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    Rwanda Partnes

October 25, 2012

Through a Glass Darkly – The Media’s Role in Humanitarian Crises

Humanitarian crises brought on by civil war or political upheavals like those in Syria and South Sudan have become a common occurrence.  On television news programs and internet news venues, we see horrific images of the suffering these conflicts wreak on civilian populations.  The media have proven a powerful force in shaping the response of individuals, organizations and governments to these periodic crises.

Syrian child refugeeFrom 1992-1995, Somalia and Rwanda experienced internal conflicts that resulted in casualties, diseases, famine, and political chaos of  biblical proportions, impacting the stability of the region and changing the future economic, political and social course of these countries.  It is important to look at the role played by the media during the Somalia and Rwandan crises  and how that influenced the international perceptions of peacekeeping efforts in the region, and the resulting reaction from policy makers in the international community up to the present day.

In the 1990´s, international media coverage, with its heartbreaking images of starving children, hopeless civilians and teenagers carrying weapons, became viral. The intention was to erase the geographical gap and bring the reality of these invisible people who were suffering thousands of miles away right into the comfortable living rooms of average American households. This media phenomenon, later dubbed the CNN effect,  made Americans aware of the humanitarian crisis in countries like Somalia, the uncountable civilian casualties, the lack of basic human needs and the need for a hero who would bring food, peace and stability to a distant and unnoticed country.

As it turned out, however, this transparency carried a price tag for policy makers and ultimately for the people they were trying to help.

The situations in Somalia and Rwanda shared many elements.  Both were humanitarian crises with failed cease-fire and peace agreements, as well as extensive civilian casualties and human rights violations despite the presence of UN peacekeepers.

The media played an influential role both domestically and internationally.  In the case of Somalia, it helped to create international awareness of the events with the intention of motivating key decision makers to respond. During the Rwandan crisis, however, the local media was used as a weapon to perpetuate fear, hatred and even direct the killings that took place.

Famine in Somalia

In Somalia, the media served up images of unimaginable suffering which persuaded powerful decision makers in the international community to get involved.  Journalists sought out the most sensational stories of suffering, asking aid workers where they might find some “stick action” referring to the emaciated infants who could be filmed at the point of death.  The stories and images they conveyed had the desired effect.  They inspired the American people to demand action. A UN humanitarian mission led by the American military known as Operation Restore Hope was launched.

But close media coverage of the Battle for Mogadishu and the Black Hawk Down incident later caused decision makers to rethink the impact that their presence was having.  In addition, the barrage of images from the Somalia chaos, showing children still starving and warlords still with control, resulted in Somalia Fatigue, the term describing a public weariness of a catastrophe they seemed powerless to deal with.  The very public exposure of these failures by the peacekeeping mission later made policy makers reluctant to react sooner to the petition of the UNAMIR (UN Aid Mission in Rwanda) commander to help stop the unfolding genocide in Rwanda.  It seemed an article of faith among the members of the UN Secretariat that, were the UN to suffer another disaster like Somalia, with more peacekeepers being killed, the organization would suffer a possibly fatal blow to its credibility.  In the process, almost 1 million people lost their lives.

Rwanda Genocide

The situation in Rwanda was also complicated by the fact that international media attention was focused on the historic election of Nelson Mandela to the presidency of South Africa.  Consequently, the major news outlets did not respond fully to the Rwandan genocide until bloated corpses were strewn at the roadside or choking Rwanda’s rivers.

Regardless of the scale of a humanitarian crisis, how we respond to outbreaks of war, whether through aid, military intervention and / or the deployment of peacekeeping missions, depends upon our evaluations of what the media deliver to us.  The emotions generated by images of suffering sent back by the international media can motivate us to action, but can also make us turn away if we feel helpless and overwhelmed.  And if the media is blind, through inattention, to a developing humanitarian tragedy, we may fail to realize the need for action altogether.  The international media are, collectively, our eyes and ears, with regard to events in the world.  It is more imperative than ever that we learn to carefully evaluate the perceptions they create for us and the reactions they invoke.

Click to read Ana Maria’s full research paper.

May 6, 2012

Rwanda’s Healing Journey

Rwanda, Africa’s most densely populated country (over 11 million people living in an area slightly smaller than the state of Maryland), is continuing a long journey to healing the scars left by one of the worst genocides in modern history.  Rwanda faces many challenges.  It is a poor rural country with about 90% of the population engaged in mainly subsistence agriculture as well as some mineral and agro-processing.  The population is very youngwith over 42% of its citizens  under the age of 14.  The life expectancy is low, currently at 58 years old.

But one thing Rwanda does not lack is hope.  The country has no shortage of friends around the world working to improve the country’s status.  Two organizations, half a world away in Seattle, Washington, illustrate how the world community is supporting Rwanda in its quest to lay the foundation for a better future.

Addressing Gender Equality

Gashora Girls Academy

First Lady of Rwanda with students at Gashora Girls Academy

Rwanda Girls Initiative was created by two Seattle women, Suzanne Sinegal McGill and Shalisan Foster.  It is focused on providing secondary education to girls and was designed by McGill and Foster to eventually become self-sustaining within the community it serves.  Their first project is the Gashora Girls Academy, located in a rural farming community (Gashora) about 40 minutes south of Kigali.  In January 2012, another 90 girls joined the first group of 90 at the academy.  The new school in Gashora will eventually house 270 girls.

The Gashora Girls Academy is situated on 25 acres, half of which serve as school grounds and the other half crop land.  The academy terraced the land to protect against soil erosion and collect water which has allowed it to plant papaya and mango trees, along with peppers, sunflowers, cabbages and tomatoes.  It also harvested 17 tons of seeds that were sold in local markets and is now growing zucchini.

Creating Self-Sufficiency

tracy-stone

Tracy Stone

Rwanda Partners is a non-profit organization committed to fighting poverty and restoring hope to the poor through economic and educational opportunities.  Founded in 2004 by Tracy Stone, Rwanda Partners seeks to address widespread poverty and food insecurity in the country by creating sustainable income-generating programs for Rwanda’s most vulnerable poor – widows, orphans, street youth, former prostitutes, rape survivors and rural farmers.

To date, enterprises established by Rawanda Partners include:

  • The Rwanda Basket Co.
  • The Urunana Pineapple Plantation
  • The Ambassadors Cassava Plantation
  • Gashora Orphans Cassava Plantation
  • The Gashora Orphans Sewing Program
  • The Wirira Widows Chicken/Egg/Corn Farm
  • Vocational Sewing Program

But the scars of conflict do not heal overnight.  Recognizing this, the organization  conducts reconciliation workshops. These 3-day relational workshops explore the dynamics of hatred and conflict alongside the unresolved issues that block forgiveness and repentance. In addition to the workshops, Rwanda Partners also conducts follow up sessions and personal visits with workshop participants who continue to work through any unresolved issues.  It also forms “Reconciliation Associations” to help repentant perpetrators and survivors who have gone through workshops together  further cement forgiveness and ensure a commitment to working together in their everyday lives.