Ten things we can do to help shine a light on forgotten crises amidst a global pandemic
Jan 12, 2021
Updated January 2022
Before the pandemic, over one billion people were affected by long-term crises such as conflict, forced displacement and the effects of climate change.
The pandemic is compounding these challenges. Governments and institutions that have traditionally supported international humanitarian efforts have shifted their attention to the immediate healthcare needs of their own citizens and their own ailing economies. Given the trend, global aid will likely decline further as world economies continue to take a beating.
So, with all attention on COVID-19, what can we do to highlight other severe humanitarian crises affecting millions of people around the globe? A wide range of groups and individuals in the countries on the Most Under-Reported Humanitarian Crises of 2021 list are doing what they can to help, but they cannot do it alone. Failing to help these vulnerable countries puts us all at risk. Without solidarity we all lose.
How then do we beat the silence? We offer no magic solution, but rather a variety of possibilities of where to start. Doing nothing is not an option. Every action counts. What is important is that we continue to bring attention to suffering wherever it happens in the world.
Here are some of the ways we can all make a difference:
1. Allow access for journalists
Since the start of the pandemic, journalists have been contending with domestic agendas, disinformation and misinformation. Nevertheless, they’ve remained on the frontlines of the response to the crisis, sensitizing the public and helping to prevent mass panic. Accurate information is essential during the pandemic (and always), and governments can make it easier for journalists to do their important work by improving data quality and ensuring full and unimpeded access to critical information. Allowing access also means disallowing censorship and intimidation—both online and offline. Most importantly, it means protecting the lives of journalists and making it safe for them to report the news. Between 2006 and 2019, close to 1,200 journalists were killed, and many more were injured, tortured, kidnapped, illegally detained, intimidated or harassed simply for doing their jobs. Free flow of information is necessary for healthy democratic systems and it is even more critical in times of crisis. Impunity for crimes against journalists must end.
2. Address the critical funding gap
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ recently released Global Humanitarian Overview, 235.4 million people are in need of lifesaving assistance in 2021, requiring an unprecedented total of USD 35.1 billion to provide aid. This comes as donors are having to fund economic rescue packages and safety nets, while supporting access to vaccines and treatments in their own countries. 2021 will be a test for donors torn between responding to domestic challenges and demonstrating global solidarity. In the spirit of multilateralism, we urge donors to maintain, and where possible, increase their commitment to ensure that humanitarian needs are met. Humanitarian and development donors must work together to better leverage each other’s investments and prevent further loss of development gains. International financing institutions should cancel debts and hold recipient governments accountable for putting these funds towards humanitarian needs, including free and equitable access to a COVID-19 vaccine and treatment for all.
3. Invest in media relations
We’re in the midst of a global crisis, yet new crises continue to rear their heads and old ones persist and grow. Most aid agencies are already working with the media to understand how editorial choices are made and how new stories can be put on the agenda. With journalists stretched thin in the current environment, these efforts are now more important than ever. Organizations can continue to assist journalists by providing quality research, insight and context, to shine a light on lesser known, yet important stories. Sustained engagement with the media also comes about when organizations establish themselves as trusted sources for contacts and content, and when they help journalists dig deeper and understand structural causes by linking them to trustworthy and accurate sources, translators, photographers and experts.
4. Put partners first
Amplify the positive efforts and untapped potential of local partners. International organizations can support their local partners by assisting them with media and public relations training to help them take a strategic approach to their communications; connecting them with media houses outside of their countries; accepting communications budgets for local photographers and storytellers in project proposals; and helping them harness the power of social media. The media must also play a greater role in telling the story of women’s organizations at the frontline of crises. Many women’s rights organizations struggle to survive as a result of COVID’s impact on their funding base. They urgently require funding to continue to deliver lifesaving services to the most vulnerable and to women and girls.
5. Invest in citizen journalism
Digital solutions have become an all-important tool for media reporting. Access to sources is now cheaper, faster and safer. More importantly, digital technologies allow for affected populations to inform both the humanitarian response as well as media coverage. Aid organizations can support these new developments by encouraging diverse citizen groups—and in particular, women, girls and other typically marginalized groups—to tell their stories from their unique perspectives. Support can come in the form of providing phones and/or money for connectivity and supplies; providing training in news writing and reporting from a gendered perspective; and by acting as a bridge between citizen journalists and mainstream media. Reporting on conflict and disasters is often a sensitive and dangerous assignment. In all this, it is critical that aid agencies approach citizen journalist partnerships with a 'do no harm’ mindset and conduct regular risk assessments. Governments, donors and the business community can offer their support by ensuring that the gender gaps in digital literacy and digital access are removed. The media themselves can also up their game by enabling these diverse voices and giving them a regular platform.
6. Protect civic space and space for a free and independent media
In times of crisis, access to reliable information and freedom of expression are crucial. However, the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has been matched only by the proliferation of misinformation about the virus. Instead of alleviating the situation, emergency measures taken by governments for the protection of public health have stifled media freedom and shrunk civil space. In their efforts to combat misinformation, some countries have resorted to unduly repressive laws that have unfortunately been used to curtail basic human rights such as freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly. Media freedom is protected under international human rights law, and donors as well as civil society should continue to push governments to ensure that this right and other fundamental freedoms do not become casualties of the virus. Rather than using censorship and criminal sanctions to deal with misinformation on the pandemic, governments should use approaches that emphasize transparency and media freedom.
7. Disrupt the narrative
In the face of the terrible times we’re in, people are switching off from doom and gloom 'crisis of the moment’ reporting. They are looking for stories of objectivity and hope, and even in the most challenging of places there is always good news. There is much we can learn from the resilience and strength of communities who are dealing with compounding impacts of conflict, entrenched poverty and disease. International media should use the pandemic as an opportunity to change the current narrative and amplify the voices of those typically kept silent. Consider partnerships with diverse local media organizations that actively seek out women’s stories and those of minorities and other diverse groups. Not only do they better understand the context, they also tend to have better connections on the ground.
8. Don’t expect excellent journalism for free
As nations increasingly turn inward, the media is following suit, focusing on domestic news at the expense of international news. And while more individuals have access to content than ever before, the combination of rather slow political reactions and technological change have triggered the rapid spread of hate speech, misogyny and 'fake news’. Combating this requires that citizens engage; that they actively demand more from their news media; and that they hold media companies accountable for untrue, unfair, biased or stereotypical coverage. There are numerous excellent (digital) journalistic projects that provide critical reporting on topics behind the headlines.
9. Go beyond the hashtag
Influencers, local activists and citizen journalists have the widest platform through social media channels to share, like and broadcast information coming out of crisis-affected areas. Social media has the power to quickly spread awareness and information to huge numbers of people globally. Since the pandemic began, ‘social media activism’ has been taken to new heights especially as it allows individuals to continue to advocate for their causes from the safety of their homes. However, what remains as yet untapped is the use of social media to engage and communicate with—and not just about—affected people in all their diversity.
10. Prioritize women
Last but not least, gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls should be at the forefront of every humanitarian effort and its communications. If anything has been made clear by the pandemic, it is society’s utter reliance on women who have carried the burden of care at home and on the front line. Ironically, it is this same demographic that is disproportionately impacted in times of crisis, as conflicts and emergencies amplify the pre-existing inequalities present in virtually every sphere of life: from health to the economy. Crises also diminish hard-fought gains for women’s rights. Not only has COVID-19 had a more negative social and economic impact on women and girls, including many who dropped out of school or have forcefully been married, but it has also unleashed a raging shadow pandemic of gender-based violence across the world. According to the UN, since the outbreak of COVID-19, there has been a 40 per cent increase in violence against women in some countries. Any humanitarian response, whether to the pandemic or long-standing crises, should therefore not just be about rectifying systemic inequalities, but also about building a more just, gender equal and resilient world. For this to happen, women and girls must be at the center of all recovery efforts. Supporting them to co-lead the response at all levels, including the media sector, is critical. As journalists face mounting pressure and shrinking space, women journalists face additional barriers and risks. If the media is a mirror of society, then women need to be fairly represented in the news and in the newsrooms. Donors should continue to fund women-led media organizations and other initiatives that strengthen women’s agency, their decision-making power, and their access to information.