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Rethinking Humanitarianism | What is a humanitarian crisis, really?

‘We see people in crisis as if they are just victims, rather than seeing them as people who have been victimised.’

Composite image for the Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast. The background is a carrot orange color. On the top right is the title: "Rethinking Humanitarianism Podcast". ON the bottom left is a white box showing the podcast guest: Patrick Gathara. On the bottom right corner is a headshot of Patrick in black and white.

Lack of adequate shelter, contaminated drinking water, natural disasters that overwhelm the capacity to respond: These humanitarian crises happen all over the world, yet they’re rarely described as such when they occur in the Global North. Instead, humanitarian crises are typically seen as an issue that plagues poor parts of the world.

 

So what is a humanitarian crisis, really? What’s the historical weight of that term? What happens if we change our common understanding of it? 

It may seem like a game of semantics, but the answers to those questions are more consequential than we may realise, because they reveal something deeper about who we believe will perpetually be an underclass, what’s deserving of an urgent reaction, and who we see as capable of providing humanitarian assistance.

These are questions Patrick Gathara has been contending with as The New Humanitarian’s first Senior Editor for Inclusive Storytelling. On the season 4 premiere of Rethinking Humanitarianism, co-hosts Heba Aly and Melissa Fundira speak to Gathara about the colonial weight of the term ‘humanitarian crisis’; why events in the Global North are rarely described as such; and how the definition of a crisis can mask – or perpetuate – the deeper systemic injustices that lead to crises in the first place. 

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Show notes

Transcript | What is a humanitarian crisis, really?

PBS 

So, the homelessness system is not -- is basically just not large enough for the problem to help people who are homeless. And 39 percent of people who are homeless don't even have a shelter bed.So they’re living on the streets and encampments, vehicles, places not meant for human habitation.

Human Rights Watch 

“The water is very bad. We don't consume it at alI. I have a three-year-old right up to a 13-year-old – five girls in total – who have been raised without good clean water.

CBC News 

This is what it looks like when you get half a year's worth of rain in less than a day. Entire neighborhoods practically submerged. Despite warnings of catastrophic flooding, many were caught in it anyway [...] overwhelmed emergency responders were forced to triage tens of thousands of calls, taking care of only those who needed help urgently.

Heba Aly  

Lack of adequate shelter and clean drinking water. Natural disasters that overwhelm the capacity to respond. These would typically be considered humanitarian crises. But the stories you just heard aren't described as such, because they happened in the Global North. Instead, humanitarian crises are typically seen as things that only happen in poor parts of the world.

Melissa Fundira  

The common understanding of what a humanitarian crisis is, is heavy with the vestiges of a colonial past. And it often masks the deeper systemic reasons that crises happen in the first place. In this first episode of Rethinking Humanitarianism Season 4, we're going back to basics to ask the question: what is a humanitarian crisis, really? And what are the implications of how we define it? 

Heba Aly

From Geneva, Switzerland, I'm Heba Aly.

Melissa Fundira

And from Toronto, Canada, I'm Melissa Fundira.  
This is Rethinking Humanitarianism, a podcast about the future of aid.

Heba Aly  

As you've just heard, I have a new co-host on Rethinking Humanitarianism. Some of you might remember Melissa as one of the producers of season three. And this season, she will be on this side of the mic. Melissa, I'm so glad to have you as co-host, and maybe before we kick off, tell people a little bit about your story.

Melissa Fundira  

Sure. So I do have a bit of a personal connection to the topics that we cover on Rethinking Humanitarianism. My family's from Rwanda. So we've been deeply affected by conflict, dispossession, genocide, and colonialism. And I'm not just talking about the 1994 genocide. It goes back to a lot of unrest in 1973, in 1959, all of which was really punctuated by humanitarian response, or the lack thereof. I’ll never forget the story that mom told me about being 15 years old in a refugee camp in Burundi and seeing all the UNHCR workers doing the best they can to assist those that were exiled, and she decided from that moment that she wanted to work for the United Nations. It was my dream job. She wanted to change the world. She wanted to change her family’s circumstances. And she had some success, honestly, in a nearly 30-year career, and I think it gave me an understanding that there are a lot of humanitarian workers within the international humanitarian system who are trying their level best to make tangible changes to the lives of people on the frontlines of crisis. But at the same time, I remember being really overwhelmed by the inefficiency of it all, the amount of money that went into it, and the bureaucracy.  I remember kind of peeking into her emails as a kid and asking like, what's a ToR and like, what's a DSRSG, and why is the big boss called a Secretary? And why are there so many acronyms? And needless to say, I think it did kind of turn me off from the sector for a little bit, because, of course, I became a journalist for nearly a decade. But what interests me in my journalism is systemic issues. So whether I'm reporting on housing inequality or the experiences of Black Canadians on the Prairies, what's interesting to me is the history of what we're seeing on the surface. So I think it is a bit of a full circle moment to now be co-hosting this podcast with you, because I'm approaching it from obviously a very deeply personal place, taking into account my family's history, taking into account growing up with a parent who worked in the international humanitarian system. But at the same time, after all of these years, I still find the sector actually pretty opaque, and I have a lot of questions. So I'm looking forward to asking some of those questions, even if they may seem obvious, like the ones that we're trying to ask on this episode, right? What do we even consider to be a humanitarian crisis? What's the historical weight of that word? And what happens if we change our common understanding of it?

Heba Aly  

And it might seem like a game of semantics, but the answer to those questions are much more consequential than we may realise, because how we conceive of a humanitarian crisis reveals something deeper about who we believe will perpetually be an underclass, what's deserving of an urgent reaction, who we see as capable of providing assistance.

Melissa Fundira  

And these are questions that our colleague, Patrick Gathara, has been grappling with for a while now. He argues that we basically cannot begin to meaningfully address humanitarian issues without a new understanding of what a humanitarian crisis really is. Patrick is The New Humanitarian’s Senior Editor for Inclusive Storytelling. It’s a new role, and in it, he's leading our efforts to decolonise our coverage of humanitarian crises. He's also a longtime cartoonist, a journalist, a media critic, and an author, and he joins us from his home in Nairobi. Patrick, thank you for joining us. 

Patrick Gathara

Thanks for having me.

Heba Aly  

So, Patrick, for the last few months, you've been leading a working group at The New Humanitarian, examining how we define a humanitarian crisis. Tell us a little bit about that, and why you're doing it.

Patrick Gathara  

The working group is really to start the process of rethinking how we cover crisis. Of course, The New Humanitarian does focus its journalism on crisis, but I think it's really important when we do that to be clear about what it is we mean by that term. Obviously, it doesn't exist in a vacuum. There are many ways that people can think about what a crisis is, and many times this is driven by and informed by the past, essentially by the colonial past. And it is framed in ways that tend to misrepresent what crises actually are, what crises look like, and the experience of people. So we thought that it would be good to go to the beginning to start anew to rethink of that, and then see how that then impacts the sorts of coverage that we do and how we can better represent what crises look like.

Melissa Fundira  

So let's talk about that definition. What is a humanitarian crisis, as it's commonly understood, in your opinion? And why do you find it so problematic?

Patrick Gathara  

I think the whole humanitarian sector, especially in the 20th century, has tended to reflect the global dynamics of colonialism, of paternalism, where it's seen that basically, these really awful things that happen in the Global South, and that then require help from the developed West, or the rich world. And I think this kind of tends not to show the reality of it. If you look at crisis, first thing to acknowledge is that can happen anywhere, but this is not routinely how it’s understood. Or at least when these things happen in the West, they are described in different terms. So for example, when you had COVID in the US, in the UK, nobody really talked about it as a humanitarian crisis. If it had happened in Africa, it was expected, those would be terms that would be applied. When you’ve got fires in Canada and displacement there, it’s again not really described as a humanitarian issue. And I think it's really important for us to start seeing that that leads to certain problems. In a sense, first, it creates a sort of bifurcated view of the world between a competent West and essentially the rest that is defined by precarity and helplessness. It influences how people respond to crisis in their own homes, in their own places, where they are unable or incapable of recognizing them as crisis, and that then again colours their response. And also when they go to places , when they go to help, it influences how they help. Is there a recognition, for example, of the local efforts that are being undertaken? Most humanitarian aid is actually done by countries or people who are within those crises. So it's neighbors helping neighbors, it's regional countries helping one another. And I think there's a study that was done in 2019, that showed that international humanitarian aid basically accounts for less than 2% of all the resources that people in crisis have. So if we go in thinking that that is the major thing, that is the important thing, then we might end up doing or providing help in ways that are not necessarily going to improve the situation, and that might actually harm it.

Heba Aly

But I want to come back to something you said at the beginning about this bifurcated view of the competent West and the rest of the world that is defined by precarity and helplessness, because there is an argument that the reason flooding in Pakistan is considered a humanitarian crisis and flooding in the United States is not considered a humanitarian crisis is a question of capacity. That the flooding in the US isn't a crisis because the US has the capacity to respond and limit the impact on people. So how do you think about that capacity question?

Patrick Gathara  

I think it's true, and it's obvious that there are some places that are better suited to deal with disasters and crisis than others are. I mean, they still have a crisis, it’s just the question is whether they're able to cope with it. And the problem of not calling it a crisis is that, again, it feeds into this idea that they only happen in certain places, and then it makes it harder for people to see the common humanity between all of us, that we are all prone to this. And then to ask the better the bigger questions of why is it that we have societies that cannot cope? What is it that leads to the erosion of this capacity to cope? And I think that question will then lead to deeper analysis and to deeper action to deal with the systemic problems that are not just a feature of the society suffering the crisis, but as actually, many times, rooted in how we have structured the world: n how the global financial system works; in how the global trading system works; in things like climate change, which many people suffer it actually are not the guys who've contributed causing it. So I think it obscures, many times, the need to deal with those deeper issues, and I think it also lends itself to the accusation that then humanitarianism becomes a salve, a way to put a bandaid rather than deal with a problem. It's just a thing that fixes symptoms, rather than at cures the disease.

Melissa Fundira  

Well, I think one of the ways that you've tried to address that issue is by making a distinction between a humanitarian crisis and a humanitarian emergency. So can you explain to us, what's the difference between those two things?

Patrick Gathara 

It's really about the sorts of responses we want. And also acknowledging that crises happen everywhere. So, in essence, a humanitarian emergency will be one that calls for certain immediate actions that need to be done. So you've got a flood that happens, or you've got an earthquake, and people do need help immediately to save lives. And a lot of this would be perhaps either help from local communities. It might be the case that it happens in a space where the community can cope, or the country can't cope, or they can get help from their neighbors, so it doesn't necessarily require huge aid. A crisis, I think, should be more about longer-term chronic situations. So for example, Somalia. If an earthquake happens in Somalia, there is an immediate need, there’s an immediate problem, but taking that away doesn't mean you don't have a crisis that is there. And I think a lot of times people don't see that because they focus on that immediate disaster. I think it's really important to say that, yes, a country can have a humanitarian emergency, but it can also have an underlying crisis. And I think being able to distinguish between those two would again, be important in terms of people being able to colour their responses or to make their responses suit which one they are dealing with.

Melissa Fundira

There are essentially two main things that I'm hearing you say here, which is that one, we should broaden our definition of what constitutes a humanitarian crisis. For example, COVID in the US should be considered a humanitarian crisis as much as Ebola in West Africa, which presumably would increase the number of humanitarian crises that we should be responding to. But two, I'm also hearing you say that the response to humanitarian crisis should be addressing the root causes of those crises, right? But at the same time, there's just this ever-growing concern that the sector is at capacity. Capacity is extremely low, has been extremely low. I mean, there's the infamous funding gap, which grows every year. In 2022, less than 60% of funding appeals were met. So does the sector even have the capacity to solve the systemic issues that you're asking it to, while also responding to more crisis?

Patrick Gathara 

The issue of funding and resources is important and needs to be addressed. But I'll start off by just saying that just because we call a place, or we regard a space, as having a having a crisis, a humanitarian crisis, doesn't mean that we have to respond in the same way. So the idea of capacity that Heba mentioned is really important here. So we can recognize that a crisis is happening, let's say, in Canada. You've got 200,000 people displaced by fires. You can recognize that’s a humanitarian crisis, but does that mean that we have to respond to it in the same way as if that fire had happened in Nairobi, or somewhere else? Just because we're calling it a crisis doesn't mean it requires the same response. So I don't think expanding the definition necessarily means expanding the number of situations to which we will need to put in resources. I think the more important reason why we need to expand that definition is so that people can start seeing the commonalities between us, that the world is not this place where bad things only happen in one space, they do happen all over. And then it can start asking, why is it that some places can cope and why others can't? And I'm hoping that then that can lead to deeper discussions about the systemic problems that we have. And yes, there is an issue with funding. And keeping in mind, again, that the vast majority of help to people in crisis comes from local sources, from their own neighbors, from diasporas outside. It's not just the sort of formal humanitarian system. By tapping into those sorts of sources, then we are able to build up other sources of funds and other resources that people can rely on. 

Heba Aly

So I hear you, Patrick, that labeling something a crisis doesn't mean you're going to send in the troops, so to speak. But we have development challenges, right? When you're talking about these kinds of structural, systemic problems, labeling them a humanitarian crisis risks starting to blur the lines of who's responsible for what. So I wanted to play for you a clip from Marc DuBois. He's an independent humanitarian consultant and a senior fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. Also, the former director of MSF UK. And he agrees that our understanding of humanitarianism - or our definition of it - masks deeper and more systemic issues, but he takes it one step further. Have a listen.

When you're dealing with a protracted crisis, a complex emergency – I never liked the term humanitarian crisis, I think it hides way too much – these crises are political, economic, violent conflicts. They're not humanitarian crises, and the underlying dynamics can't be addressed by a humanitarian approach. I think humanitarians do quite well in dealing with the urgent symptoms, but you don't want that for 40 years. What you want to see is the humanitarians deal with those symptoms in the background, where in the foreground, what you have is a government, and civil society, and development actors, and governance actors, and human rights actors, and all those others trying to deal with the crisis – the underlying cause of the symptoms – and let the humanitarians mop up the symptoms.

Heba Aly

So how do you think about that argument that it's really not the job of humanitarians to deal with those systemic issues and when you start labeling it as a humanitarian crisis, you blur the lines?

Patrick Gathara

I agree with him that humanitarianism as it is now basically does deal, lots of times, with just the symptoms, but the fact is these symptoms do stay for a long time. And that sort of division between development work that's done by governments, NGOs, and humanitarians, etc. – I think it's already blurred, to be honest. And many times, you can't really deal with the symptoms, at least in any meaningful way, without addressing the reasons why these inequalities and these systemic problems are. And I think one of the problems we might have with simply saying let's maintain this division, and let's have humanitarians essentially responding to events rather than the underlying problem defined as a crisis, I think the problem that then creates is that the focus will always be on these events. News is an event-driven business, and news very many times is what defines where people put resources. They see it on their screens, they put pressure on their politicians, that’s where they want to go. And I think, then, you create a situation where we – such as we have now – where we jump from crisis to crisis or from disaster to disaster, but we leave the underlying problem and the underlying causes there. So I think we're in the same boat in what we want to fix. But I think he's taking the point of view that we kind of let the government deal with this. But I think to a large extent, there's not going to be that much pressure for them to do it. I'm not sure that's going to happen. And anyway, even with a whole bifurcation of humanitarian response and development response, the divisions that we have between that, that's what's been there for a while, and that's what's allowing these crises to actually become chronic anyway.

Heba Aly

And so actually, you can take that a step further by saying, not only does jumping from disaster to disaster leave the underlying problem there, but it masks that underlying problem.

Patrick Gathara

Exactly. 

Heba Aly 

And I remember an event we did a few years ago in which you said something to that effect. And if you could take Palestine for an example, where there's a massive relief effort, and that by providing aid, humanitarians, in some people's view, are allowing the Israeli occupation to continue unchallenged. And that by kind of fixing the immediate symptoms, you make it easier not to have to ever address the structural problems. I guess my question would be what leverage do you think humanitarians have, then, to challenge the status quo, or those more systematic issues that, in your argument, they are kind of complicit in maintaining?

Patrick Gathara

I think humanitarians do come in with some moral authority, and I think they do have the ability to push people to respond, in a sense. To appeal to their humanity, if you will. And I think that that's power, and that’s power they shouldn't be shy to use, to utilize. But if they only use it when they go to particular events, and then they take it away with them when the quote-unquote disaster passes, or the disaster phase passes, and the news then moves on to the next disaster, it’s a bit of a disservice for the people who are there. I think it's really important for us to be able to see that they can utilize this power to point to other spaces where it's sort of a slowly unfolding disaster. And to be able to link that to the systemic problems that are there, to the way the world is structured, to ask about fairness, for example, in the global trading system. Because the way we see people in crisis, almost as if they are just victims, rather than seeing them as people who have been victimised, people who have been, over a period of time, their capacity and their ability to respond – whether it's natural phenomena, or it's political problems – has been eroded. And this for me, again, is why it's important for us to be able to see crises as things that can happen anywhere, because then we can understand that look, that could be me. Unfortunately, the way it is, I mean, we saw it in the coverage of Ukraine, you know, this idea that, Oh, this can never happen in Europe…

Daily Show clip

  • “This is not a developing Third World nation, this is Europe.
  • These are prosperous middle-class people. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to. 
  • What could be a difference here from other conflicts, that could seem very far away, you know, in Africa or Middle East, or whatever. I mean, these are Europeans that we're seeing being killed. 
  • This isn't a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully too – city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.”

Patrick Gathara

It becomes hard for those guys to see, or forge common cause, with people who are also suffering conflict in places like Haiti or wherever, because they are seeing them as different. And I think when we have that idea of what a crisis is, that image of those things are only happening, what we call the Third World, it colours, again, how we would respond. We don't respond by asking the questions that we would ask if it happened in our own backyards. And in a sense, it becomes normalised. It becomes expected that you will have displacement, you will have conflicts, you will have famine in certain spaces. And in a way, it becomes a way of blaming those victims, patronising them, saying, basically, these things are happening to them because they are helpless and incapable, rather than saying that they have been rendered that way by the way we have structured the world.

Melissa Fundira 42:00

So, I mean, up to this point, we're talking about, words, terminology, their connotations, the weight they carry. But I'm curious to know, what are the potential consequences of that. So let's imagine for a second that we do adopt a more holistic understanding of a humanitarian crisis. How does that actually translate to concrete changes on the ground for people who are at the frontlines of humanitarian crises and emergencies?

Patrick Gathara

Well, I think first, the terminologies obviously, once we start changing that, how we portray crisis will change. For example, what's the images that we use when we're talking about famine that happens, let's say, in Somalia? Are we able to see that it doesn't happen the same way to everybody? Are we able to distinguish between the people who are struggling and who legitimately need help, and perhaps others who are not? Secondly, I think, what's the image of response? What does it look like? Right now, it is the Western humanitarian. That's the picture of the humanitarian sector in many people's minds. What happens when we recognize the 98% that's provided by local and diaspora people? Then our idea, our thinking about who is actually helping, would change. Where would resources flow then, in that case? We might then privilege, perhaps, local actors – and I know this discussion has already been hard within the humanitarian sector – rather than the people who parachute in to help. So I think there would be real concrete changes in how we address. And I think for outfits like The New Humanitarian, for media covering humanitarian crises – what they go in to see [and] to look at, what they portray, and how they explain – having a more rounded, nuanced view of how people respond to crisis, I think, would then mean that even the public, in general, would start seeing that it's actually not that certain societies are inherently incapable, inherently poor, and stuff, but that these are things that have been imposed on them. They are just as human as you are. In the same way you are able to respond to certain things and need help with other things. Then we can start forging that commonality between us and undoing this legacy that we've had of seeing the world as two different places: a competent West and an incompetent everywhere else.

Heba Aly 

One last question, I suppose, on the argument that you're making, because one of the tensions I see in this, what I would consider a decolonised definition of humanitarian crises, is that it comes into conflict with the humanitarian principles. So your notion that humanitarians should be calling out the reasons that these people are in crisis in the first place, the structural roots of the problem, etc., even if they're not the ones responding to them, infringes on this notion of impartiality, neutrality. We're not gonna take sides were apolitical, we're just here to save people's lives, and the only way we can do that is if we are seen to be impartial and neutral by everyone. And the only way to be seen that way is to not speak out about some of these root causes. So how do you overcome that tension?

Patrick Gathara

We've got to remember, don't respond to every crisis in the same way. You go into, let's say, a conflict zone. This notion of neutrality, actually, most of it is applied to the two spaces where you've got political conflict or wars where you don't want humanitarians essentially being put in danger because they're seen supporting one side or the other, so they're allowed to work. Now, that's one set of crisis. If you go into a place where the ability to respond to a disaster has been undermined, let's say by the global trading system, calling that out, it does not infringe neutrality. That's a different crisis, if you will. So that's why I'm saying, one, where you're going in to deal with an emergency, how you respond to that, and how you respond to what I would call a crisis – the ongoing long-term problem – would be different. I don't think that in that case, you would need to infringe, or to change, the principal. The principal works in certain spaces. In others, it's not really relevant.

Melissa Fundira

So you've mentioned the media quite a bit. I think, in speaking about the complicity of the humanitarian sector or humanitarian workers and the responsibility and trying to find leverage to challenge the status quo, that it's only fair to put the mirror up to ourselves as well as the media. And I'm curious to know how you see the media's role in trying to create that paradigm shift and how we reconceptualize what a humanitarian crisis is.

Patrick Gathara  

The media is a really big actor in this in terms of being able to mobilize. Lots of times it is the attention that media focuses on certain spaces that determines where resources go. How media structures and how media portrays spaces can have really long-term effects, either for the good or for bad. And I think for us to be able to tell the story of a crisis in its fullness, see people in crisis as human beings who live, who laugh, who love, within this crisis. I'll give you my own example. I mean, I was in Mogadishu in 2010, and having been brought up on this diet of Somalia as a failed state, a place of constant conflict and famine, and all things bad, I was very shocked to find a society that had markets, that had schools, that had universities, that had the internet. And I was thinking, “What's this doing in a war zone?” Again, it was my idea of a war zone that was problematic. And that idea was built by watching the news, by watching what CNN does, watching what BBC does, watching what Kenyan media does. So media can create these real blind spots and these real misperceptions of what a humanitarian crisis actually is. And I think it's actually up to us to work to try and change those perceptions to make our portrayals of these societies more rich and more nuanced.

Heba Aly  

And it's not just the portrayals of the African societies, as an example. It's also, as you referenced earlier, the portrayal of a crisis that happens in the West as a completely exceptional, unbelievable event, as we saw in the coverage of the invasion of Ukraine.

Patrick Gathara  

Exactly. Think about how the idea for a long time, I think it's changing now, that climate change was a problem for the Global South. That it is them who are going to suffer the floods. It’s them who are going to suffer the famines, and stuff like that, and how then that blinds people in the West to the risks they run from climate change, which I think this year, with all the fires and flooding and stuff, it’s probably starting to come home. It's not just a problem of how we portray other societies, also how we understand our own vulnerabilities where we are and the fact that we all run similar risks. Yes, we might be better placed in some ways to cope with some of them, but we all run these risks, and they all impact us. We can actually take on a view of the world that says everybody is equally human, equally capable, equally vulnerable, but then start saying that the distinctions that say that “why is it then that that society was unable to cope with this?” And that would lead us to those deeper questions about why it is that they have over time, I think, had the capacity to cope undermined and eroded.

Heba Aly  

You remind me of a message that we had gotten from one of our readers just after George Floyd's murder in 2020. It was the midst of COVID, of course, and she said, “Given that, by any account, the US is a failed state that is on the brink of humanitarian disaster with massive income inequality, high unemployment, COVID-19, a despot leader, militarized police states systematically targeting black people, we were wondering if The New Humanitarian was planning to cover humanitarian crisis here like it covers similar situations in other countries?”

Patrick Gathara  

Yeah, exactly. So for example, I think it's 1 in 6 kids in the US does not get enough to eat. The US or the UK. If that figure was put about Kenya, we will be describing it in different ways. So if you've got long-running situations with communities in the US unable to afford a decent meal, when we don't call that a crisis, then we don't feel the need to push for a response, a need to demand that things change. So, I'm all for us starting to have a uniform definition that then says these things as things that can happen everywhere.

Heba Aly  

And that's just what you tried to do on your Twitter feed, right, where you describe things that happened in the West in the ways that they would be described if they were happening in the South. What are you trying to achieve with that satire?

Patrick Gathara  

That is really about trying to sort of the lens of reporting about Africa and about the Global South, on the West, where these terms apply. So lots of times, countries in this Global South define the terms of the resources. So Saudi Arabia is an oil-rich country, but you never hear the US described as an oil-rich country, but it is. When we talk about ethnicities, you can think about how we're constantly reminded that in Africa, there are many tribes and there's tribal conflict, etc. You'll never hear the same said about the ethnically divided UK. You never hear the states of Europe being described as tribal or ethnic states, although that’s exactly how they were founded, how they are. Think about separatist movements. Whoever describes the Scots as a separatist region? If you had people here asking for independence from a particular region, you'd always hear talk about these tribal separatists. You don't hear that about Scotland. So I think for me, it's again trying to find that global vernacular of saying, all right, if all these things happen everywhere, let's call it the same. And there's actually a really good point to this. I think many times people are blinded, especially in the West, to the vulnerabilities that they have. So think about the whole Trump era and the election that in the USAhad. There is this idea that elections in the US are never stolen. But many elections in the US, the people who get the most votes don't seem to end up being the president. That happening here would be called a rigged election. So for me, the whole point of my thread is to try and show that these are common things. That the stuff that is said, or the words that I used about the Global South, can be turned around and used to describe events in the West. 

Melissa Fundira  

I think it's important to say that you're not just an armchair theorist with amazing ideas, but you really do try and put these ideas to action. I mean, for example, you recently started a column on The New Humanitarian’s website called Decolonise how? where you're going to be charting efforts being made to, as you call it, “develop a new global media ethic”. I'm curious to know what else we can expect from you both as a journalist or cartoonist, but also as the Senior Editor for Inclusive Storytelling at TNH. What can we expect to change in our own coverage of humanitarian crises moving forward?

Patrick Gathara  

First I've got to say, it's not just me. It’s a whole team effort. The New Humanitarian was already on a decolonizing journey by the time I joined, nd I think Heba has been sort of at the forefront of pushing the whole discussion, and for the whole need for decolonization of not just media, but also on the humanitarian front as you guys do with this podcast. Some of the things I'm hoping to accomplish would be, for example, asking about what are different formats we might use when it comes to reporting crisis, such that people can have this more nuanced understanding of them. What I want in the end is for people to be able to understand crisis in their breadth. To encompass not just the image of suffering and starvation, but to see the humanity behind it, to see the life behind it. Unfortunately, the way the news works, it tries to reduce things to very basic things. But you can't reduce the world into an 800-word column. So we need more and different ways of portraying these other aspects. So, for example, we’re experimenting with poems. What sense of understanding of crisis can they bring? I think artists and what they portray, whether it's using cartoons….If you look at some of the stuff that The New Humanitarian was already doing, looking at WhatsApp messages in Lebanon to see how life is working. The Yemen Listening Project that has just been started that then allows people to give their own stories of life within these areas. I think all that helps us have a much more nuanced view of a crisis, a much more holistic appreciation of what it means to be within a crisis. And I'm hoping that we’re launching a fellowship for The New Humanitarian, where we will invite journalists of the Global South to join our newsrooms for six months at a time and to bring in their own local knowledge, local ideas of how to report their own local crisis and see how you can use that to educate to reach a wider global audience. So they're not just coming to learn from The New Humanitarian, but they’re also coming to teach us. And I think in that way, we're going to be able to build out, hopefully, a newsroom that is not just more representative, but also one that in what it puts out is able to much better represent what crises are. That, to me, will be sort of the Holy Grail. That's the goal.

Heba Aly  

So that's what the media sector, and us in particular, can and intend to do. Coming back to the humanitarian sector, you've said that every humanitarian worker should question the colonial and imperial roots of how we define a humanitarian crisis. Where should they start?

Patrick Gathara  

I think first they start with the history. I mean there's been quite a lot of books about the origins of this. It's really important for us to know what the problems are, so that then we are acting we’re not perpetuating them. So understanding where the colonial roots or the colonial structure of [the] humanitarian system – this sort of top-down, “white providers to dark victims” trope – understanding where that comes from, how it actually impacts the way humanitarians do their work, how the humanitarian industry is structured, etc. Educate yourself. Begin there. And then finally, I'll say one thing with the whole decolonization debate. Whether you're talking about decolonising the media or decolonising humanitarianism, it's really an experimental space. People will have to develop new ways of doing things, new understandings of situations, new ways of seeing crises. And that doesn't exist. It's something that we've got to build out. So for everybody who's interested in doing this, they have to be comfortable with discomfort. It’s going into a space where you don't know necessarily what the end will be, or what it will look like, but you're willing to work, regardless, towards it. To contribute towards it. And then there is room for many people to try out and do many different things. And in the end, hopefully, from all of this will emerge a much better system, a much better way of reporting on that system than we have at the moment.

Melissa Fundira  

I think we often end these episodes in a similar way, which is, if you're going to rethink humanitarianism, it's going to be very, very difficult because you're trying to build something that's never existed before. And I think you've introduced my favorite acronym, to explain what these processes are like, which is that these processes of rethinking humanitarianism are S.H.I.T. It's strategic. It's hard. It's intentional. And it takes time. So thank you for walking us through all of that today.

Patrick Gathara 

Yeah, thanks for having me. I really enjoyed this.

Melissa Fundira  

Patrick Gathara is the Senior Editor for Inclusive Storytelling here at The New Humanitarian. You can read his column Decolonise how? on our website, that's www.thenewhumanitarian.org

Heba Aly 

On the next episode of Rethinking Humanitarianism, we're going to look back at one of the most ambitious humanitarian reform packages of the last decade – the infamous Grand Bargain. After all these years of talk at the Geneva level, we're going to dig into what impact it has actually had on the ground. And that's a theme we'll carry out throughout the season, we'll be trying to ground truth some of the humanitarian reforms that have been much discussed in recent years. So let us know which ones you think deserve a deeper look. Send your comments and voice notes to [email protected]

Melissa Fundira  

For today, we'll leave you with a little taste of Patrick's Twitter feed. For the last few years, Patrick has taken to Twitter – or X as it's now called – to write satirical breaking news tweets about developments in the West the way they'd be described if they happened in the Global South. In this thread, Patrick satirizes news coverage in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, back in the summer of 2020. You can read more of Patrick's breaking news threads on everything from King Charles III’s coronation to gun violence in the USA. Follow him on Twitter, @gathara.

Heba Aly  

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian. This episode is hosted by me, Heba Aly, and Melissa Fundira. Melissa also produced and edited the episode. Original music by Whitney Patterson Sound engineering by Mark Nieto.

Melissa Fundira

Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism.

[BREAKING NEWS MUSIC]

  • #BREAKING Emergency meeting of AU Foreign Ministers in Addis Ababa condemns extrajudicial executions by US police and urges President Donald Trump to exercise restraint and avoid escalating the
  • Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, urges the UN Security Council to urgently convene to discuss the situation in the US. The once proudly self-declared "leader of the free world" is today riven by disease and tribal hatreds, with its long-suffering people in open revolt.
  • With the country overflowing with arms and boasting a dismal human rights record characterized by frequent extrajudicial killings both at home and abroad, there is growing concern the current unrest could unleash waves of refugees which would destabilize its neighbours.
  • Most African journalists are barred from entering the troubled, oil-rich nation of over 330 million people, but unverified reports from local journalists as well as amateur video posted on social media indicate more casualties as protesters are met with brute force.
  • #BREAKING AU Chairperson, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, has urged US authorities to exercise restraint in responding to demonstrations. He warned the country's aging, corrupt, populist
  • President Cyril Ramaphosa has also expressed South Africa's willingness to assist the ethnically divided US address the plague of white supremacy, noting that the troubled nuclear-armed nation could learn a great deal from his country's historical experience.
  • #BREAKING Several arrested as pro-democracy protests spread across the US. with people demanding an end to the persecution of the minority black ethnic group. 
  • Analysts warn it may be the start of an #AmericanSpring revolt that could topple the oil-rich nation's corrupt, aging ruler.
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