Humanitarianism in the frame: memes, parodies and satire – interesting beyond procrastination?

Over the last couple of months I’ve been introduced and reintroduced to some rather brilliant (and some not so brilliant) satires and parodies of humanitarianism and its actors. Some of the classics include:
·      Humanitarians of Tinder​ – the sector’s most dateable singletons
·      #Endhumanitariandouchery – the anti-voluntourism social media campaign
·      Radi-Aid (Africa for Norway) – a fantastic song for a worthy cause
·      And the constantly reinvented “skeptical third world kid” meme.
~ For a conveniently ranked list with a slightly odd number of list-toppers, see the Guardian’s ‘11 of the best aid parodies’
As well as being a (sometimes slightly uncomfortable) few minutes’ worth of entertainment, these satirical efforts are also indicative of the dynamic culture of critique around humanitarianism and demonstrate the varied voices and mediums of its detractors. And they have a significance and relevance far beyond procrastination.
As satire, these expressions are rooted in perceptions of a certain reality. In order to understand the joke we need to know the social, political, cultural, religious (etc) contexts which have informed their production. Satire gives us a way to think of these issues and contexts in a form of mental shorthand.
Jeff Bercovici writes: ‘satire turns ideas into memes, allowing them to spread through the culture and influence behavior in a way more complex, “serious” arguments seldom can’. These ideas-cum-memes can be empowering to the wielders, who may lack a voice or a mode of expression otherwise. The oft-quoted phrase ‘satire should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ springs to mind here.
An interesting recent example of this was the ‘Coins for Abbott’ campaign – an Indonesian protest against Australian PM Tony Abbott’s misjudged attempt to gain clemency for Australian drug traffickers by referring to the country’s $1bn tsunami relief to Indonesia back in 2004. Abbott’s comments provoked a wave of protest across the country, which saw thousands of Indonesians rallying to collect money for the Australian PM.
The Jakarta Post reported of the incident:
“This is aimed to show Australian people that not only does Indonesia need Australia but adversely, Australia also needs us. Many Indonesian people are facing death sentences overseas, but Indonesia has never used threats to save them,” he said. … Australia had dispatched its humanitarian relief and helped to reconstruct Aceh for its own interests’.
Here was an example of satire being used as counter-power, and used in such a way to expose a perceived self-interestedness in humanitarian action by a powerful actor. The Indonesian population was using humour to hold a donor government to account for its inappropriate attempt at an intervention in entirely unrelated (to tsunami humanitarian action) Indonesian legal processes. It was an alternative means of highlighting Australia’s aid responsibility and accountability as a donor, and in many ways a successful one resulting in viral social media trending and much international discussion.
Although the earlier social media examples of humanitarian parody can’t all lay claim to such specific, direct and powerfully political messages, they can certainly serve as social barometers of perceptions of the work of humanitarianism and its actors. Are they therefore important enough to demand attention beyond procrastination? Are such expressions relevant to broader discussions around accountability, campaign strategies, fundraising, humanitarian identity and so on?I shall leave the final word with Michael and the team at SAIH Norway.

Humanitarian Effectiveness, Efficacy or Efficiency?

Here’s a post I wrote in an email circular to some colleagues of mine. I thought it relevant for a repost here. As you might be able to tell, I work in the humanitarian sector…

In chat with a French colleague of mine the other day about the humanitarian effectiveness strand of the World Humanitarian Summit and we got stuck on the word “effectiveness”.

‘Clarify what you mean by this in your research’, he asked, ‘as in French efficacité means effectiveness, efficiency and efficacy – we use one word for these three things’. 

These translational dynamics got me thinking… Is nuance important? What would the WHS consultations look, sound and turn out like if the thematic focus was instead titled ‘Humanitarian Efficacy’ or even ‘Humanitarian Efficiency’? After all, to many people it means these very things. 

Just as your identity, ambitions and interests affect your perception of a situation, so does your language … the words you use, your native and learned tongues come with a whole host of assumptions and cultural reference points that differ across time and space, and from person to person.

This is no bad thing of course, but it does necessitate recognition and discussion. With WHS potentially catalysing change in the way the international humanitarian architecture understands and approaches “effectiveness” operationally, we first need to acknowledge the multiplicity of understandings and approaches to the term linguistically… and explore the effects that such cultural linguistic diversity may have on approaches to practice and measurement.

Mitch Moxley has written an article on this subject more broadly, with interesting illustrations of the practical implications of language understanding in the legal realm.

Lera Boroditsky, too, has written on this subject from her experience as a Psychology Professor, noting that learning a language requires paying attention to a new set of distinctions. Perhaps in this sense then, understanding the nuances of humanitarian “effectiveness” should not be undertaken by exploring how different people with different languages comprehend the word. Perhaps it should instead be approached as if humanitarianism has its own language and set of distinctions of which we all consciously or unconsciously learn anew when we enter the sector. And what are the implications of that?

What the Scottish Referendum is Really About, or Should Be.

“All for one and one for all, united we stand divided we fall.” 

― Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers


The Scottish referendum is fundamentally about governance, at least it should be. Forget Salmond, Sturgeon and Souter. Forget Darling, Brown and Murphy. This is not about them or their parties. This is – or at least it should be – about bringing government closer to ‘the people’. 

But have we stopped to ask who these people are? What they want? And, perhaps most importantly, how realistic it is that the proposed change in governance (namely, independence) will bring all the benefits that ‘the people’ want and deserve?

Let’s try that and see where it takes us. 

Now, ‘the people’ are the people of Scotland – not ‘Scots’ if we are to take the latter as an ethnic group. The people of Scotland are made up of a plethora of Scots, the English, Irish, Welsh, continental Europeans, Commonwealth Citizens and everything outside and in between. That doesn’t even include communities of interest from across business and civil society. No single government is ever going to bring such a heterogenous group everything it needs and desires; indeed, that is the point of finite government terms in a democracy – to reflect the changing political views of an ever-evolving electorate. The SNP’s proposal of corporate tax cuts may appeal to the business community for instance, but it may not appeal to the ordinary tax-payer who would like their rates to go down into the bargain. Such is democracy as it balances political and economic interests on both a domestic and international scale.

So ‘the people’ are too diverse to individually legislate for. What then is needed? Fairer representation and a feeling that your voice, as a voter, will be heard? Agreed. 

This debate therefore is about governance, and fair governance requires power to be localised as much as possible; it requires, decentralisation. This is essential for a fairer society and what is necessary is a substantial amount in the public coffers as well as a devolution of service delivery and financing to local governments. The political will must be there, but so too must the money. 

Unfortunately, an independent Scotland offers neither financial security (particularly in the short term), nor does it have the political precedent to suggest ‘the will’ for decentralisation is there in the first place.

The currency, location of the central bank, interest rates shares of national debt, migration of companies, ownership of natural resources, taxes… All of these are uncertainties that cover this referendum in a thick fog and have already resulted in a devaluation of the pound, a drop in value of Scottish companies, people moving their savings from Scottish to British banks, a freeze in investments and threats of relocation. A ‘yes’ result will not clarify these overnight and result in a balanced budget, rather it will result in a protracted transitional period that will drag on far beyond March 2016. Tough economic times lay ahead. How will the government pay for the necessary – and massive – upscaling of the civil service in the short term if its borrowing capabilities are limited by financial uncertainty? Will those individuals whose jobs are immediately lost, sit and wait happily for new investors and companies to wade in several years down the line when the economy improves? Whatever the case, ‘the people’ will seek answers from their elected representatives. So how close will those representatives be to ‘the people’, with an independent government sitting in Edinburgh?

Well as far as precedent goes, we have the same political class here in Scotland as is criticised in Westminster, whose pattern of decision making certainly does not suggest a fundamental shift in policy. Indeed, Scotland has seen an increasing centralisation of power from local authorities to Holyrood over the years (with local government being a devolved power); the police system has been centralised (- again, a devolved power); Scotland is suffering a similar housing crisis to the rest of the UK due to insufficient housing construction (devolved); NHS Scotland also uses private contractors and has cut back on staff as much as the UK (devolved) and so on and so forth.

So independence will not bring wholesale change to the people. It will bring government slightly closer than London, but then one could argue that Edinburgh is as alien to Islanders as Canary Wharf is to Cumbrians.

My point is not to shout doom, but to highlight the insincerity upon which the current ‘yes’ campaign is based. And these tired accusations of ‘scaremongering’ and ‘negativity’ have to be put to bed. A yes/no question necessarily requires proponents of the latter to start from a point of negation. I, like many yes voters, do not agree with what the current Conservative-led government is doing to our country, but I also do not believe that creating borders is the solution at hand.

At the end of the day the economics of independence are uncertain and that will scare companies and people – perhaps enough to move. This movement will have ripple repercussions on jobs, pensions, savings, taxes and public services in Scotland and south of the border. Moreover, the reality of what the Scottish Government has so far done with their devolved powers does not present much hope for the realisation of the radical change that the ‘yes’ campaign promises. 

Of course Scotland can survive, but can it prosper in the trajectory it has already grown in a short enough timespan to ensure economic stability for the ‘the people’ and keep the trust of a nation? No it can’t. So no thanks. 

And, for me, a ‘no’ vote does not mean the end. A vote for union on the 18th will offer far more than division ever could. Gordon Brown has already unveiled a plan for fast-tracked devolution of powers, and all of the main parties are following suit. This will offer the Scottish people more finances to fund policy changes, and Holyrood more powers to make these changes happen. Importantly, these finances and powers will not be subject to the antagonisms of already fraught relations between the posturing Scottish ‘Yes’ politicians and their nemeses in Westminster. This will mitigate harm to the ordinary people of both Scotland and rUK. Better still, further devolution will show the globalised world in which we live that the British lead the way in cooperation (as opposed to division) and that compromises are possible. Practice as we preach.

As for the devolution of powers to local authorities? This is what real change is about and will require UK-wide effort to make it meaningful. Sibling cities must come together and tackle Westminster and Holyrood head on: Glasgow and Manchester, Aberdeen and Newcastle, the Highlands and the Lake and Peak Districts, Stirling and Belfast and so on. Good governance requires strong local authorities backed up by a strong state. The UK already offers the latter, so let’s put our unified efforts into the former. The momentum for constitutional change must not end here: what about full devolution to Wales and Northern Ireland and a regional English parliament in the North of England? 

The Scottish People of the twenty first century are British, as they have been for almost the last 300 years. Let’s recapture that along with the English, the Welsh and Northern Irish who all want further devolved powers. Efforts must not be put into dividing people and economies, but into making the union work through galvanising the entire British Isles and pushing for federalisation.

Challenging What? The Ice Bucket Challenge and Its Distractions.

The ice bucket challenge is the latest charity fundraising initiative to go viral. It imitates the model of the ‘no-makeup selfie’, which saw thousands of (predominantly) women taking photographs of themselves without makeup on, donating to Cancer Research and nominating friends to do the same via social media. For the Ice Bucket Challenge the clear and somewhat questionable gender orientation of the campaign has been removed – although it might be argued that the vanity remains for some – and it has already raised almost £50 million in donations. A not insignificant sum of money for good causes, I completely agree.

HOWEVER … of course, there is always a ‘however’.

What is it all for? And I mean this both in the literal sense and wider terms.

The original initiative was created as a fundraising tool for people living with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) – though I defy the majority of ice bucketeers to know what ALS stood for even after watching their tenth video on Facebook. For those, like me, who got no information from ice bucket participants on the cause via their social media feeds and had to look elsewhere, ALS is also known as motor neurone disease… a debilitating illness that causes muscle weakness and atrophy throughout the body, and certainly a cause worthy of increased attention and donations. Other charities such as Macmillan Cancer Support have also cashed in on the initiative. Facebook and Twitter are full of back-patting and self-congratulation for fulfilled nominations and entertaining videos. Not only can you enjoy watching your favourite celebrities and politicians dousing themselves in a moment of absolute humanity and solidarity, you can also see which of your Facebook friends care the most.

Of course the financial boon to charity organisations cannot be disputed here, and no organisation can operate without cash. The issue, and the reason behind my thinly-veiled sarcasm, is the superficiality of it all. Compassion for the suffering other – whether they have ALS, cancer or are living in poverty– is reduced to a series of singular detached moments of celebrity and/or friend entertainment with the addition of a one-off donation. Individuals living with the affliction donors are seeking to alleviate with their ice bucket contributions are completely abstracted to indistinct ‘beneficiaries’ , and in place of cause awareness you are given entertainment. What does ALS stand for? Who cares! David Beckham just nominated Leonardo DiCaprio. How does Macmillan provide sustainable care for people suffering with cancer? What does it matter?! If Big Brother’s Emma Willis does it for charity, it must be good. How do my lifestyle habits contribute to cancer, environmental damage and worsen global levels of inequality? Eh… what’s that got to do with the ice bucket challenge?

The fact that a child recently died attempting to undertake the challenge by diving into a quarry and another individual was condemned for submerging a puppy into an ice bucket simply underline the fact that this challenge is less about the cause(s) and more about the spectacle. Such a trend is not only worrying, but deserves critical reflection without detractors being lambasted for miserliness or being a spoil sport.

A recent study instigated by Oxfam noted that, whilst charity donations are on the rise, concern for – and knowledge about – social issues, social justice, poverty and inequality are decreasing. As long as people feel they are doing ‘something good for someone somewhere’ that seems to make it all ok. But actually it doesn’t. It’s simply not good enough. Filming yourself throwing a bucket of ice over your head and posting your donation of £3, £10, or £1000 to a charity may encourage a friend to do the same (especially if you put them in the rather awkward position of nomination), but it does not educate anyone about the necessity of the cause and the need for interpersonal, empathetic solidarity. It does not question why a non-governmental organisation requires funds to fill such a gap where previously a government may have provided support. It does not ask you to re-evaluate your lifestyle choices – consumption habits, carbon footprint, local voluntary effort and so on – to improve wider society. It does not require you to think. Just to drench and donate. Where’s the challenge in that?

News in the Age of Twitter.

This is well trodden territory in the world of commentary about breaking news, but today is the first day I have really engaged with the wonders of twitter as a story has broken. And I loved it. Though perhaps not for the right reasons. Not only did it turn the supposedly authoritative position of ‘the news presenter’ on its head, it was also a lesson in taking ourselves and our breaking news stories too seriously before we know all of the facts.

Let me set a little context…

A plane from Doha was due to land in Manchester airport at 13:15 today but somewhere over the North of England it was joined by an RAF fighter jet whose job it was to escort the plane down. News at this stage was that the flight authorities had reason to suspect there was a dangerous device on board. Manchester Airport went on lockdown and all flights suspended. Now, apart from wondering what an RAF jet could do in the event of any passenger plane situation (be that bomb, crash, technical malfunction) it was a story that sparked human interest – especially given the unusually high number of plane related incidents in these last few months alone.

BBC News 24 has the responsibility of providing the British public with a rolling news service that breaks stories as they happen. For this particular story they made contact with two young male Mancunian (I presume only due to their accents) passengers who, over the course of 40 minutes, provided the BBC with ongoing narrative about what was happening on board.Thankfully this was a non-story (a fake bomb threat as opposed to a real danger) as these two chaps were the real draw.

The BBC presenters were wholly reliant on them as well as other members of the public and on-site authorities at Manchester airport for information. This in itself is not unusual as all news stations must get information from somewhere. But in the age of instant news via social media these carefully orchestrated news channels are struggling to keep up with the sheer flow of it all. The demand for real-time coverage means that incoming unofficial information and contact with ‘witnesses’ are no longer mediated sources. They are no longer filtered through the back office and cut into neat video segments with an articulate auto cue presenting the salient points of the story.

No, in this instance the BBC had news to share with the world only when the two passengers – Josh and Matt – were on the line. The presenters were then forced to slowly drawl over their limited information when the telephone connection to these two men on board wavered.

Josh and Matt, on the other hand, were in their prime. Describing the event as it unfolded, they worked as a journalistic pair: Josh was live on the phone to the BBC whilst Matt took pictures of the police boarding and escorting away the suspect. Preempting viewer interest, Josh announced Matt’s twitter handle so viewers could see the suspect (before it was even known exactly what he was suspected of doing). In the space of 18 minutes, Matt’s twitter followers went from around 150 to 750 and that number doesn’t even include viewers, like me, who preferred to observe from a distance.

The BBC put the same picture of the suspect on their news feed several minutes later but pixelated the suspect’s face – rather pointless when they also provided Matt’s twitter handle. The result: I found myself chasing Josh and Matt for more information rather than the news channel itself.

Josh and Matt had usurped the two presenters on the BBC as the authoritative sources on this story.

One moment of brilliance occurred when the BBC presenter asked Matt how he felt when he saw the fighter jet was flying next to the plane. Matt, having previously explained that he did not see it as he was sleeping, simply reiterated: ‘I was in the land of nod at the time’.

How wonderful it was to hear a couple of ordinary blokes giving me the news without needing to fan the fires of intrigue, drama and danger. How wonderful it was to be able to access the sources that the BBC were basing their story on before the BBC had even had the chance to mediate (though I can of course see the dangers of this in other situations). How wonderful it was to hear the highly articulate BBC News presenters who knew nothing of the situation juxtaposed against the voices of animated Northern chaps embedded in the (non)action. How wonderful it was to laugh at a breaking news story.

I know most of these reactions are safe ones to feel and express given that the threat was a hoax. But the underlying questions remain as relevant for this story as a breaking news story about real dangers:

1. How much should our news stories be mediated by even the most ‘neutral’ of agencies? Circumventing the BBC and going direct to source enabled me to see Josh and Matt themselves, a picture of the suspect and images around the police cordon. However, this might lead to false suspect identification and misinformation about unfolding events. Perhaps mediation cuts out the irrelevant and untrue. But who then has the right to mediate?

2. What is the future of the well-spoken news presenter who sits behind their desk and delivers ‘breaking’ news slightly slower than the rest of the world can access it?

3. How does the solemnity in which the news is delivered affect our reading of it? Had Matt not inadvertently made me laugh as he jovially expressed the calmness of the situation, would I have come away from this story feeling differently? Perhaps exasperated at the securitisation of the world. Perhaps fearful of my next flight. It’s something I will certainly think about next time the BBC or any other news channel tells me something breaking and vitally important.


Raison d’être

I’ve always been slightly turned off of the idea of blogging seeing it largely as a vanity project that fizzles out as soon as real life takes over virtual life. However in recent months I’ve come to realise that, not only are the lines blurred between real and virtual life – and in many ways emotions are that much more potent when expressed through the shield of anonymity that social media so temptingly offers – but also that vanity exists in many forms. Perhaps it should not be dismissed  as an action and used a reason not to do something. For all that it means narcissism, self-conceit and self-regard, I think it also hints at reflection and an intense look at the self in relation to others.

Either way it seems as if I am reneging on my original stance and embarking on what I hope to be a long term endeavour. Who knows how long it will last.

My reason for starting today?

I woke up this morning and switched on the radio to listen to the news and, as ever, it made me slightly sad and gave me pause for thought. A potential cover-up of a paedophile ring in Westminster several decades ago (and the related complicity of our politicians in “losing” the files), increased security measures to be introduced on inbound flights to the US following the “devilish” threat of ISIS, tensions mounting over the eye for an eye murder of the Palestinian teenager in retribution for the death of three Israeli youths… the list goes on. As well as being saddened, infuriated and exasperated at these incidents and official reactions to them, I also began thinking about what they mean. For me. For society. For the future. In relation to the story about the increased US security measures, someone on the comments page of an online newspaper posted a quote by George Orwell from 1984:

The war, therefore if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture. It is like the battles between certain ruminant animals whose horns are incapable of hurting one another. But though it is unreal it is not meaningless. It eats up the surplus of consumable goods, and it helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that the hierarchical society needs. War, it will be seen, is now a purely internal affair. In the past, the ruling groups of all countries, although they might recognize their common interest and therefore limit the destructiveness of war, did fight against one another, and the victor always plundered the vanquished. In our own day they are not fighting against one another at all. The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.


And I thought, does history just repeat itself? Are those complicit in this means of maintaining global security, hierarchy, power (whatever you want to call it) aware of their acts and the consequences? How can an individual be so entrenched within a system that they seek to perpetuate it at the expense of the civil liberties – even the lives – of others? It was this quote from a novel by Orwell that gave me the means to question such a news story. But what about the means to understand?

The phrase itself – ‘the means to understand’ – came from a Radio 4 programme discussing the BBC2 drama ‘The Honourable Woman’ – a thriller exploring the tensions between Israel and Palestine through the female protagonist. One of the programme guests argued that the power of the television show lies in the ability of the protagonist to give us the means to understand the wider tension, through her personal responsibilities, experiences and emotions. And I thought – is that the context we place things in, in order that we can better understand?

Must we look through the lens of the individual, and how events act upon and through them in order to understand their significance? Yes. I believe this is actually essential.

Returning to Orwell’s quote that war is waged in order to keep the structure of society intact, I think that – whilst I certainly agree – perhaps thinking on the meta levels of war and society  obscure individual complicity, both deliberate and inadvertent, and more importantly human inconsistency. I think it is individual lived lives that offer us the means to understand the import of wider events… and what I want from this blog is a means to explore those ideas. Perhaps arguments will not be consistent, perhaps my musing will not always link back to this original theme, try as I might… but that is precisely why I think it important to put these thoughts to paper. History speaks of consistency, of the culmination of events and individuals to an occurrence worthy of note. Individual memoirs, often self-referential and sullied by the life already lived, speak of fated moments destined to lead to a certain end.

However, the reality is that in the multitude of lived lives that make up society (whatever that is, and however you configure it) is a multitude of muddled experiences. Some of these will form an acceptable part of future narrated memoirs: rebellious adolescence, the struggle of family life, corporate ruthlessness, political activism. Others will not, no matter how common: paedophilia, un-redeemed failure, sexist sensibilities and so on. Here I shall try to explore wider events in light of such individual inconsistencies and, to some degree, deviances. I intend to seek the means to understand and, through narrating my thought process, perhaps I will offer an alternative means to view a particular issue, despite the clear personal vanity in such an endeavour.

So there you have it, the rationale behind the blog. Let’s see where it goes and, of course, all comments are warmly welcomed.