Against all odds - Nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan has hardened the West to the terrible suffering and human rights abuse which still continues. Amid international media fatigue Michael Keating tackles the mammoth task of drawing attention to the

It was odd being congratulated for organising the Taliban capture of Kabul. Just a few weeks before their military success, I was asked by the United Nations to help draw international attention to humanitarian needs in Afghanistan - an impossible task, sages warned me. A few weeks later, on 27 September, the Taliban swept into the Afghan capital and on to every front page and news bulletin in the world.

It was odd being congratulated for organising the Taliban capture

of Kabul. Just a few weeks before their military success, I was asked by

the United Nations to help draw international attention to humanitarian

needs in Afghanistan - an impossible task, sages warned me. A few weeks

later, on 27 September, the Taliban swept into the Afghan capital and on

to every front page and news bulletin in the world.

Spin doctors are justly credited with - or stand accused of - political

machinations, but this was too much. In fact, as it turned out, the

arrival of the Taliban did little to help me achieve the UN’s


The specific issue I was to focus on to raise awareness was the launch

in last December of the 1997 Appeal for dollars US 142 million (pounds

89 million) for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan along with a high

powered international meeting, to be held in Pakistan, on Afghanistan.

The objective of the appeal is to get governments to provide funds for

the aid effort in the subsequent year.

But who in the world knows that Afghans desperately need help? And who

cares? And why bother?

The answer to the last is that there is a direct correlation between

public interest in a particular aid cause and western governments’

willingness to provide funds. This becomes most obvious at times of

disaster but is equally true in more protracted situations.

Surviving a media vacuum

But the odds against drawing attention to the needs of ordinary Afghans

are formidable. Why should anyone want to give money to a country whose

authorities abuse human rights, impose purdah on women, and deny

education to girls? And isn’t aid just going to be wasted if the war

goes on?

What’s more, the UN has an uneven, often appalling record, in giving

priority to communication. The UN’s relevance overall is lost on most

people, and the funds and personnel available for communication and PR

work, even when the cause is indubitably worthy, is often minimal.

In normal circumstances, one might suppose that a place to start would

be with the Afghans themselves - after all, they have most to gain, or

lose. But most professionals, including academics, journalists and

businessmen, have left the country. The media is defunct; local radio

issues propaganda, and there are no newspapers. Forget TV. As for the

Taliban themselves, perhaps, just maybe, one has to ask if they might

see the merits of tempering their behaviour in the interests of getting

international aid for the welfare of their people?

The Taliban are just the latest phenomenon in an ugly war that is now

entering its 18th year. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan at Christmas

1979; for 10 years, mujahedin of various shades battered them until

Gorbachev pulled them out. The war against the Soviet-installed

government headed by Najibullah (whose corpse was later strung up by the

Taliban to advertise so effectively their accession to power) went on

until 1992 when the mujahedin finally took control of the whole country.

But instead of peace, this was the cue for the mujahedin to tear

themselves - and what was left of the country - apart.

The beginning of ’purification’

Popular disgust at the behaviour of the mujahedin was the curtain raiser

for the Taliban, young Islamic student zealots determined to ’purify’

Afghanistan - if not the world - and rid it of rapacious, self-serving

warlords. Two years after their first appearance on the scene, they now

control three-quarters of the country and have brought, despite their

appalling human rights record, a degree of security and order in their

wake. But as anyone who has been in contact with them has discovered,

they are largely illiterate, oblivious to the way the rest of the world

sees them, and far more focused on fulfilling what they see as God’s

will than tending the welfare of their people. Negotiating with them is

like grasping smoke. Hardly reliable as allies in attracting aid.

This is all the more frustrating as the need for aid is not in


Perhaps a million have been killed, leaving millions of widows and


Three million people are still refugees or internally displaced. The

country has more landmines littered around it - 10 million - than any

other country in the world. One in ten Afghans is disabled or

emotionally impaired.

The country has the highest infant mortality rate in Asia and the lowest

literacy rates. Perhaps half a million people are dependent on food aid,

and tens of thousands may be severely malnourished.

My hardened journalistic friends told me that the only way to raise

sympathy levels for Afghanistan would be by showing images of utter

misery, preferably starvation. Public immunity - or editor fatigue -

towards humanitarian need is growing, and the competition from Zaire,

Bosnia, Somalia and elsewhere left no other option.

But I faced at least two problems with this suggestion. The first is

that the misery in Afghanistan is of a different order; it is

protracted, endemic and relentless, not dramatic and mediagenic. There

are no African-style ’biblical’ scenes in Afghanistan, although as

winter takes hold, something approaching them may occur. The second is

that I couldn’t do it. For decades, Afghanistan has enjoyed the

reputation as being full of tough, proud, hardened people and promoting

an image of Afghans as pathetic, begging and desperate would do them a

long-term disservice, one which might take years to reverse.

Neither image is fully accurate, but of the two, the former is healthier

both for the Afghans’ self-worth and as an ingredient in rebuilding the

country when, eventually, peace is achieved.

Reuters comes to the rescue

My starting point was to find out what was going on. It was hard to get

a seat on either of the two UN planes that criss-cross the country, such

was the competition from journalists, including seemingly every

self-respecting war correspondent in the world (two weeks later, the

whole lot had left for the Rwanda/Zaire border). Few were interested in

the humanitarian or aid story - the Taliban, their abuse of womens’

rights and the battles to the north of Kabul more than filled the


The head of the UN humanitarian office in Afghanistan turned out to be

fully supportive of suggestions I made regarding PR. Using his

authority, I convened a group of media oriented UN officials to work out

what we should do. Everyone agreed: there was not the time, money or

support for a full blown communication strategy before the launch of the

appeal. Any thoughts of doing research into perceptions of Afghanistan,

advertising, organising special events in key western capitals and other

ideas were out.

Instead, our first priority would be to get images of human need out,

plus a story to hang them on. The launch itself and the international

meeting were the obvious candidates, particularly as the meeting was

already seeping controversy.

A chance encounter with a Reuters TV journalist in Mazar-i-Sharif helped

us get going with the images. She was covering the fighting but knew

little about the humanitarian angle. I was soon in touch by sat-phone

with her editor in Bangkok.

Working through their closest bureau chief in neighbouring Pakistan,

Reuters agreed to shoot some footage for worldwide satellite

distribution on the day of the launch and the international meeting on

Afghanistan as well as to produce an edited eight-minute video for non

broadcast use by the UN. This agreement was reached after painless

negotiations with Steve Garvey, manager of Reuters Corporate TV in

London, and with Tony Davenport, Asia editor. The UN would pay a modest

fee to cover costs and help with logistics, but this was not going to be

a VNR - now a dirty word, it seems, with some broadcasters. Rather, the

UN would help make it possible for a news agency to cover a story which

otherwise they would not be able to.

Overcoming eleventh hour hitches

With some help from UN colleagues, I quickly drew up a script for the

eightminute version which started ’Images of bang bang. Voiceover:

’Afghanistan has been at war ...’ ’ and went on to touch upon both the

main problems facing ordinary people ’fighting a war for survival’ and

to address the obvious questions about human rights and the wisdom of

providing aid to a country at war.

Our argument was that the people of Afghanistan - especially the women -

should not be penalised at the hour of their greatest need simply

because yet another bunch of ideologues have taken power, and that if

anything, more aid funds, not less, are needed. We also showed images of

aid projects which are working well despite the war, emphasising the

amazing ability to maximise the impact of the paltry aid they


The logistical problems getting the footage almost defeated us. Helping

get the cameraman a visa, for example, was tough, not least because the

Taliban have begun to take a tougher line with journalists. In one

location, Herat, they refused to let him off the plane. I arranged a day

of interviews in French, German, Spanish, Japanese as well as English

with various people knowledgeable about the aid scene and at the last

moment found myself cast as the off-camera interviewer.

While this was going on, disaster of sorts struck - the Pakistani

government objected to the Indian government being asked to the meeting

on Afghanistan - which was to be held in Peshawar, on the Afghan border,

but on Pakistani soil. The meeting would have to be relocated and

postponed, as the UN was not prepared to de-invite the Indians. This was

a story, but the wrong one. Days of indecision and confusion followed,

but we pressed on with our plans, judiciously so, as it turned out. UN

HQ in New York decided to go ahead with the appeal and postpone the

meeting until 1997 - a great pity for us, but we counted on the launch

still being enough of a story.

We got the footage, rushed it to London on the last possible flight

where it was edited by Tony at breakneck speed. The eight-minute version

was then couriered to New York, Geneva and Pakistan for the UN launch

ceremonies, and the longer, less structured version with a B roll was

put out on the Reuters feed on the morning of the launch of the appeal,

3 December. It was picked up all over the world, including by BBC World,

Euronews, the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation and elsewhere.

Awaiting an uncertain future

Simultaneously, the logistics being impossible from Afghanistan, we

issued press releases and an executive summary of the appeal document to

all prominent international journalists in the region, including the

international radio and wire services.

In Afghanistan, we organised a number of launch ceremonies, including

oneat a prosthetics workshop in Kabul, which were well covered in the

wire services. The reports were widely used in Europe, Asia and

elsewhere - though scarcely in the British media, which was

disappointing. I am still not sure why.

Will this effort translate itself into money for aid programmes? It is

too early to say. Certainly, at the appeal launch in New York, hosted by

Yasushi Akashi, Under Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, governmental

representatives were said to be impressed by the footage and by the

argument, which they probably had not heard before, that aid should not

stop because of the Taliban. The Norwegian government pledged dollars 10

million (pounds 6.25 million) on the spot, which was a good opener.

Did our efforts amount to communication strategy for the people of


No, but it was a start. The hurdles to getting the world to respond

fully to the needs of the Afghans are just too high. My hope is that the

UN and others will nevertheless provide the resources and authority to

allow us to develop a campaign on their behalf, and the success of our

efforts so far look as if they might result in funding for a proper

campaign being made available. And who knows, maybe some of the hurdles

will be lowered - the Taliban may disappear as fast as they came.

- Media Natura director Michael Keating was seconded to the UN

Humanitarian office in Afghanistan from October to December 1996. He

returns to Afghanistan this week in advance of the rescheduled

international conference now due to take place in Turkmenistan on 21-22


Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in