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.