Emergency Response as Morality Play: The Media, the Relief Agencies, and the Need for Capacity Building
John C. Hammock and Joel R. Charny
BY NOW the television images are all too familiar: the North American or English foreign correspondent, in multipocketed vest, describing the grim scene, with teeming masses of suffering Africans or Asians in the background; the Irish nurse giving the tour of the emergency ward or feeding center; the children, strangely lifeless, staring soundlessly into the camera; the soldiers from the evil regime or the ragtag guerrillas menacing people with the power that comes from the guns they wield. These are among the images that have come to define international humanitarian emergencies to the public.
These images are at once backdrop and centerpiece of what has become over the years a scripted morality play. The crisis arrives with the suddenness and power of an earthquake. Then, the international community--a mix of United Nations agencies, the Red Cross, private relief organizations, and, increasingly, the militaries of the industrialized countries or the developing world (the latter almost always under UN auspices)-- responds as rapidly as possible to the emergency.
Initially, the response is heroic, with the Red Cross and private relief agency personnel portrayed as being close to angels in their selfless sacrifice to assist the victims. The increasing military involvement brings patriotism into the mix and provides the media with the essential local angle--one day Johnny was hauling cement just down the road, and the