Review of Caroline Gluck, No Dead Bodies After 3.30PM, Amazon 2016
In the words on the back of former journalist and current aid worker Caroline Gluck’s book on her experiences and thoughts on the aid business, she proclaims that her role in the media side of aid NGOs like Oxfam and international agencies like the UNHCR, was “Giving voice to the voiceless”. This she does powerfully and passionately throughout the book. She recounts her experiences from Liberia, Niger, Somalia and South Sudan to Haiti, India, Iraq and Pakistan. Her work for Oxfam and UNHCR has principally involved running media operations during humanitarian crisis and becoming the voice of the NGO and through them of the suffering people.
She emphasises, rightly, the importance of access to media for NGOs to tell the world about the crises and through that to encourage public donations and government concern and funding for relief and development operations. As a former BBC journalist (where I worked with her for many years) she had all the skills of investigating stories, reporting and writing to great effect. These skills translate easily into the demands of publicising the plight of victims of earthquakes, floods, disease and those suffering the long-term effects of insufficient food, dirty water and all the other effects of extreme poverty. The stories of the crises but also the very personal and vivid accounts of the struggles of individuals and families are recounted with feeling but not in a sentimentalised or maudlin fashion. They are blunt, real and effective.
What is clear from Gluck’s narrative is the close, effectively symbiotic relationship between NGOs and the media – in disaster areas the media rely on NGOs for access information and interviewees; while the NGOs need air time, column inches and web coverage, and to get to the public via the media as well as through their own blogs, videos and press releases. Gluck describes her role – very much like that of roving foreign correspondents – as a firefighter, jetting off to be Oxfam’s voice and face in Haiti or in Niger, having to get rapidly up to speed on the nature of the crisis, the needs of the people and the message to be sent to media audiences around the world. Effectively echoing MSF founder and former Frenc Foreign Minister Barnard Kouchner’s comment that “Where there is no camera there is no humanitarian intervention“, she sets out well how crises almost don’t exist until the NGOs can get media attention.
Gluck’s account is also enlightening about how some aid operations push out others. During the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake of 201, the airport at Port-au-Prince was effectively closed to anything but US aid or military planes, once the US military moved in, making the work of agencies like Oxfam far more difficult – NGOs in disaster areas compete, they don’t just cooperate. She reveals the bureaucracy and prestige issues that get in the way of the delivery of aid or even appeals for aid, as in Niger in 2005 where “famine” became known as the “f-word” and could not be spoken because the president of Niger didn’t want the “humiliation” of admitting his people were starving to death.
This is a very important account for anyone wanting to know how the aid industry works and how it relates to the media. It is also important because it is heart-felt but hard-headed. Gluck concludes her narrative with this powerful statement: ” As humanitarians working in conflict areas, we know we are really only putting on the bandages, making life as bearable as possible for people at a given moment, trying to save lives where we can and trying to protect people from further harm. The only real solution to many crises – from Syria to Iraq and Yemen – are political ones. Without peace on the ground, without some kind of reconciliation between divided communities, it is impossible for people to start rebuilding their lives”. You could add, the same goes for Nigeria, Mali, South Sudan DR Congo. Emergency aid and development aid is important but can only do so much. It doesn’t mean you don’t donate or help, but it means you do so knowing there is a limit to what you can achieve.