Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Crisis - the Radio Programme!

For the last couple of evenings, I've been listening to 'Crisis', a radio drama made by (BBC) Radio 4 about aid workers, in honour of World Humanitarian Day. For those of you not familiar with the concept, World Humanitarian Day takes place on August 19th, the anniversary of the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad in 2003, and commemorates humanitarian workers who have lost their lives in the course of their work.

The BBC are generally good adaptors, but on the other hand I've seen what they (and other TV and radio channels) have done to other professions (see the well known documentaries 'Casualty', and 'the Archers', for example), so there was no reason to suppose mine would be any better represented. So my expectations were mixed. On the other hand, there was no way I was missing it!

So far I've listened to episodes 1 and 2, and I was pleased to discover that at least some of it seemed familiar - especially the human stuff about 'but I have to go to a difficult post to get on' and the lack of mutual comprehension between regional/country office type people and lunatics who want to spend all their time in tiny bases in the middle of nowhere. I'd like to think that sending someone who, we are told, doesn't know what she's doing, to a sub-office is unlikely, but experience suggests otherwise, and anyway, the idea that NGOs do do that is kind of the premise underpinning my career plan, so... well...

Episode two they started to race through the stereotypes: the drunken expat, frustrations with staff members, confused beneficiaries, issues with violence and the rains, fighting the centre for resources, the corrupt local offical. Although to be fair to the BBC none of those stereotypes are exactly without foundation, I slightly regretted not making myself an aid worker stereotype bingo card beforehand.

Other parts were less familiar. It may surprise people to know that I do not in fact have legions of colleagues traumatised by kidnap experiences, although I suppose most of my colleagues also aren't interesting enough to feature in radio programmes, so the fictional heroine of a radio programme will by definition be more interesting than the rest of us. There was also something misleading about the whole 'expat in danger' premise of the story - I get that it has to be accessible, but local staff make up by far the biggest proportions of aid workers killed (by something like ten to one) - although admittedly there were some nasty kidnap incidents in Darfur, so they're being accurate there at least.

What I think jarred most though, was that the way in which aid work was depicted seemed so different from what we try to do. Admittedly I'm working on a food crisis, not a rapid onset refugee crisis, but the premise seems, so far, to be: poor Africans helpless, local staff unable to prioritise, expat (white girl?) saves the day. Which is a view of aid we're trying *not* to propagate. And they make it all seem so easy: oh this camp has no water. In that case, we'd better drill a borehole. Whereas a lot of the time it's an awful lot more complicated than that - where does the borehole go, what about sanitation, what about food. And even more complicated when you get to slow onset stuff like a food crisis - where working out who to help and what they most need is a lot more complicated than 'this camp has no water. let's drill a hole'. That said, to be fair to the BBC, it may be a bit much for them to convey the complexity of the entire aid industry in five 15-minute episodes, and the logistical nightmare of moving stuff around was well captured.

So overall, I'd probably give it an 8 or so out of 10. Not sure if I can be bothered to listen to the rest - being rather familiar with aid worker stereotypes, it felt a lot like I'd heard it before - but if you haven't heard it before and want to, I'd recommend it.

Anyone else got any thoughts?

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