Issue 13 - Article 3

The Media and Complex Humanitarian Emergencies

June 5, 2003
Gordon Adam, Radio Partnership, International Centre for Humanitarian Reporting Geneva, Switzerland

There is little doubt that the media can have a profound impact on complex emergencies. The best known example is the notorious use of hate radio in Rwanda and Bosnia to encourage ethnic cleansing. Less well-known is the potential for the media to do the opposite – that is, to support the efforts of humanitarian aid agencies in complex emergencies even to the extent of helping with peace-building efforts. International agencies are increasingly interested in the notion that, if handled appropriately, the mass media could deliver ‘smart aid’ – information which can be translated into the kind of knowledge that makes a positive impact on complex emergencies – similar to the impact of information on health education worldwide.


Today, more people are liable to experience conflict than at any time in the past. Many of these people are excluded from the global revolution in communications: half the world’s population has never made a phone call [1] and the growth of FM radio stations is concentrated in population centres while people in more remote areas have to make do with increasingly badly funded state broadcasters.

These people are often those most likely to suffer from poverty, and they are frequently in areas of complex emergency. Despite the fact that aid organisations and donors target such populations with their poverty focus programmes, generally they are the most difficult to reach due to poor infrastructure and/or security concerns. However, they do possess a vital piece of equipment which could be their lifeline – a radio.

Radios are cheap and portable. They don’t require mains electricity so they tend to survive in conflict zones when other mass media fails. BBC audience research shows that in Somalia, Rwanda and Liberia, for instance, listenership to the BBC World Service is high; also that conflict generates listeners, as shown by the Gulf War. [2] The most recent statistic comes from a large UN survey in Afghanistan which showed that no fewer than 50 per cent of the population regularly listens to the BBC Pashto and Persian language services. [3]

Theoretical Framework

Evidence is mounting that well-targeted media interventions can make a positive contribution to the livelihoods of listeners living in complex emergency areas. Robert Manoff from New York University’s Center for War, Peace and News Media sees a potential peace-building role for news broadcasters in conflict areas in the following terms. Journalism can, he says, among other things:

  • counter misconceptions and rumours;
  • build consensus;
  • facilitate communication between conflicting parties;
  • analyse the conflict and educate on the process of resolution;
  • propose options and solutions to the conflict. [4]

This model emphasises the media’s role in enabling communication as opposed to simply providing information. Information does not necessarily lead to improved knowledge and can be partial, irrelevant or just plain wrong. But in sensitive hands the media can be used to promote genuine communication which can help facilitate social change.

The implication of this model is that the strictly impartial journalistic approach of reporting facts gives way to producing programmes with a very definite editorial objective – whether it is to reduce land mines casualties or promote peace-building solutions to conflict. Measuring the impact of this so-called ‘desired outcomes’ broadcasting is problematic, but experience shows that a successful outcome is likely to be determined by certain communications design criteria. The Communications Initiative [5] has attempted to define these criteria in terms of promoting public discussion, building working partnerships, supporting local ownership of media interventions, systematic evaluation and long-term sustainability.

The BBC Afghan Education Drama New Home New Life

One example of how the media has been used successfully in this way is the BBC Afghan radio soap New Home New Life, started in 1993. The story is of the survival of two communities during a time of war. There is evidence that people have learnt significant information from the programme, and a 1997 survey found that listeners of New Home New Life and other BBC programmes on mines awareness were only half as likely to be involved in mine explosions than non-listeners. The survey sample was large – a total of 60,000 people were interviewed – which increases confidence in the validity of the findings. [6]

A number of factors led to this impact. First, BBC Afghanistan is widely listened to and trusted; there are few other credible information sources. Second, the programme is entertaining and contains useful and relevant information. Third, listeners’ views are routinely canvassed. Fourth, Afghans have a strong oral/aural culture to which radio broadcasting is well suited.

The Afghan audience has assumed ownership of New Home New Life and of the educational material it conveys. Information ownership is a key criteria identified by the Communications Initiative for effective programming. Afghanistan is a case of a complex emergency where the creative use of mass media has delivered results where conventional aid efforts have failed: fewer people are being injured by mines, not as a result of training courses but through listening to a radio soap opera.

Bosnia: Media Reform in an Ethnically Divided Society

In Bosnia the media has been a key player in post-war reconstruction, though in a different way. The international community is the effective authority in Bosnia, under powers accorded to the Office of the High Representative (OHR). The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), charged with holding free elections in Bosnia, decided to sponsor the formation of an independent radio network (FERN), while the OHR established an independent TV service called the Open Broadcasting Network (OBN). Both of these were intended to appeal to the three, until recently warring, communities: Muslims, Croats and Serbs. The aid organisations – the UN, the EU and the bi-lateral funders – also funded a number of local radio and TV stations.

The overall objective of these initiatives was to establish an editorially diverse, pluralistic media. But the initial lack of emphasis on programming and journalistic skills meant that programming from these smaller local stations was generally poor and no challenge to the big state broadcasters whose programming continued to be partisan and at times (in the case of Republica Serpska TV SRT) hate-mongering. NATO troops eventually forced the broadcast of the OBN news programme for one hour each evening through SRT transmitters. [7]

What are the lessons to be learned from this experience? First, it was a serious omission not to spell out the responsibilities and powers of the international community vis-a-vis local media in the Dayton Peace Accords, particularly when it was well known that the media had played such a negative role in the war. This was not clarified until two years later at a NATO summit in May 1997. Second, it is invariably a mistake to give money to broadcasters in complex emergencies and then walk away. Follow-up advice, training and brainstorming on programme ideas is required.

Third is the preoccupation of the international community with news programming. Objective reporting will take many years to achieve in Bosnia. An alternative approach – to use drama and other entertainment programming to convey pro-social messages – has not been part of the media strategy despite the popularity of a home-grown TV soap in the Bosnian Muslim enclave of Gorazde which became essential viewing before it stopped after a year in 1997. [8]

Fourth, errors could have been avoided had the information strategists begun by asking what people wanted to listen to and watch. Yet it took two years for the first social research of this kind to be commissioned – spearheaded by USAID and the World Bank. The results of this research indicate a preference for entertainment – something people lack in the difficult task of rebuilding their lives after the war. [9]


Information is power, and communications is the process of providing this power of knowledge to people so they can make informed decisions about improving their lives. If the media is to be used to this end in complex emergencies it is clear that:

  • careful planning and a deep understanding of the target population are essential;
  • partnerships of trust must be built between the media and aid organisations on the ground;
  • realistic objectives should be set when it comes to desired outcomes programming: ‘do the do-ables’, unlike in Bosnia where the international community wanted to put across ideas such the safe return of refugees and the extradition of war criminals which were simply not supported by most of the population.

The problems of delivering bulk aid to a country at war, with poor communications and a widely dispersed population, are enormous. What is needed is a greater emphasis on smart aid – the effective dissemination of information to allow people to help themselves. The role of the communicator is to create the optimal conditions for consumers of information to become knowledgeable and to put their newly found knowledge into action. Major donors are slowly recognising the importance of supporting communications initiatives in the field of development, conflict and humanitarian aid. The potential is enormous, but funding remains the major constraint. If this approach can work in Afghanistan, however, it is surely worth giving smart aid a higher priority in complex emergencies elsewhere.


[1] Telecommunications Briefing Paper (1997) Panos, London.

[2] International Broadcasting and Audience Research Reports (various) BBC World Service, Bush House, London.

[3] CIET International Afghanistan: The 1997 National Mine Awareness Evaluation, report to the United Nations Office Coordinating Humanitarian Assistance, Islamabad.

[4] Manoff, R (1997) Presentation to the ‘Conference on the Media and Peacebuilding’ organised by the Voice of America

[5] Feek, W, Communications Initiative,

[6] CIET International Afghanistan: The 1997 National Mine Awareness Evaluation, pp44–45.

[7] Maclay, D (Nov 1997), Television Wars, Prospect, pp30–33.

[8] Maclay, D, p33.

[9] USAID Final Report (1998) ‘Audience Share and Reaction to OBN Programming’, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Contact details for ICHR can be found at the end of the conference report Strengthening Lifeline Media in Regions of Conflict later in this newsletter [see page 35 of the PDF].

Gordon Adam is the coauthor of the book Health on Air: A Guide to Creative Radio for Development (1998) (London: Health Unlimited). A fuller version of this article will appear in Brassey’s Defence Yearbook, 1999.


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