Ishbel Matheson on aid agencies in Haiti

Little over two weeks ago, I was blearily watching the closing minutes of Newsnight, when Jeremy Paxman dropped in a late-breaking news story. There had been – he said – a large earthquake in Haiti. Early reports were of widespread destruction. Shaking myself awake, I picked up the phone to the on-call press officer. “I’ve already had calls from journalists,” she said. The next morning I woke up to a BBC radio interview with an Australian colleague in Port-Au-Prince. Houses close to our office had fallen off the hill-side, many of our staff were unaccounted for, there was the eerie sound of wailing in the streets. No-one knew how many had been killed.

So far, so bad – would say our critics. Aid agencies have been accused by the Lancet of corporate preening and self-interest rather than saving lives. Damning stuff and wildly off-target – our staff have been working flat-out now for over two weeks, bringing medicine, basic hygiene kits, setting up safe play-areas, deploying monitors to combat child trafficking – to name just a few of the activities – amid nightmare logistics of a capital city reduced to rubble. But the editorial does put its finger on something significant: aid workers have been very visible on airwaves, in print and online over the past few weeks. But far from ‘media being an end in itself’ as the Lancet would have it, media for us is clearly a means to an end.   

Firstly, and most obviously, journalists want information. It’s not visible on your TV screens, but there is a global media village now encamped in Port au Prince, with satellite uplinks, live spots, reporters, producers and photographers all looking for stories, and many get in touch with aid agencies for help. Instead of distracting from the life-saving work of our 200 field staff, we have flown in two communications officer to cope with those demands.

Of course, you might say we could simply have turned those requests away. But it would have been foolish for us to do so. Save the Children sees a core part of our mission to ‘bear witness’, speaking out for and on behalf of children. That’s the second reason we engage with journalists. Last week, we – as well as World Vision and the Red Cross – called via the media for a moratorium on any new adoptions of Haiti’s orphans, amid concerns that children identified as orphans in the disaster’s aftermath would actually turn out to have surviving relatives.

The third and final reason that we have been pushing our presence in the media lies in something I’ve mentioned a couple of times: this disaster struck over over two weeks ago.  Contrary to what the Lancet says, aid agencies aren’t fighting each other – within days we had come together to pool our efforts and funds under the umbrella of the Disaster Emergency Committee – we are fighting the news clock.

As a former foreign correspondent myself, I am acutely aware of the cruel brevity of the media moment for Haiti’s people. Even now, the news clock is ticking away. As I write, editors will be pondering where to place Haiti coverage tomorrow – some have dropped it altogether. But for the past two weeks, in the white-hot glare of the news moment we have been raising funds – we’ve set a target of $50 million to fund a five year reconstruction programme.
Long after the portable satellite dishes in Port-Au-Prince have been dismantled and journalists have gone home, Save the Children will be there – as we have been for the past 30 years. We need to rebuild schools, houses, water supplies and sanitation systems, fund education and run family re-unification. One thing is certain, it will take years – and journalists won’t be around for most of that – but Save the Children and other agencies who have worked in Haiti for decades, will be. Thanks to the generosity of the British public, Haiti’s media moment will fund its future. 

Ishbel Matheson is a former BBC East Africa Correspondent, and award-winning journalist. She reported for the BBC from Zambia, Kenya, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo, winning awards for her TV and
radio coverage of Darfur and Democratic Republic of Congo. She is now Director of Media at Save the Children.