OPINION: News Analysis - Aid agencies face tough challenge over refugees - Clare Short's attack on aid agency 'spin doctors' last week is rejected by those who are trying to get on with the job in difficult circumstances

With the spotlight now on the US-led military campaign and the

linked effect on the millions threatened by starvation, aid agencies are

finally getting the attention they crave.

That attention became unwelcome last week as international development

secretary Clare Short slammed 'aid agency spin doctors' for exagerrating

the crisis in Afghanistan and falsely claiming a pause in the bombing

would allow them to get food to starving Afghans.

Short, who returned that day from a trip to the region, said her talks

with aid activists - 'as opposed to their "spin doctors," she sneered -

showed that food distribution networks were holding up just fine.

'Short is speaking in black and white,' said one leading aid agency PRO.

'The reality's more complex. To get humanitarian stories on the news you

have to speak in loud black and white terms but it doesn't necessarily

chime with reality.'

Other aid agency PROs accept there has been tension between the aid

community and the Department for International Development. One

dismisses Tony Blair's suggestion that the humanitarian coalition would

be as wide as the military coalition as 'nonsense'.

'We are an aid agency, not the PR arm of Blair's or the Taliban's

foreign policy,' one said. 'We guard our credibility carefully because

we must keep the confidence of our supporters.'

Ironically, the focus on and action against Afghanistan has made a

difficult job, in practical and comms terms, harder. All expat aid

workers have been pulled out, leaving small teams of locals to get aid

through. Added to this, the ban on satellite phones means aid agencies

themselves often do not have a clear picture of events.

This presents a challenge for press offices, since they don't always

have information to back up their messages. It's hard to tell the media

and public how appalling the crisis is without pictures from within


There are no pictures of starving babies, few clips of refugee camp

conditions, and almost no first-hand stories of how desperate the

situation has become.

'The public need to see what's happening, but where are these millions

of people at risk? They just can't see them. In PR terms this is the

challenge - we need to tell the public in pictures and can't,' says Red

Cross press officer Cathy Mahoney. Her organisation faced an even more

acute problem last week as a US missile blew up its key storage depot in


The nearest comms staff on the ground are in Islamabad, Pakistan. For

Oxfam, it is important to have a dedicated PRO in the region, though the

charity is rotating staff regularly because of the pressures of the


Having a PR presence meant that when agencies called for a pause in the

bombing to allow aid through, they were able to organise a press

conference in Islamabad and brief journalists directly.

Tony Blair rejected this, but Oxfam retains a vocal, campaigning role.

Its core messages, according to press officer Catherine Dooner, have

centered around how critical the food situation is as winter approaches,

and the repeated statement that there was already a crisis before 11

September because of years of war and drought: 'Our job is to translate

what staff in Pakistan tell us, and getting the messages out, whether

through our website, supporter communication, or media work,' says


The Red Cross and its local agencies - in this case the Afghan Red

Crescent - take a different stance. 'The international community of the

Red Cross is different from all the other agencies as we have neutral

status,' says Mahoney.

'We don't campaign. It's important we are seen to offer impartial help

to those that need it, so our press officers have different messages

than other agencies. After the warehouse bombing we have been asking for

all to respect the Red Cross emblem, to protect civilians, let them get

access to food and not be targeted. That's as much a message to the

Northern Alliance, the US, and the Taliban as to the media,' she


Actionaid, which is working on anti-poverty programmes around the

frontier refugee camps in Pakistan, is a development agency rather than

a relief operation, so its key message is that aid is not just about

food and field hospitals. Deputy media relations head Jane Moyo says:

'We are talking long-term implications. We have to make sure we are

communicating with the local population and not ignoring them, since

when they see a lot of aid going to foreign refugees when their own

children are starving, it causes unrest.'

There is also concern that the US food-drops on Afghanistan confuse the

perception of the role of aid agencies. At Tearfund, which has partners

working in the country, press officer Keith Ewing says aid agencies run

the risk of losing their neutrality. This puts staff at risk.

Added to this is the potential impact on fundraising outside the


'People ask what they are giving money to, since they can see the

military action and the air drops. But we still have to appeal,' says


All agencies have found the public responding generously, and there

appears to be no sign of compassion fatigue. There's no sign either of

the media interest in the humanitarian angle abating, either. One aid

PRO says: 'There is a real openness from the media to what agencies are

saying about how bad things are, since the journalists on the ground can

feel it getting colder in the evenings.'

The comms challenges of this war for the aid agencies are immense, but

none of them fear that the media's attention will wane. Even without the

pictures we have come to expect from such crises, the scale of this

disaster means their messages cannot be ignored.

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