No more ‘flies in their eyes’: How do photos used by NGOs affect perceptions of global development?

British schoolteacher Keith Coughlin shows photos on an ipad to Syrian refugee children in the Za'atari camp, Jordan, March 2015. Picture: Russell Watkins/DFID

British schoolteacher Keith Coughlin shows photos on an ipad to Syrian refugee children in the Za’atari camp, Jordan, March 2015. Picture: Russell Watkins/DFID

The Overseas Development Institute recently hosted a thought provoking ‘twitter chat’ on the theme of #devpix – or, to give it its full title, ‘No more flies in their eyes: the do’s and don’ts of development photography’. They kindly asked me to participate in it. This blog post represents an attempt to collect and collate my thoughts on it.

Organised by Claire Bracegirdle, the hour-long online debate brought together a virtual panel of ‘experts’ – commentators, NGOs and development communicators, photographers, writers and picture editors. You can see the full list of contributors here.

What ensued was a fascinating exchange of views and ideas from a wide range of people around the world, all of whom clearly care about photography and how international development organisations are using it to visually represent the people they claim to be helping. Claire has put together an excellent round up of the event and other people’s thoughts on it. For what it’s worth, these are mine.

Representation is an issue that’s at the heart of development communications, largely because it presents an inherent tension – between the desire to somehow show progress (and demonstrate that ‘development works’, that extreme poverty can be eradicated), and the inarguable fact that extreme poverty and need still persists – that there are still large numbers of people around the world who remain excluded from the jobs, opportunities and services that many of us take for granted.

Broadly speaking, international NGOs need to show the ‘need’ that the organisations aim to be addressing, in order to persuade people to continue to donate money to help them. Conversely, international donors – governments – mainly want to demonstrate that the public money they spend on tackling the same issues as the NGOs is actually having the desired effect.

These objectives aren’t mutually exclusive of course; there’s lots of overlap between them. Progress is being made in some areas; in others not so much. But by engaging in this activity in terms of photography, NGOs, governments, civil society, media organisations – and even ordinary civilians – are all seeking to present different versions of the realities faced by millions of the world’s poorest people – people who have, historically, been given little say, or agency, in how they are represented.

It is often said that the hard-hitting images showing children in distress are the ones that the public respond to, the ones that make people put their hands in their pockets and donate. In times of extreme crisis and emergency that may be true – but even then, this can be done with sensitivity and care, as the Disaster’s Emergency Committee appeals try to do. And there is some evidence emerging to suggest that public audiences in ‘the west’ do increasingly want to see more positive imagery from NGOs and the media – they want to be reassured that something is being done, that aid can and does get through and reach the people it is intended for.

The challenge therefore, for all of us who create photography or visual communications material about some of these issues, is to find ways of doing this as ethically, sensitively, and collaboratively as possible, to ensure that the people whose lives we depict, whose stories we mediate, share and publish, are portrayed with as much dignity and agency as possible.

Gemma Taylor, publishing manager of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance put it most succinctly in her blog for PhotoVoice on the subject:

“It’s obvious that we can’t keep creating images that contribute to a damaging vision of one, homogenous Africa or generic person in need. […] You can’t stand for the rights and dignity of people and then show people in an undignified way for the purpose of shocking audiences or raising funds. The person whose story and life it is should have more agency over how they are represented than the person clicking the shutter.”


Schoolgirls in Ethiopia. Education is the strongest predictor of marriage age so staying in school is key for Bayush (far left) and her friends. In partnership with the Government of Ethiopia, the DFID-funded Finote Hiwot programme is helping at least 37,500 adolescent girls to avoid child marriage. Picture: Jessica Lea/DFID

We continuously strive to do this in DFID’s use of visual communications, whether they are about achievements in the efforts to support girls and women around the world, ending child marriage and female genital mutilation in Burkina Faso and Zambia, to demonstrating economic growth and social innovation in Ethiopia or Nigeria. These issues are at the core of DFID’s work. At the very centre of them are real people with real stories who are the ultimate recipients of successful British support. People whose lives  and life opportunities have been improved or even transformed. We make every effort to tell these stories in an informed, dignified, consensual, empowered and accurate way.

This is especially important, and difficult, we report on Britain’s humanitarian aid being delivered in emergency contexts, such as natural disasters or mass human displacement caused by conflict.

From the earthquakes that have struck Haiti and Nepal in recent years, to the conflicts in Sri Lanka, South Sudan and Syria, UK aid is helping people in their hour of need around the world at almost any given moment. These are the moments when people are often at their most vulnerable, when they may have lost their homes, livelihoods or even their families. We take as much care as we can when profiling anybody who has been caught up in these kinds of situations, to be absolutely certain that we are not going to expose anyone to any further suffering, risk or vulnerability as a result of them appearing in any of our communications. Where necessary, names are changed, exact locations not given; protection is paramount.

We almost certainly don’t always get it right. We could probably do a lot better. But we are trying.

In the age of Instagram, ever-cheaper smartphones and ever-widening access to the internet and mobile data networks, these arguments and issues will only become increasingly blurred, possibly even redundant. The people that NGOs, donors and the media have historically had almost exclusive access to, and ‘ownership’ of, in terms of representing them visually, are increasingly doing it themselves. Possibly. In recent weeks, the hashtag #theAfricathemedianevershowsyou has attracted tens of thousands of images – many of which may or may not be from or of places in Africa at all, and just in the last few days an Instagram account has emerged purporting to be the visual diary of a migrant Senegalese man trying to travel to Europe – although all might not be what it at first seems here either.

Whatever the case, the future of development communications is inextricably linked with photography and technology. How we collectively respond to that fact – as photographers, editors, publishers –  will define our collective credibility and, ultimately, the credibility and very existence of the organisations that we work for.


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Survival and shelter in Nepal


Parvita and her grandsons stand in the ruins of their home, which was badly damaged in the earthquake which struck Nepal’s Sindhupalchowk district on 25 April 2015. Picture: Russell Watkins/DFID

I’ve just recently returned from a deployment for DFID to Nepal, in the aftermath of the earthquake which struck the country on 25 April.

It’s hard to know what to say about such a destructive heart-breaking event. I spent 3 months in Nepal back in 1999, and had always hoped to return one day. I didn’t ever imagine that I would do so under such awful circumstances. Back then, I’d spent a few weeks trekking to and staying in the beautiful village of Langtang, which has been so tragically completely destroyed. But then as now, the hospitality and resilience of the Nepalese people is absolutely extraordinary –  as exemplified by Parvita, the woman in the photo above – who was just one of many people I met whilst there a few weeks ago.

Like so many others, Parvita had lost her home in the earthquake, and was living under a make-shift shelter with her family and livestock, a few metres away from the remains of her house. I met her in the queue for a distribution of shelter materials a couple of miles down the valley in the district of Bhotechaur, Sindhupalchowk – one of the worst affected areas, a few hours drive east of Kathmandu. She kindly agreed to talk to me and be interviewed about her experience – which, with help of the Swiss NGO MedAir, I’ve put together as a multimedia piece over on Storehouse – please take a look.

Part of the challenge of covering events like the Nepal earthquake is to demonstrate that aid does get through to people in need. The day I met Parvita was 10 days after the quake, and 2 days after her village had been reached and assessed for its needs by aid agencies. Yes, that’s over a week that they had to wait before outside help started to arrive. But almost any country in the world would be almost overwhelmed when faced with such a widespread, destructive natural disaster such as this. Criticism and media reporting that aid isn’t getting through is quick to appear, but these are complex, chaotic situations, and there are many sides to the story.

Kathmandu has a relatively small international airport, and it was almost inevitable that there would be some congestion there in terms of getting aid in. But in fact lots of aid materials, shelter and sanitation kits etc – had in fact been pre-positioned across the Kathmandu valley in anticipation of precisely this kind of event. And, as luck would have it, just 3 weeks before the earthquake, the World Food Programme had opened a specially designed humanitarian aid staging area just outside Kathmandu airport – designed to expedite the transit of aid that would need to be flown in if an earthquake struck. I visited it on the day that I arrived there, and saw pallets of tents and plastic sheeting literally being cleared through Nepali customs, loaded onto aid agency trucks and being dispatched with a couple of hours of being unloaded from planes. That part of the system seemed to me to be working almost exactly as it was designed to do.


It was by following one of these consignments of aid that I met Parvita. From plane to truck to village to people in need in the space of little more than a day – and ultimately onto Parvita’s head, as she carried the heavy bale of plastic sheeting, ropes, and basic household essentials such as plastic buckets and soap on her back for the couple of mile walk up a steep mountain trail from the road to her house.

It was a truly humbling experience to be back in Nepal. This beautiful country is going to need a huge amount of international help to recover from the earthquakes. Luckily, it has lots of people like Parvita who I know will help it prevail – but they do need our help. Please donate if you can to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal.

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Could this image really mark a turning point in the Syrian conflict?

Refugees queue to receive food supplies in the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk in Syria, 31 January 2014. Picture: UNRWA Archive

Most of you will by now have seen this picture. That fact alone makes it remarkable, as if the image itself isn’t remarkable enough. And of course it truly is a ‘remarkable’ picture; an enormous crowd of people crushed together surrounded by destroyed buildings in a devastated, apocalyptic scene. It is, as we all know now, the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, near Damascus in Syria. We know now that Yarmouk is a place of almost unimaginable suffering – 20,000 people virtually cut off from the rest of world for two years, under siege and bombardment. A place of horror.

But we’ve known this for a while. The UN and aid agencies have been trying to get into Yarmouk for months. They knew it was bad there. They have got in a few times. Some aid – some, but nowhere near enough – has gotten through. And this picture was taken almost a month ago, during one of those occasions. But the image only came out into the public domain a couple of days ago, released by UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees. And now it’s gone around the world, on the wires and in the media, thanks in part to the power of social media. In the space of a few hours, it has become an iconic image of the Syrian conflict. And maybe, just maybe, it could become one of those images that does actually influence the course of events.

Last Saturday, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council finally agreed and passed a resolution requiring all sides in the Syrian conflict to provide unrestricted humanitarian access to civilians affected by the fighting. On Monday, the BBC ran a harrowing report from inside Yarmouk, having been able to gain access with UNRWA. The challenge now is to for all parties to implement the UN resolution swiftly so that aid can reach the people of Yarmouk (and numerous other places inside Syria) properly, and get them the food, water and medical assistance they so desperately need.

Distressing and powerful as it is, the UNRWA image from Yarmouk is by no means the most gruesome or graphic image to emerge from the Syrian conflict – so it’s in some way surprising that it might become an image that really does mark a turning point. But perhaps it is one of those pictures that does finally make enough people sit up and say, ‘enough is enough, this cannot be allowed to continue any longer’.

In a couple of weeks time, the 15th of March will mark the 3rd anniversary of the start of the Syrian conflict. For the sake of all of the people of Syria, this picture, and what it represents, must become an image that brings about the beginning of the end of the conflict. We’ve gasped at it, shared it, zoomed into it in our millions. Surely we owe it to the people in it now to finally do something about it?

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2013: My DFID photos of the year

A business that's no small beerBringing into focusMeasuring for malnutrition in Madhya PradeshRed Cross helping landmine victims in South SudanA long walk home with clean waterTattoos mark moving up the ranks
Building resilience: how one Nigerien village avoided malnutrition despite a droughtCommunity health worker in the Korail slum, Dhaka, BangladeshSnow arrives in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, December 2013A Syrian girl waves from the balcony of an unfinished apartment block in northern LebanonLifesaving British aid reaches remote Philippines islandsSupplying food aid inside Syria

In the spirit of looking back at the end of another year, here’s my selection of the best images I’ve been fortunate enough to see, take or select in the course of my work for DFID this year.

2013 has been an extraordinary year, in which I’ve been lucky enough (if that’s the right phrase) to travel to India, Jordan, Lebanon and the Philippines in the course of my work. I’ve met some extraordinary people in those places, living in some extraordinary conditions, from the baking heat of the deserts of Zaatari and Madhya Pradesh, to the exposed plateau of the Bekaa Valley and the humid devastation of Tacloban. I haven’t written about this as much as I might have liked – as evidenced by the only sporadic posts on this blog. And I might not have have published as many of the pictures I’ve taken as I’d have liked either. Hopefully some of them will come out in 2014 instead.

But these are some of the pictures taken by others that we’ve published on DFID’s Flickr stream and that have stood out for me – some of them taken by colleagues, some of them by NGOs or UN agency staff, and some of them by fantastic photojournalists.  Oh, and one of my own (is that allowed!?)

All of them illustrate an aspect of the many people, countries and global issues that British aid plays a part in, and that helps to improve lives around the world. I hope you agree that they’re worth sharing. Please take a look at my development photos of the year 2013, a gallery on Flickr.

And happy new year – here’s to more fantastic photos in 2014!

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Photos in the age of the app: launching DFID on Instagram

Mixing it up - a worker mixes cement for the foundations of a new housing block in Addis Ababa #Ethiopia #EverydayAfrica. Picture: Simon Davis/DFID - See more at:

Mixing it up – a worker mixes cement for the foundations of a new housing block in Addis Ababa #Ethiopia #EverydayAfrica. Picture: Simon Davis/DFID

Part of my job as the picture editor for DFID is to always be looking out for creative ways to tell our story in images. From reports and publications to humanitarian emergencies and ministerial visits overseas, I think DFID has amazing stories to tell, and, increasingly, sharing our photography online is a big part of that. To this end, I set up DFID on the photo-sharing website Flickr back in 2008. Since then we’ve created an archive of nearly 3,000 photographs about development issues and some of the many people whose lives have been changed by British development aid.

My colleague Marisol has written more about Flickr and how we use it in another blog for this series. I love Flickr, but it was conceived and designed in the early days of what used to be called Web 2.0 – sometime around 2005/6, roughly when Facebook and YouTube also came into existence. People were just starting to talk about creative commons, open source, APIs and, yes, social media.

Then, in 2007, the iPhone came along, and everything changed. The internet became mobile, mobile phones became smart and the age of the app was born. Suddenly you could own a mobile phone that included a pretty good digital camera that was always connected to the internet. People started sharing photos taken on their phones in extraordinary numbers.

Screen grab of DFID on Instagram

Screen grab of DFID on Instagram

Fast-forward to 2011 and the Instagram app was launched for the iPhone. A piece of software that would apply a retro-style filter to your digital photos (basically making them look like a 1970s-era polaroid photo) and let you upload them to the web directly from your phone.

People went crazy for it in a way arguably not seen in photography since Kodak launched the Brownie camera at the start of the 20th century. In little more than 2 years, Instagram has amassed more than 130 million users worldwide, who between them are uploading some 40 million images every single day.

And now DFID is one of those 130 million users – take a look at Why? Well, for us, telling our story has always been about going to where people are spending their time online and putting our stories there. We’re doing it with Facebook, with Twitter and YouTube, and now we’re going to try doing it with Instagram too. We just felt that Instagram has reached a tipping point in the last few months.

For me this realisation came during a visit to Lagos last October, when I met and tried to photograph some of Nigeria’s tech entrepreneurs. After a day or so of trying – and failing! – to make interesting images via my digital SLR, I realised all of the people I was trying to photograph were comfortable taking pictures of themselves and each other on their mobile phones. So I decided to do the same, and posted them to Instagram. You can see the results here.

It isn’t just about numbers though – it’s about the tool, the way people are using it, and the potential for how it might help show where UK taxpayers’ money is going. Many of our staff are based around the world in the countries that we work in. Many of them have smart phones, and many of them take pictures on them of the people and places that the UK is helping when they’re out and about monitoring and evaluating the work that we do.

So I’m interested to see if we can harness some of those photos, as instantly as possible. Can we get some of our staff to upload what they’re seeing directly from the field? And as those smart phones and mobile internet access become more widely available to the people in the countries we work in, can we use Instagram as a way to see what they see, from their perspective?

This post originally appeared on DFID Bloggers, on 29 July 2013.

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Diffusion Festival: Cardiff’s answer to Arles?


Edgar Martins Time Machine, on display at Ffotogallery in Penarth, Cardiff, part of the Diffusion photography festival.

I made a dash from London to my hometown of Cardiff over the weekend, to see Diffusion, the inaugural Cardiff International Festival of Photography.

It seems that no self-respecting city is without a photography festival these days – from Arles to Brighton, Bamako to Belfast, Liverpool, Lagos and Los Angeles to Zagreb – you could probably continually travel from one to another around the year without having too many days off. So it’s something of a surprise that there hasn’t been one in Cardiff before now. But the cleverly titled Diffusion is a welcome addition, and it looks like there’s every chance it will become a major event to both rival and complement more established festivals.

Running throughout May, Diffusion asks the very broad question ‘and where is photography now?’. This allows for a diverse range of exhibitions and events without an immediately obvious overarching theme – although, as Cardiff is the capital of Wales, and this is the first incarnation of what will hopefully become a regular event, it was perhaps inevitable that a good amount of the work on show is photography of, about, and inspired by Wales, by Welsh or Wales-based photographers.

Every good photo festival needs a physical focal point and this one is no exception. The centrepiece of Diffusion is the Tramshed, Cardiff’s answer to the derelict trainsheds of the Rencontres d’Arles. The former garage for the city’s 19th century trams and trolley buses is housing a number of exhibitions for the next month, including a retrospective of Welsh photojournalist Geoff Charles’ work from the mid 20th century, and The Valleys Re-Presented, a group show featuring work by David Bailey, Philip Jones-Griffiths, John Davies and David Hurn amongst others.

Also like every other major photo festival, there are a number of venues for the 20-odd exhibitions spread across the town, from the city centre to the former docks of Cardiff Bay and the leafy headland of Penarth. From the old library, St David’s Concert Hall and the National Museum of Wales in the heart of the city, to the chocolate-box Norwegian Church (where Roald Dahl used to worhship) and the above-a-taxi-office Third Floor Gallery in the bay, the venues are as diverse as the work on show; Helen Sear, Sebastian Liste, Elin Høylands and Edgar Martins are among the many photographers on show.

But if the physical soul of the festival is the Tramshed, it’s intellectual core is Ffotogallery. Established in 1978, Ffotogallery is the national development agency for photography and lens-based media in Wales, and Diffusion is in no small part down to its director, David Drake. Speaking at the festival’s keynote symposium The Photograph, Drake said that part of the reason for putting on the festival was precisely because of all of the other photography festivals he’d attended – and criticised – over the years; he decided it was time he put his money where his mouth was and put one on himself. He also says that he didn’t want to run a photo festival that was solely about the digital revolution that has redefined the medium over the last decade – so the symposium was unashamedly focussed on big questions about ‘collecting photography, curating it, and the conundrum of photography’s ambiguous place in contemporary art’.

There may be an inherent contradiction and tension here – much of the work on display in  Duffusion which falls more into the category of social documentary more than it does into contemporary art. Many of the symposium participants also talked about the fact that “we’re all photographers now”. In his lyrical, wandering, keynote address to The Photograph, the celebrated photo-artist Richard Wentworth declared that although he photographs almost everything obsessively, he has no interest in photography itself at all. In a round-about way, what he meant was that he agreed with Daniel Blaufuks statement, that the role of the photographer now is to ‘click less and think more’.

But, whatever the case, it’s fantastic to see so much fascinating photography on display in the place where I grew up. I volunteered for a while at Ffotogallery about 20 years ago, when the idea of city-wide photography festivals was virtually unheard of, and the transformation of Tiger Bay, from derelict industrial port to desirable waterside destination was only just beginning. Cardiff today is transformed, almost unrecognisably different. The Bay waterfront cafes, theatre and bars are a delight, although you only have to walk a street or two away to see dilapidated buildings that are still empty, two decades on. And, a mile down the road in the city centre, many of the streets have been pedestrianised, and gleaming shopping centres built, but the weekend revellers are hen and stag parties from Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle, rather than just the rugby clubs from the valleys of the 1980s and 90s.

Drake says that another reason for doing the festival now was just that city was ready for it. It’s the right size, big enough to support the idea, but still small enough that it was reasonably straightforward to get everybody on board with it. I think Diffusion is a triumph, reflecting the transformation of Cardiff itself in many ways. It simultaneously reflects the tradition of photography and the history of the city, and embraces the challenges of change that both face. South Wales might not be able to compete with the south of France, even if the sun has been shining for the opening weekend; the sunlight in Cardiff is more usually diffused by the clouds. But maybe for the next few weeks that light will be a little clearer. As the slogan on the festival tote bags says, ‘I Loves the ‘Diff’. I’m from there, so I’m biased – but I recommend you go check it out.

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Everything’s changed, everything’s still the same: some thoughts on the Future of Humanitarian Reporting

On 7 March, I took part in a conference entitled The Future of Humanitarian Reporting, organised by The British Red Cross and City University London‘s Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism. The event aimed to explore the way in which NGOs and the media report on humanitarian emergencies, and what impact technology and social media is having on such reporting. My contribution was as part of a panel looking at how NGOs are using new media to communicate about humanitarian emergencies, from my perspective as picture editor at the Department for International Development.

Below I’ve tried to set out a version of my presentation – including some bits that I didn’t get to cover in the allotted 10 minutes – and also some thoughts and reflections on the whole day. There were some inspiring presentations by other speakers, which lead to some fascinating conversations. I’ve tried to capture the essence of some of them, but apologies if I mis-quote or mis-attribute anything. Let me know if you were there and I’ve got something completely wrong!

Digital by default? How DFID is using new media to deal with disasters

A DFID (Department for International Development) Logistics Officer helps to load a pallet of humanitarian aid to Pakistan onboard a C-17 aircraft, following devastating floods in the country in 2010. Photo credit: Cpl Ashley Keates RAF

A DFID (Department for International Development) Logistics Officer helps to load a pallet of humanitarian aid to Pakistan onboard a C-17 aircraft, following the 2010 flooding. Photo: Cpl Ashley Keates RAF

Responding to humanitarian emergencies overseas is just one aspect of the Department for International Development’s work. DFID is the government department charged with delivering the UK’s international commitments to meet the Millennium Development Goals. Providing humanitarian aid constitutes part of this, and DFID acts as the lead government department co-ordinating the UK’s response in times of crisis.

This primarily involves providing rapid emergency funding to aid agencies such as Oxfam, Save the Children, UNHCR and the World Food Programme, or the Red Cross movement. DFID is not an NGO. It isn’t an ‘on-the-ground’ aid delivery agency. But it does on occasion provide direct assistance such as supplying materials such as tents and plastic sheeting for shelter needs, or other non-food items such as hygiene kits.

DFID also co-ordinates the rapid deployment of British technical assistance staff to disaster zones – such as civilian humanitarian advisors, urban search and rescue specialists from the UK fire service, or volunteer emergency medical trauma teams from the NHS or NGOs such as Merlin. DFID manages the logistics of such deployments and can get 70 or so firefighters, surgeons or other experts in the air en route to an emergency within 12 hours or so of being alerted. When called on to mount such a response, DFID often also provides access to disaster zones to media organisations or smaller NGOs who otherwise might not be able to get there. From the Asian tsunami in 2004 to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010, and Japan after earthquake/tsunami, DFID provided rapid access to the affected areas for first responders, specialist NGO staff, humanitarian advisors and journalists alike.

But as the British Red Cross itself has pointed out, around 90% of humanitarian disasters overseas go unreported. Rapid-onset emergencies, such as major earthquakes, tsunami or floods are thankfully rare, but it is these events that capture the headlines and public attention. Less reported are the so called chronic emergencies – prolonged or recurring droughts, or long-running conflicts that often affect far greater numbers of people in total. These are humanitarian emergencies as well, and the UK responds to these too – usually via providing emergency funding to established UN and NGO agencies already on the ground.

So DFID has a story to tell in humanitarian emergencies – whether through direct response as oultined above, facilitating access, or through the longer-term humanitarian aid that it funds others to deliver. The UK is one of the world’s largest donors to humanitarian emergencies, and people in Britain are incredibly generous in times of human need. Communicating about how we help on behalf of the British public is an important part of what we do.

But how does this relate DFID to the future of humanitarian reporting?

The point here is that, like almost all other NGOs, UN agencies, international donors and media organisations, DFID has embraced technology and social media to help it tell its own stories. From Facebook and Twitter to Flickr and Youtube, we try to tell the human stories of people who’ve been helped by British aid. Of course we still work with traditional media – print journalists and broadcasters – but we are looking to use digital and social media tools to tell stories in as many targeted ways as possible – where it is appropriate to do so, not just for the sake of it.

And we’re trying to have open conversations with people on these channels directly where we can. From answering journalist’s enquiries via Twitter, to receiving direct requests for help from earthquake victims in Haiti in the immediate aftermath, and monitoring Facebook for reports of tsunami damage in the Indian ocean after the Japanese tsunami, we’re trying to use all the tools available to us to help us do our job and tell our stories. We have press officers using Twitter and a small number of multimedia communications producers who can deploy as part of a British government response team.

Beyond immediate emergency response, evaluation of how the money is spent is also an important part of the story. Getting out into the field, visiting projects run by NGOs who’ve received UK funding, and speaking directly to aid recipients is a vital part of DFID’s work in terms of monitoring, lesson-learning and ensuring value for money. Whether it’s six weeks after an emergency, or six months to a year, this part of the cycle of humanitarian response is also an opportunity to tell the stories of those who’ve been helped.

We see social media as a vital means of communicating with the public about what we do, and photography and visual communications are an integral part of this. Pictures can tell dramatic stories very quickly and effective, and they are very social media-friendly. They can be shared, retweeted and ‘liked’ easily, and they reflect people’s online behaviour – they’re a medium by which millions of us are communicating everyday. True, it’s a crowded market place, with some 300million images uploaded to Facebook every single day – but if you have good imagery to help tell your story, your images will get seen and shared, and could quickly reach a vast audience.

But it’s not just about responding to, or reporting on, disasters after they happen. DFID has also funded various media-specialist NGOs, such as BBC Media Action, Thompson Reuters Foundation, and Internews, to run the InfoAsAid project, to map media capacity in countries at high-risk of natural disasters and to train local journalists in those countries, so that relief agencies know what media resources and organisations are available when disaster strikes, and local media have the capacity and resilience to report for themselves.

It also supports innovation in humanitarian response through initiatives such as the Humanitarian Innovation Fund and the CDAC (communicating with disaster-affected communities) Network, funding projects that use SMS text messaging to provide humanitarian messages or feedback loops to disaster survivors – so that beneficiaries can provide feedback directly to aid agencies that are meant to be helping them – and let them know if it isn’t getting through – as well as providing seed-funding to enable other innovative ideas to be developed fully and scaled-up.

A number of media-specialist NGOs have also been pre-qualified as partners in DFID’s Rapid Response Facility – meaning that when an emergency arises, they can get access to emergency funding quickly, to enable them to deploy specialist media staff or journalists where necessary – to help either report on the crisis, support local media organisations, or even support the joint communications efforts of the international aid community.

All of this means that DFID plays various roles in the reporting of humanitarian emergencies, from donor to direct relief organisation and even reporter. I concluded my presentation by saying that DFID isn’t an NGO and it isn’t a media organisation.  But in the age of social media, in a hyper-connected world, we are all publishers of content. Of course there are differences between government and NGO communications, and independent media reporting. There are ethical issues to consider, about how we collectively and individually represent people who have suffered appalling hardship, and who often have little left but dignity. We need to be mindful of their safety and security above all, as well as that of our own staff.

But all of these voices are part of the story. I think there is a desire out there for more positive reporting of humanitarian emergencies. The international community is getting better at responding to them, and there are positive stories to tell. Technology is creating new opportunities for all of us to communicate. The media is always looking for new angles and the most interesting stories, in a time of shrinking budgets and real-time, up-to-the-second breaking news cycles. With the ability to publish what we want, at will, comes a certain amount of responsibility to the people we’re communicating about, and we need to keep sight of this.

Some thoughts from the rest of the conference

Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s Chief International Correspondent, opened the conference with an eloquent speech that pretty much encapsulated the entire sentiment of all the discussions that followed. Her closing remarks are worth repeating (if slightly paraphrased, apologies):

“Everything has changed, but nothing has changed. The same rules of good journalism still apply. The same rules of humanitarian aid still apply. It’s about story-telling – and story-telling is not just a timeline of tweets or a stream of Youtube videos.

“Is there a future for humanitarian reporting? Yes, of course there is – if the reporting is done in the best journalistic tradition, and as long as the human remains at the heart of humanitarian aid”.

There were many other fascinating presentations during the day. After Lyse’s insightful, inspiring introduction, researcher Nicola Bruno (@nicolabruno) opened proceedings with a presentation entitled ‘Verify First. Tweet Later.’ He posited that the Haiti earthquake in 2010 was the first large-scale humanitarian emergency of the digital/social media age, and then presented an interesting case study on how coverage of the Emilia-Romagna earthquake in Italy in 2012 was influenced by social media reports – importantly citing examples of how easy it is for incorrect information to quickly get reported as fact, such as one NGO putting out a press release calling for blood donors when in fact donors were not needed, leading to people turning up at hospitals unnecessarily causing more congestion.

Chris Hamilton (@chrishams) gave a rapid-fire potted history of the BBC and social media, raising some interesting questions about authenticity and verification of photos and video along the way – which were followed up neatly by Storyful‘s Claire Wardle (@cward1e), who spoke about the challenges of providing a paid-for content verification service for the media in age where there are 100,000 tweets and 72 hours of video uploaded to Youtube every single minute of the day. She also proposed possibly the most interesting idea of the day when she wondered aloud how far away we are from a ‘Trip Advisor-style website for beneficiaries to report on aid agencies?’

Alice Klein (@alicerklein) talked about the experience of a small NGO, Radar, who offer training, support and a platform for journalists, citizen reporters and media professionals in low resource settings. She spoke about providing ordinary people with training ahead of last week’s Kenyan presidential elections, and challenged herself (and the rest of us) to not talk about ‘giving people a voice’, as if it’s in our gift to give anyway. You can read her blog about this on the BBC College of Journalism website

Liz Scarff (@lizscarff) spoke about working on award-winning digital/social media campaigns for NGOs such as Save the Children and WorldVision, and about how to reach audiences in an age of ‘opt-in’ media, where people increasingly choose what news they want to receive and when they want to receive it. Glenda Cooper (@glendacooper, journalist, academic, and the conference organiser), gave a paper that framed much of the discussion, outlining many examples of how the advent of social media has changed journalism, and framing what she sees as one of the key themes – the ethical challenges presented by so-called ‘user generated content’. She concluded by reminding everyone that traditional media isn’t dead yet – 10million of us still watch the 10pm news every night.

Leigh Daynes, Executive Director of Doctors of the World (@LeighDaynesDoW), posited that there are three issues at the heart of the relationship between aid agencies and the media: trust, truth and collusion. He gave some stark examples of the kinds of comments he’s heard from both journalists and NGOs when trying to get coverage and reporting of humanitarian emergencies over the years, and how complicated it can be to abide by the humanitarian principles of ‘doing no harm’ in complex crises such as Haiti and Syria.

His presentation was followed by Adrian Thomas (@adriancthomas), Communications Manager for the British Red Cross, who spoke abouth the ethics around reporting these kinds of situations and the challenges in using imagery in social media, particularly around depicting children.

Charlie Beckett (@charliebeckett), founding director of Polis talked about various pieces of research that he’s worked on with organisations such as the International Broadcasting Trust, such as Who Cares? Challenges & Opportunities in Reporting Distant Suffering, and Connecting To The World, Communicating For Change, which have demonstrated an appetite from the public for more balanced, positive reporting of international stories.

Journalists Ian Birrell, David Randall and Ros Wynne-Jones provided some widely differing context from the view of the media. Stand-out points from David were around defending Reuters against Twitter as a source of credible news, founding the Independent on Sunday’s Happy List (top 100 people who give most happiness) to counter the Sunday Times’ Rich List, and encouraging NGOs to build relationships with journalists, by phoning them up, emailing them and only approaching them with really good stories. Choice quote: “The best 1% of social media/user generated content can cut through and become the story, but most of it is the equivalent of miming through frosted glass”.

While I disagree with much of what Birrell said, he did make some pertinent points, notably that any journalist who isn’t on Twitter shouldn’t be in the room: ‘If I write about Haiti or Rwanda I get tweeted at instantly by people on the ground. So I raise my game.”

Ros Wynne-Jones (@roswynnejones) opened her presentation with a slide of Kevin Carter’s 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a vulture behind an emaciated child in Sudan, which sparked some interesting debate about use of clichéd imagery in humanitarian reporting, and how it is often editors rather than reporters who are unwilling to run humanitarian stories, depending on what’s on any given day’s domestic news agenda. She also raised the question of whether its even possible for there to be a journalism of detachment in humanitarian reporting – reporters often have to rely on NGOs for access to areas that are difficult to reach: ‘journalists are human too – cannot dispassionately observe’

There were at least as many presentations again that I haven’t covered here. As ever, many of the most interesting points and questions came from the floor, and I’m not sure that the panelists could have answered many of them, even if there’d been more time.

But what does all of this mean? Some reflections on the day and themes that emerged for me were, in no particular order:

  • Everything has changed, but nothing has changed. The same rules of good journalism and good storytelling still apply in the digital space – perhaps even more so. Verification is tricky.
  • Humanitarian principles also still apply – we mustn’t forget these in the rush to ‘tweet first, verify later’. The primary obligation for NGOs should be to protect those they’re meant to be helping – and sometimes that means not telling their story, in order to either protect them from more harm, or to protect aid agencies access to them in order to help.
  • Access to technology – mobile phones and the internet – is rapidly changing the landscape. We will increasingly hear directly from affected communities themselves, with or without the help of aid agencies or the media. Some NGOs are leading the way in facilitating this, such as Frontline SMS/Ushahidi and Radar, but it will primarily happen from the bottom up anyway.
  • There’s still too much focus from western agencies on ‘giving people a voice’, and a reluctance to let go and to listen to what they say.
  • Visual communication is key. People are sharing imagery online in huge numbers. But there are important issues to remember around ethics, identity and representation.

All told, a fascinating, stimulating day, that it was very interesting to be part of. Videos and presentations from the event should be going up online soon on the Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism website. I’m hugely grateful to by @karmel80‘s fantastic Storify collation of tweets from the day – which is all the more impressive given that she wasn’t even there (she just followed the event on Twitter). Now that’s humanitarian reporting in the social media age for you..

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