and I saw hundreds of thousands of people that were protesting and that were demanding their governments to end their weapons sale to Israel, for example. So I think if we look at the values, I think public and donor countries have kind of similar values to the affected communities in terms of what the humanitarian sector needs to do. So I think kind of looking at focusing on change, and we need to have change with transformation needs to transform the system, not just kind of be superficial.

 

Patrick Gathara  

I think that communication is part of humanitarian work. I mean, clearly they invest a lot in communicating. A question is, I mean, what are they communicating about? And I think they really need to think and be intentional about the posture they take, and to ask about the messaging that they do when in crisis – who is it serving? To be really sort of brutally honest, when they're putting out messaging or images that are for their own benefit, essentially “it's for us to get funding, to keep us in our job,” in essence, you know. And then I like it that I frame the question, you know, “I'm here to do a technical job.” That's very different from kind of how they portray what they're doing – it’s “I'm here to save people, you know. I'm here to save lives, not to do a technical job.” So if they really do want to save lives, if they really do want to fix problems and not just keep them going, I think they will take a very different posture, you know, and I think that is where the self interrogation should go.Start thinking about: what's the core root of being here? And part of that, I think, is questioning the terminology that they use, you know, the frameworks they use to define why they're there. Could I just say one thing that something Lina had mentioned before about what, for example, humanitarians in Gaza could be doing? I think one of the things that's really important for them to disrupt is the use of the term humanitarian. So you're hearing a humanitarian pier being built by the US Army, you know, essentially to subvert humanitarianism, where people are kinda saying that we can keep the bombing going for as long as a few trucks can get in. It's something that people, agencies need to go to really be serious about pushing back on. We haven't seen much of that. I think we are buying kind of into this language by the belligerents, especially the Israel and the US. If we are there to fix the problem, we cannot be saying that we are going to be using trucks, or the provision of aid as a way to keep the conflict going. So I think they need to push back on that. 

 

Melissa Fundira  

You know, at the at the top of this episode, John defined humanitarian narratives as stories with a purpose. And I think you're all essentially inviting humanitarians to think much more critically and intentionally about what their purpose is, what their values are, why are they truly doing the work that they're doing? Because as you’ve laid out, the implications are actually quite clear on the ground, and the stakes are high. So I want to thank you all for giving us a lot to sort of chew on. I think you've given listeners a lot of prompting that hopefully can inspire some self reflection on this. So, thank you all for your time.

 

Mohamed Ali Diini  

Thank you for having us. 

 

Patrick Gathara

Thank you.

 

Leen Fouad  

That was a very interesting panel.

_____

 

Melissa Fundira

Leen Fouad is a research fellow for the Humanitarian Policy Group. You can find her research on humanitarian narratives and the rise of cash on HPG’s website, which comes out today. Mohamed Ali Diini is the founder of the Iftiin Foundation and chair of the Shaqo Platform. And Patrick Gathara is The New Humanitarian’s Senior Editor for Inclusive Storytelling. 

 

As always, we love to hear from you, the listeners. Send us your thoughts at [email protected].

 

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian. This bonus episode was hosted and produced by me, Melissa Fundira. Sound engineering from Mark Nieto and original music from Whitney Patterson. Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism. We’ll be back with new episodes in the fall. 

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