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“Thanks, but no thanks.” Navigating the Response to the Sulawesi Tsunami

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Tim Watkin

12 Apr, 2019

As part of our Spotlight on Quality Principle 6, Tim Watkin, ACFID’s Head of Government Relations and Communications, shares his behind-the-scenes perspective on managing communications following the Sulawesi Tsunami.

Here’s a behind-the-curtain moment. In a humanitarian response, there’s stiff competition to get your NGO worker on the tv, on the radio and quoted. NGOs pitch their staff to the media because coverage means donations and they are the bottom line for an NGO to be able to continue their work for communities in crisis.

NGOs want to draw the public’s attention to the crisis, communicate how they are assisting, and ultimately generate support. But in those rushed first days of a humanitarian response, there are multiple dilemmas to contend with.

It reminds me of the meme from The Hangover when Alan is counting cards at the poker table and algebra starts flying around his head. Is the information from the field truthful and accurate? What’s the highest priority - food, shelter, water? Can we use this photograph of a survivor? What are the local political, cultural and social sensitivities?

It’s difficult, challenging, tests patience and takes experience, preparation and planning. Thankfully, the professionalism of ACFID’s members and the help of ACFID’s Code of Conduct, Australia is top of the pops globally when it comes to using images and messaging. It’s something we are proud of.

A media conundrum during the response to the Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami gave pause for thought and led us to draw upon two parts of ACFID’s Code.

Due to extensive damage to infrastructure, and fuel and electricity shortages, it was difficult for relief workers to reach the areas most affected by the disaster and information-flow was patchy. Those that had made it through were relaying that in the critical first days - when people can be rescued from under collapsed housing and rubble - not enough was being done to save lives and aid workers were being stopped from helping. It was causing anger and frustration.

In letters and then through public communications, Indonesian authorities instructed foreign NGOs to stay away, issuing regulations and controls around assistance entering Central Sulawesi. The National Disaster Management Authority was coordinating. End. Of. Story.

At this point, ACFID was receiving media requests questioning whether enough assistance was getting through and whether this was being prevented by the Indonesian authorities, or whether this was simply the need to control numbers to manage the logistical challenge. It was a tricky spot, especially given the paucity of information.

It’s tricky because aid donors, like Australia and ACFID’s members, have committed to the principle of ‘localisation’ which means ensuring that humanitarian action is as local as possible. But NGOs have a responsibility to call it as it is, to be truthful in communicating the reality of a dreadful situation and the relief that is required.

Locally-led responses are informed by community knowledge, context-specific expertise and can meet the needs of locally affected people. As part of the Code, our members (under Quality Principle 8) must give primacy to the primary stakeholders and (under Quality Principle 6) public materials must acknowledge the role of partners. While in the past Australia may have played a greater role in assisting Indonesia with humanitarian crises, (and this was more visible to their supporters) times have moved on. Indonesia is well-versed in coordinating severe humanitarian crises, has the capability and experienced the worst of well-meaning, but flawed foreign-NGO interventions. Local responders were on the ground in Sulawesi quickly.

When assistance to those that need it most is the absolute priority, but is not moving fast enough or being stalled, the locally-led response an become a target for criticism — ‘it’s a hinderance not a help’. The heightened political environment of a domestic election with a strong independent, nation-building thread, gave rise to questions over whether restrictions on foreign NGOs was coming from upon high. Some concluded that it was costing lives.

For ACFID, it meant going back to first principles to generate our response to media requests and providing commentary. When I say first principles, I literally mean drawing on Quality Principle 6 of our Code and the commitment to be accurate and respectful in our communications and Quality Principle 8 (and our Fundraising Charter) to accurately represent the context, situation and proposed solutions.

Working with ACFID’s Humanitarian and Human Rights Advisor and CEO, we sought to truthfully reflect the intelligence shared with us by DFAT and our members from the ground. It was a mixed picture and there was a balance to be struck. There were delays, there were difficulties on the ground, there were logistical challenges. But there were also international NGOs supporting and backing-up their local Indonesian partners by providing equipment, expertise, supplies and relief staff after exhaustion set in for those on the front line. The effort was about reinforcing rather than replacing local and national capacities.

On the whole, I think we struck the right balance. But it’s easy to say from the comfort of ACFID’s office in Canberra. We don’t face these tensions when each and every disaster response comes, our members do. So while they are seeking to generate support for their organisations, media and communications staff are doing the practical, logistical and ethical sums in their head to stay true to the values and high standards they have set themselves.