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
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
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