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Humanitarian Communication in a Global Media Age

1st December 2008

Attention paid by those in the rich nations to the developing world is always vulnerable. This is especially true during a time of economic difficulty. But this is also a continuous concern: the ways in which human suffering is communicated as a cause for action. On November 21st, scholars from the disciplines of media, law, business, and philosophy came together to debate, critique and offer research insights on humanitarian communications at a symposium organized by the LSE's media and society think-tank POLIS, and co-sponsored by the Copenhagen Business School.

Instigated by POLIS Research Director, Prof. Lilie Chouliaraki, the symposium was the last in a series of panels that combined scholarly insight with stakeholder expertise to open up discussion on different aspects of humanitarian communication: ethics, global politics and the cosmopolitan imagination; changing communication practices of NGOs and corporations; crisis reporting, representations and mediatisation of suffering. The aim of the symposium was to debate the challenges of humanitarian communications today, with a particular focus on the moral, political and cultural implications they may have on the formation of contemporary global polity.

Deconstructing the history behind the discourse of humanity and its contemporary versions of cosmopolitanism, Professor Costas Douzinas of Birkbeck College Department of Law, argued for the continuing relevance of a critique of humanitarianism based on the historical and systemic power asymmetries between West and the Rest. While Professor Douzinas considered humanitarian campaigns as collateral benefits tool for the West, Dr Nash, of Goldsmiths College Department of Sociology, argued for the possibility of a positive cultural politics of humanitarianism that can promote a broad popular project of 'extraordinary solidarity' with vulnerable others.

The symposium took a different direction when presenters spoke about the framing of social responsibility by corporations and the professionalisation of news provision by NGOs. Professor Morsing, Copenhagen Business School argued that companies who strive to improve their legitimacy through CSR campaigns risk public over-exposure followed by critique of hypocrisy. Public mistrust of companies arises when CSR policies are seen as a cynical ploy to increase profits, particularly when profits trump humanitarian or environmental concerns. Speaking from the perspective of civil society, Dr. Fenton of Goldsmiths College pointed to the challenges faced by NGOs participating in mainstream news production and campaigning practices and argued that this may not also create further divisions between 'resource rich and poor' organizations but may also have damaging implications for the project of advocacy itself.

Professors Luc Bovens of Department of Philosophy and Lilie Chouliaraki, of Media Media & Communications Department, LSE, problematised the ethical implications of the visibility of suffering in photojournalism and in the popular iconography of recent humanitarian appeals. While Prof. Bovens, drew distinctions between the sensationalisation of spectacles of human vulnerability and the desire to maintain the dignity of sufferers, Prof. Chouliaraki considered the idea of a "post-emotional humanitarian style of communication" that bypasses traditional notions of solidarity and empathy and engages the public in a more transactional relationship with humanitarian organisations.

To find out more about the Polis programme on humanitarian and development communications and the work of Professor Chouliaraki, please email us at: polis@lse.ac.uk|

This symposium was made possible by the hard work and thoughtful contribution of Dr. Panagiota, Alex Beckett Cacciatore and Eli Lipmen

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