Thursday 23 November 2006

Egeland and After

I posted this on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 23 November 2006.


On 4 December, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland will give what will almost certainly be his final briefing to the Security Council before his departure at the end of Kofi Annan's term in office. With this "valedictory address" around the corner, it's a good time to recall -- given the theme of this blog -- the dramatic transformation in media response to humanitarian crises since Egeland was appointed to the post in 2003, and his role in that shift.

Most obviously, Western media coverage of foreign humanitarian disasters took a quantum leap forward after the tsunami of 26 December 2004. Of course, no single factor could ever be credited with generating the huge media attention that story received and the outpouring of aid that followed, but Egeland's controversial comments the very next day did play a significant part, challenging rich countries to account for their response and dig deep to assist:
It is beyond me why we are so stingy, really. Christmastime should remind many Western countries how rich we have become, and if actually the foreign assistance of many countries now is 0.1 or 0.2 percent of their gross national income, I think that is stingy, really.
This caused a massive uproar in the US, where Americans misinterpreted Egeland's remarks as solely targeting their country -- the lady doth protest too much, methinks -- but it helped draw attention to the crisis and deliver relief results, from donors there and elsewhere.

That was hardly Egeland's only outspoken moment in two and a half years. He has been a strong public voice on Darfur -- so much so, in fact, that he was denied access to the region on several occasions. Just yesterday, he told the Security Council the government of Sudan was blocking relief aid and was culpable in the ongoing violence and atrocities against civilians.

Egeland also made much-criticised comments regarding both Israel and Hezbollah during this summer's war in Lebanon, but once again, by deliberately speaking out, in this case on the actions of both sides that endangered civilians caught up in the fighting, he directed media attention to humanitarian needs on the ground.

You might think, well, this is all simply what the world's Emergency Relief Coordinator is supposed to do, is it not? But Egeland played the role very differently from his predecessors. Former office-holders tended to work more as inside operators, coordinating the various UN agencies in their humanitarian response. Egeland was quite revolutionary in using the position as a public podium for generating media attention in the service of rallying international humanitarian efforts.

Hopefully, his successor will maintain this new tradition of outspokenness. The worldwide media can be an essential part of humanitarian efforts, but people in key relief positions have to attract and hold their interest with engaging words that challenge popular misconceptions and encourage generous action.

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