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How not to write about humanitarian work

How not to write about humanitarian work

By Brendan Rigby & Tobias Denskus

Under the headline “Violinist to volunteer: Medecins Sans Frontieres work in war-torn Africa life-changing for Adelaide nurse” Brett Williamson wrote a questionable piece of humanitarian journalism for Australia’s ABC News.

It is so bad it can almost serve as a template for journalism students on how not to write a piece on humanitarian aid and international development.

Let’s break down the article.

Skilled vs. unskilled volunteering

Dympha Halls-Smith is actually a trained nurse, but that would have destroyed the neat alliteration in the headline that makes us believe volunteering is something everybody can and should do. In fact, MSF primarily accepts trained medical professionals, who volunteer their time. There is a huge difference between an unskilled volunteer working in an orphanage and professionally trained volunteer vaccinating live human beings.

We love that Halls-Smith donated her time and skills, and we need more people like her in the world. But, volunteering abroad is fraught with voluntourist traps, good intentions and harmful practices. It is something that should not be taken lightly.

Africa is a country.

Tanzania is not “war-torn”, but it makes it easier to avoid complexities around war, conflict, refugees and, well “Africa.” Africa has wars. Lots of them. You know, the kinds that produce a “never-ending human river” of misery. This image of a continent of 54 nations will just not go away. It is so easy to avoid, yet seems unavoidable in journalism.

As white, privileged men, we are not in a position to police the imagery and portrayal of Africa and Africans. At the same time, we are compelled to call out our fellow brethren. Stop. Just stop. Google “Africa” for a start. Go from there.

“Blue-eyed and blonde-haired” Halls-Smith stood out in crowds and felt like “Pied Piper”–the rat catcher of Hamelin in Germany, who used a magic pipe to lure rats away from the town. However, the citizens of Hamelin refused to pay him, so he used his pipe to lure their children away. We can forgive Halls-Smith for a clumsy analogy, but the editors should know better than to let this slip by.

By now, the story has failed us on nuances vis-à-vis the complexities of African politics, human suffering and humanitarian aid. But, these are not deeply challenging complexities to communicate. In fact, avoiding poor descriptions of refugees, volunteering and men who lure children with a magical pipe would be an easy start.

The refugee crisis in Europe is producing some incredibly moving and gut-wrenching journalism–stories of family, hope, humanity and suffering. These pieces are being written in the very complex context of refugees, geopolitics, migration, sovereignty and conflict.


Halls-Smith described her trip to Africa as a life-changing experience that reinforced just how lucky she was to live in Australia. This is the heart of the story–the prototype “white saviour” current. Did the article mention how lucky she felt? Halls-Smith said once she was past the shock of the living conditions, she found great inspiration in the refugees’ resilience. No story about humanitarian aid is complete with a reference to “poor-but-resilient” people.

This is common for such pieces, where the focus in entirely on how the experience affected and benefitted the aid worker. Never mind the journey of those refugees seeking protection in Tanzania. In Europe, the script seems to have flipped. Stories are not being written en masse about those volunteering to help refugees, but about the refugees.

Children as extras

The children appear as extras in Halls-Smith’s journey, their faces unethically reproduced online for a media outlet and audience in a land far, far away. Consent was probably a distant memory. Journalists would not be allowed to reproduce, let alone capture, the images of vulnerable children in Australia and publish them online.

It is September 2015, and the “I’m sure she/they meant well/had good intentions” argument is not cutting it anymore. This article is a poor piece of journalism that falls in line along the well-trodden “white person goes to Africa to help and is inspired by the experience.”

Journalists may want to look at The Guardian or use Google to explore a little bit more on how to report humanitarian volunteering. Interview staff at MSF, because they know their work and actually have a political framework in place that goes beyond “giving out meds to poor Africans.” If in doubt, just find those through Twitter who have an African bullshit radar such as Africa Is A Country, TMS Ruge or Elnathan John.  Better yet, just treat the continent and its people like you treat Halls-Smith and Australia.

Tobias Denskus is a Senior Lecturer in Communication for Development at Malmö University in Sweden. He has experience in peacebuilding in Nepal, humanitarian work in Kabul and research in Macedonia. Tobias completed a Ph.D. at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, and is currently working on research related to social media, communication and the “Open Aid” discourse. He blogs at Aidnography, and you can also follow him on Twitter.

Featured image shows Mtae, a village in Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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Brendan Rigby

Managing Director & Co-founder at WhyDev
Brendan is an education specialist and co-founder of WhyDev. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education exploring complementary basic education and the literacy practices of out-of-school children in northern Ghana. Formerly, he was an Education Officer with UNICEF Ghana, and Director of Venture Support with StartSomeGood. Brendan has also been an education consultant and trainer for Plan, UNICEF, ScopeGlobal and the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. He is obsessed with tea, American football and karaoke.

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