Communicating for Impact, The Voice of The Victims

The Role of Media Design in Humanitarian and Human Rights Organizations

Authored by: Tamara Alrifai

The Routledge Companion To Media and Humanitarian Action

Print publication date:  September  2017
Online publication date:  September  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138688575
eBook ISBN: 9781315538129
Adobe ISBN:




The multiplication of media outlets, the ease of communication, and the penetration of mass media to new communities have provided enabled divergent views to be covered and provided more space for humanitarian and human rights organizations to tell their stories, giving them the possibility to comment on developments from their non-political perspective. Over the last 20 years, there has been increased space for what has commonly been described as “the other voices,” voices of victims, of people on the street, of humanitarian and human rights specialists. Humanitarian and human rights organizations seek visibility for branding, fundraising and advocacy purposes. They need to demonstrate to their donors that their work is relevant to the people they claim to service, that they are relevant to public opinion, that their findings and positions resonate in the public sphere and help shape political decisions that can affect a complex situation. Effective communication, one with the ability to mobilize public opinion and create pressure on politicians will help release additional funds from government treasuries for aid groups, and might help influence political action, if only in a way that best serves these governments or at least does not undermine their interests.

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Communicating for Impact, The Voice of The Victims

My Dinner with George

I was in Los Angeles, having a meal with a group of old friends from school, some of whom I had not seen for nearly 20 years. Of course, the first questions we asked, after enquiring about our respective private situations (whether we had found partners, whether we had had kids …), were about our professional achievements. I put on my most serious face and boasted that I had been working in the field of humanitarian aid and human rights for over 15 years. “Oh my god”, said one of them, “so you have actually lived in places like Darfur or Baghdad?”

That question was an instantaneous reminder that, to many people who are not directly involved in development-type work, humanitarian and human rights issues are often geographically remote topics, topics associated with faraway places, cities whose names have now become associated with global-scale catastrophes. Yes, I have been to Darfur a few times, I replied, while realizing that to my friends in Beverly Hills, Sudan, and now Syria, have mostly become associated with movie stars who adopt exotic-looking children, or who visit disaster-stricken areas and look genuinely moved by the scale of the human suffering they encounter.

While I carefully started to prepare myself to answer questions about women and children and the disastrous effects of armed conflicts on education, my friend Laura, now married to a young and talented Arab-American actor, looked up from her plate. Her eyes shone with the excitement of someone who had a story to tell. “When my husband had dinner with George, he told him how much he felt for these causes,” she said. “Hmmm George?” I asked. “Oh sorry, Clooney,” she answered. “Isn't that the kind of work you do, you know, taking celebrities to refugee camps and bring along big journalists to show the world how people struggle to survive catastrophes? You said you worked in communications for humanitarian causes, right?” she enquired, genuinely engaged. But before I even started to answer, the conversation became all about George and of course his gorgeous wife. “Hey she also ‘does' human rights”, said my friend. “Did you ever meet her?”

This is when I knew I had lost my storyline for the evening. With my naïve belief that I could capture and engage an audience who worked in Hollywood in a discussion on “issues” such as how political repression and lack of rights could only yield unhappy frustrated youths, or how aid could easily be politicized and manipulated by parties in an armed conflict, I quickly realized that despite all my storytelling skills it was difficult to maintain a discussion on humanitarian issues if it did not involve telling the stories of real people, and giving dramatic descriptions of someone's everyday life as a refugee, but also as a human being.

For professionals in the fields of development, aid or human rights, the world and politics are centered on the principles they defend: the right to life, the right to political and civil freedoms, the right to access humanitarian aid unhindered. To us, no political conversation is complete without a review of how much a country has respected universal principles of human rights 1 and no peace negotiations are possible without an unconditional acceptance of the role of humanitarian organizations. We often assume that everyone we talk to about politics will have these references in mind, but are surprised every time we see so many different angles in a news story; from economic themes to geopolitical security. It is precisely the angle of rights and the voice of the victim that humanitarian and human rights organizations seek to amplify through their various communications channels: campaigns, formal statements, audio-visual production, opinions pieces placed in media outlets, or interviews on television and radio.

During that dinner in Los Angeles, of course the conversation touched on Middle East politics a few times, mostly to lament the scope and scale of the damage in the region, but there was little space for discussing the humanitarian consequences of regional politics. In spite of what seemed to be genuine concern for the victims, there was little attention to, and almost no words to explain or understand, what could be done to contain their suffering.

A Changing Media Landscape

With the quasi quantum-leaps that the media industry has taken these last 20 years, and since satellite television networks have closely followed military operations, starting with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, at times even embedding their correspondents with the troops, humanitarian organizations, particularly those working in conflict areas, 2 have had more opportunities to send out their message clearly and, in fact, live, through aid workers whom journalists meet on location, while distributing food or registering refugees. And while the media is often primarily interested in reporting on the political and military developments around a crisis—though historically the root causes of crises such as famine are rarely illuminated (Franks 2014)—there has been an increased space for what has commonly become known as “humanitarian coverage,” or covering the human cost of a conflict or a natural disaster.

The plethora of media outlets, including the increased private ownerships of media companies, the ease of communication, and the penetration of mass media to new communities have provided more space to be filled and enabled divergent views to be covered as the media is no longer controlled by a few businesses and a few governments, though only six highly conglomerated corporations own the US media companies. Moreover, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, humanitarian crises are no longer only politicized as a global confrontation between superpowers or at least no longer presented as such, thus giving nonpolitical sources, such as humanitarian organizations, the possibility to comment on developments from their non-political perspective. For example NPR (2016) aired a story about community resilience to crisis featuring the role of music. Over the last 20 years, commentators have ceased being political commentators only, and there has been increased space for what has commonly been described as “the other voices,” voices of victims, of people on the street, of humanitarian and human rights specialists. 3

As a result, humanitarian and human rights organizations alike have gained more media space, have been able to place spokespersons on prime time to describe the situation from a humanitarian or legal perspective, or request more funding and political support for their work. They have regularly contributed to public debates, injecting legal arguments into a discussion that, until the end of the twentieth century, had primarily been political.

It is therefore now common to see a representative of a humanitarian organization talking on TV either directly from the location of the organization's projects (commonly referred to as “the field”), or from a studio with an anchor, sometimes in the presence of other guests or as part of a panel. Most media outlets in fact now give priority to a guest speaker from a humanitarian or human rights organization when covering a situation of natural or man-made disaster, many detailing how aid is best delivered to affected areas (Bloch 2016). These kinds of stories bring the human dimension to the debate.

Why Communicate?

Large and small humanitarian organizations generally depend on a set of traditional donors (governments and foundations) to cover the cost of their operations. And just as in the world of private companies, organizations need to demonstrate that they are relevant and worth investing in, providing services that make a difference in the lives of people they say they help. Organizations are accountable towards their donors in carrying out their planned activities and in responding to the needs of people affected by emergencies.

Organizations that also seek to instigate change and promote a culture of human rights, in addition to responding to needs through aid, rely on the support of public opinion to gain acceptability in the countries and communities they work in. They thus count on public opinion to promote their messages, and hope that public pressure can at least create awareness of the issues they promote or respond to. For example, launching a public campaign on the adverse consequences of a practice such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a difficult subject to approach in a number of Arab and African countries (Egypt, Somalia, or Burkina Faso for instance) will help an organization raise awareness about the issue, and go hand in hand with efforts to help convince a government to enact legislation banning such a practice. It takes pushing from both ends, on policymakers and on the public, to bring about real change: laws that promote good practices and ban harmful ones, and public awareness that shows the issue from a different angle for people to think about and question practices they have inherited without challenging, ultimately leads to a change in behavior. Organizations such as UNICEF, UNHCR, WFP, MSF, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International manage to bring about change and report on the impact of their work can attract funds, including individual donations, from donor countries, hence generating more resources for them to continue their work.

Organizations therefore have a double interest in communicating about their work and issues: they demonstrate to their donors that they are effectively working in their fields, thus spending the funds wisely, and they seek acceptability by the people they want to reach and work with. To do this, they increasingly resort to marketing-style techniques, slowly ditching their classic style newsletters and institutional stiffly worded press releases, in favor of more modern-style techniques such as tweeting live updates from a disaster-struck location, or promoting the impact of their work on real people, who give testimonies on camera. Are we back to George then? They increasingly use local languages and hire people who can communicate directly with the various communities they serve. Organizations may differ in their communication styles or in their level of assertiveness, they may also differ in the amount of resources they allocate to communications generally, but they have certainly all stepped up their communications efforts in the last decade, especially as the number of organizations competing for funds has risen.

There are therefore several reasons for aid organizations, international and non-governmental, to engage in public communications. First is to publicly report on their work, on the difference they make in a field that has become crowded with organizations: what is the added value of an organization, what sets it aside, what area of work does it specialize in, and how many people benefit from its services in a given context and worldwide? Second, an organization engages in public communications to promote certain values, principles or formal positions, as a way of advocating for a kind of change that needs to happen in order to improve a situation. Third, an organization communicates in order to directly engage with the community it works in, whether to give information on the kind of services it provides, or to give guidance to the people it serves on how and where to get help, or to get information from them that would make the organization able to understand local communities and adapt its work to expectations. Last, an organization communicates because today, comment is free and the space is open, and organizations that choose to work in silence only do so when they have concluded that discretion serves their interests and their objectives better, such as for example mediation efforts between parties in a conflict.

Branding vs. Advocacy

There are drawbacks in this increasingly crowded field of aid organizations. Shrinking resources and competition for funding among humanitarian organizations result from of a mix of donor fatigue and media fatigue, as well as from the recession and financial crisis of the last few years. In addition, the multiplication of smaller aid groups with lower running costs can come across as a more affordable and efficient alternative to big expensive aid machines. Organizations therefore look for creative and compelling ways to counter media fatigue, or the general state of cynicism that the media falls into after covering the outbreak of a crisis. A typical chief editor of a big media outlet will inevitably ask “What is the new angle of this story, why should we run yet another piece on refugees?”

Most international humanitarian organizations, including UN agencies and various components of the Red Cross and Red Crescent family have understood that communications, and their ability to position themselves in the public mind and space as relevant, play a crucial role in attracting and maintaining funds, by old and new donors, and access in crisis countries. Contrary to non-governmental organizations (including international NGOs operating in crisis areas), international and inter-governmental organizations tread a fine line in their relations to host governments, to which they are accredited, sometimes even enjoying diplomatic-like privileges). These organizations prefer a communication style that is engaging rather than confrontational, even when addressing issues at the core of their mandate, such as the need to put an end to child marriage or the need to empower women.

Just as in the marketplace, some organizations have a stronger brand than others, in the sense that they are generally more recognized in their field and recognizable by the general public. They are often too more visible, more present at public events. A few years ago, the Red Cross emblem was considered the emblem that was most associated, in people's minds, with aid and medical services generally, for example. Within the UN family, an organization such as UNICEF is generally more recognizable and vaguely associated with a product (here: children), than an organization such as UNFPA, which few people know is the agency in charge of closely monitoring and helping governments develop their population policies, including substantive support to governments in the fields of family planning and reproductive health. Organizations with a stronger brand can place their line or quote in the media more easily than smaller, less recognizable organizations. Their employees can negotiate better with host governments and work more easily in host communities, just on the strength of their brand and what it means to people. In that sense, success breeds success.

Aside from the marketing approach to branding an organization, humanitarian organizations, especially those whose mandate is enshrined in international law or those that extract their legitimacy from international human rights laws and standards, often have a double role to play: they deliver assistance to those in need, and advocate for a change in the behavior and policies of governments, warring parties or society, that would bring about more respect for people, in line with international rights standards. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), for instance, the world's leading international organization working in situations of armed conflicts, extracts its legitimacy from the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which stipulate that in times of international armed conflicts, the parties to the conflict are to give access to the ICRC to help, assist and protect those in need. 4 But the Geneva Conventions also give the ICRC the role of working with governments on drafting national legislations in line with the government's international commitments, since adhering to an international convention (on the protection of children or the ban on the use of certain arms for example) is meaningless without a national law that gives a national framework on how to address the issues (what happens if an individual or an entity disregards this law, or what monitoring and penalizing mechanisms exist, at the state level, to ensure respect, etc.) Likewise, agencies of the United Nations that base their work on universal legal documents, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 5 or the 1951 Refugee Convention, 6 continuously refer to principles stipulated in them when advocating with governments in favor of victims or people.

These organizations are generally referred to as “rights-based,” in the sense that they extract their legitimacy and that of their mandate from the broader framework of human rights and humanitarian and refugee laws and principles. It also means they have a role to play in spreading awareness about these rights and in advocating for their respect by governments and societies.

Humanitarian vs. Human Rights Organizations

When describing the rationale behind its communications style, the ICRC usually lists the following factors: security, raising awareness, giving visibility to victims and their plight, exposing the human cost of a conflict, and showing the humanitarian consequences in an attempt to garner support (including funds) for the humanitarian response that the ICRC can offer. 7

Being able to spread news about relief work may contribute to an organization's safety, as some relief workers have explained over the years. Being able to demonstrate, particularly to parties to a conflict, that an organization is providing aid to those in need regardless of the side they are on may contribute to granting safe passage for convoys. Being recognized by those who hold territory, and being granted safe passage is something that big relief organizations rely on when designing their operations. In that sense, communication is an intrinsic part of any operation, and not an accessory that organizations add at the end of their planning.

Human rights organizations, for their part, see a large portion of their work centered on documenting human rights abuses and exposing them to the public, in an attempt to create public pressure that can eventually lead to change. They consider these efforts to be part of their public advocacy, and a way of shocking public opinion and shaping the discourse on rights.

International human rights organizations, or organizations more focused on exposing abuses after credibly documenting and authenticating them, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) or Amnesty International, are generally considered bolder in their public messaging and less diplomatic in exposing perpetrators of abuses. In return, these organizations generally face access problems to countries they criticize, particularly countries where freedom of expression is generally limited. So, while international relief organizations such as the ICRC or UN agencies have formal presence in all capitals of countries they operate in, HRW and Amnesty International frequently undertake shorter and less formal missions into these countries, and are less frequently able to maintain a regular presence in a country they scrutinize for abuses. For such human rights organizations, continuous presence in a country is an advantage but not vital to their operations as it is for a humanitarian organization that delivers aid and services, and therefore needs to be physically present in a country in order to work effectively. Even without being permanently present in countries whose human rights landscapes these organizations analyze, they still manage to reach findings that become a reference for credible investigative journalists and legal practitioners, and sometimes become the basis for testimonies at the International Criminal Court.

In both cases though, these organizations seek visibility for branding, fundraising and advocacy purposes. In both cases, they can demonstrate that they are relevant to public opinion, that their findings and positions resonate in the public sphere, and can explain to their donors that they help shape public opinions and elevate the discourse on humanitarian and human rights principles through their communication.

Aid agencies directly involved in relief work or human rights defenders actively working in an emergency situation partly owe their strong brands to their frequent and lively communications, with the regular appearance of their representatives on big media platforms, where they give direct testimonies about what they witness and do. They also all rely on the regular production of digital material and modern tools such as interactive maps of their locations or infographic drawings, and promote these via various channels, including social media. Aid groups have learned that the use of Twitter can be an effective tool during a disaster (Burns and Burgess 2014). With nearly 6 million followers on Twitter, UNICEF accounts for the largest twitter community, 8 while UNHCR has 2.11 million followers, 9 and 1.39 million are following the World Food Programme. 10 Human Rights Watch talks to nearly 3.25 million followers via Twitter, 11 and Amnesty International to 899,000. 12

Spokesperson for the Victims: Celebrities for a Cause

Some organizations use celebrities, whether from the movie or music industry, or from the literary and journalistic world, as spokespeople or as ambassadors for humanitarian causes, putting their reputation and outreach at the service of a cause (children, refugees, action to prevent hunger …) In a similar fashion, a few years ago, a group of famous musicians had organized to raise funds and awareness for the victims in Haiti, following the devastating earthquake at the end of 2009.

That Angelina Jolie appears in communications material by the United Nations High Commission for the Refugees (UNHCR), or that Susan Sarandon is seen helping refugees out of the water on Lesbos island in Greece at the height of discussions inside the European Union on how to face the migration crisis can both garner much social media activity and draw attention to the general plight of refugees. Celebrities, especially those who are genuinely passionate about and known for helping people, can definitely bring attention to an issue, and sometimes even raise funds to help cover an aid organization's financial commitments.

Celebrities can also benefit by attaching their name to such causes and maybe more than the victims in whose names these concerts are organized. Governments will continue to act in what they believe to be the economic and political interests of their countries. What is wrong then if the assumed interest of actors and governments end up helping the victims in Haiti? Maybe nothing is wrong. That people of international stature lend their name to specific causes and speak on behalf of people affected by a specific situation that can change is often a win–win, for the celebrity and for the cause.

Heads of credible organizations sometimes become celebrities in their own fields, speaking with authority and making headlines on the issues their organizations defend. When the head of UNICEF pleads for the protection of children, or when the head of HRW calls an act a severe human rights violation, these statements ensure a debate among journalists, practitioners, and sometimes governments in a way that helps shed light on the issues. In a way, heads of international organizations directly contribute to the debate on rights and relief because their positions make them de facto ambassadors for the people whose rights they seek to protect.


With the details about George's private life in the foreground, I sat back and thought about our cause, humanitarianism, and about our efforts to attract the world's attention to the poor, the oppressed and the destitute. I remembered days on end of activity by human rights and humanitarian organizations in the corridors of the United Nations Security Council in New York, pressing permanent and non-permanent members of the world's most powerful political forum to include the issues of rights in the draft resolutions that they were about to table for discussion and then voting. In that sense, communicating on behalf of a humanitarian or human rights organization mostly meant communicating on behalf of a victim: a victim of a natural or man-made disaster or a victim of political oppression and persecution. It also meant prompting, through public communication, public opinion to exert pressure for change, thus counting on the public's emotional reaction to a drastic story, and its ability to influence, through pressure, a decision by politicians to engage in war or refrain from war or from help.

Does communication alone save lives? Certainly not, and it would be naïve to think that a public campaign alone will stop a war. But effective communication, with the ability to mobilize public opinion and create pressure on politicians will help release additional funds from government treasuries for aid groups, and might help influence political action, if only in a way that best serves these governments or at least does not undermine their interests. When the interests of governments intersect with those of a victim, then we can see a link between communications and saving lives. In that sense, smart communications might mean looking for opportunities where real change is possible if the right influencers are engaged both as a target and as a vehicle for messages, whether these are the media, the public or movie stars.


For a succinct outline, see “Human Rights Principles,” the UNFPA, United Nations Population Fund, available at:

Though, for example in the early days of the invasion of Iraq there was almost no coverage of the humanitarian consequences of the war reported by embedded journalists—When Andersen (2006) asked a journalist if they would cover civilian casualties, the reporter responded by saying, “We are telling the US military's story.”

There are of course exceptions. Here we might include the lack of adequate coverage of the humanitarian consequences of the involvement of US and Saudi Arabia in the devastating conflict in Yemen and the suffering of the people there.

International Committee of the Red Cross, “Geneva Conventions and Commentaries,” available at:

United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. “Convention on the Rights of the Child,” available at:

United Nations High Commission on Refugees. “The 1951 Refugee Convention,” available at:

International Committee of the Red Cross, “Mission and Mandate,” available at:

The Twitter handle for the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund is @UNICEF and the organization has 5.91 million followers as of February 28, 2017, available at:

Most UN agencies and big NGOs have several accounts, with one main account usually in English and other regional accounts in different languages depending on where they are managed. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees twitter handle is @Refugees and it has 2.11 million followers as of February 28, 2017, available at:

The Twitter handle for the World Food Program is @WFP and the organization has 1.39 million followers as of February 28, 2017, available at:

The Twitter handle for Human Rights Watch is @hrw and the organization has 3.25 million followers as of February 28, 2017, available at:

The Twitter handle for Amnesty International is @amnesty has 899,000 followers as of February 28, 2017, available at:


Andersen, R. (2006) A Century of Media, A Century of War, New York: Peter Lang.
Bloch, H. (2016) “When Disaster Strikes, He Creates a ‘Crisis Map’ that Helps Save Lives.” NPR, October 2, available at:
Burns, A. , and Burgess, J. (2014) “Crisis Communication in Natural Disasters: The Queensland Floods and Christchurch Earthquakes,” in K. Weller , A. Burns , J. Burgess , M. Mahrt , and C. Puschmann (Eds.), Twitter and Society, New York: Peter Lang.
Franks, S. (2014) Reporting Disasters: Famine, Aid, Politics and the Media. London: Hurst.
NPR (2016) “A Story of Crisis and Resilience, Told Through Music,” November 13, available at:
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