IRRC No. 319

For whom do humanitarian organizations speak? A few thoughts about dissemination

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Countries at peace have a hard time understanding wars. That is why humanitarian organizations are so often asked to comment on and explain hostilities to the outside world. At a time when humanitarian operations are being carried out ever closer to the actual fighting, media coverage of the fighting—largely aimed at a far-away audience, at the West—is growing on television screens around the world. In order to stand out against the competition, to be visible to donors, to raise funds or to denounce atrocities, humanitarian organizations are increasingly joining the race for air time, and their survival may depend on how they place. Yet because they speak continually for and to the West and because they appear time and again on television, it is on the basis of this media image—which has the effect of underscoring their allegiance to the Western world—that the warring parties end up forming an opinion about these organizations' activities. The rejection being suffered ever more frequently by humanitarian organizations in the field is very likely strengthened, and sometimes even caused, by such jockeying for media exposure; for that exposure enhances the perception that they belong to an ideological camp whose political, economic and cultural interests are one of the issues at stake in today's major conflicts.

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