Beyond the Visual: Media Exposure and Coordination in Humanitarian Emergencies

Mahyar Eftekhar
March 30, 2021

When health and humanitarian emergencies strike–and demand is unknown, response time is limited, and resources are short–stronger coordination and information sharing between humanitarian actors appears to be a solution that will help organizations achieve both economic efficiencies and program goals. International and in-country humanitarian NGOs can share information related to the emergency, the number of people affected in specific regions, availability of resources (e.g., medical supplies food, and humanitarian staff), jointly prioritize target beneficiary groups, and divide tasks to avoid duplications.

Yet, in each health and humanitarian emergency we hear reports about humanitarian organizations not coordinating among themselves. The global COVID-19 response has also been criticized for the lack of coordination across international and national actors. We ask, why? Experts attribute the lack of coordination to many reasons, including differences in organizational structure, strategic plans, and donors’ interests (e.g., different priorities and objectives), lack of mutual trust and respect (particularly between a large international organization and a local agency), unfavorable operational conditions, and high level of demand and supply uncertainty. We posit that there is yet another reason that disincentivizes humanitarian organizations to coordinate -- competition to gain media exposure.

It is easy to critique humanitarian organizations for inefficiencies and other flaws in their coordination functions. But deeper examination of issues such as media exposure and incentives to coordinate makes it clearer that, given their current funding model, their actions may be rational institutional behavior.

Humanitarian organizations depend on resources from individual donations, bilateral country donors, multilateral donors, and private philanthropy for growth and survival. Media play a critical role in humanitarian organizations’ donation income, especially for those that are dependent on small individual donations, but coordination may dilute the media attention that individual organizations receive. Some believe that the desire to attract media attention, especially during the early stages of relief response, prevents humanitarian organizations to even share operational information with other organizations. Are these perceptions correct?

In a recent paper two of us (ME and SW) and our coauthors study the operational performance, media citations, and institutional and individual donations for 23 humanitarian organizations over a 10-year period. We empirically demonstrate that donations are influenced by humanitarian organizations' media exposure rationalizing why humanitarian organizations compete for media attention and avoid coordination. Media exposure affects both public donations and institutional grants, albeit with some differences: (i) media exposure has a positive effect on individual donations in the same year and on institutional grants in the next year; and (ii) individual donations heavily rely on media citations, whereas institutional grants depend on both HO’s media exposure and operational performance. However, data show us that many humanitarian organizations rely on public donations more than institutional grants. For example, in 2019, charitable giving by American citizens totaled over USD 300 billion while the total giving by corporations and foundations was less than USD 97 billion. Media attention, particularly TV coverage, obviously relates to brands seen on the screen, and thereby plays a pivotal role in humanitarian organizations’ tactical choices.

Finally, the role of social media should not be ignored. We observe growing use of social media in conjunction with health and humanitarian emergencies. Although it has led to an increase in total donations, it can also lower each humanitarian organizations's desired intensity of coordination, and negatively affect the operational performance. A paradox is that the more effective social media is in connecting the general public with humanitarian needs, the more likely it may drive HOs to devote more effort on media attention and less on working together to improve operational performance.

Our study shows that humanitarian organizations’ reservation toward peer coordination, though not ideal for beneficiaries at large, is unfortunately well founded. Their willingness to coordinate might be even lower during emergency operations or more severe disasters that receive more media attention. Likewise, during mega-disasters, humanitarian services might be distributed to regions that are media spotlights. The media also provide an important public service role in disaster management by broadcasting alerts, warnings, and advisories and providing information and directions to the affected public. They can also play a helpful role in highlighting the need for donations for a given health and humanitarian crises, both to the public and to the government and other donors. So, it may not be prudent to discourage media coverage on humanitarian operations.

So what can be done to foster better coordination? The UN cluster mechanisms is one example of attempts to facilitate coordination among humanitarian organizations. However, the link between the UN-agencies’ grant and HOs’ contributions in the clusters remains ambiguous. The bureaucracy within the centralized clusters, and loose connection within decentralized clusters make them less efficient. Furthermore, smaller/local HOs tend to be marginalized in the cluster system and discourages them to join such a coalition.

The heavy reliance on large intermediaries/international NGOs implies that donations are not allocated objectively toward the greatest need, but rather toward those international humanitarian organizations that are most effective in promoting their mandate in media. New avenues need to be explored that allow channeling more of the individual and institutional aid based on delivered outcomes. Maybe a coordination model organized around the needs of frontline aid recipients rather than around the funding model of global humanitarian NGOs (which depend on media exposure) could help?

Cash programming is another way to circumvent this problem. Humanitarian crises and emergency responses take place in a vast range of contexts, in some instances when local supply systems are completely broken and inadequate, cash programming is infeasible. When feasible, replacing the humanitarian supply donation model with cash-based programming–while diluting the tangible benefits of showing pictures of supplies arriving or being distributed to beneficiaries–could still better materially help people in need.

In addition to humanitarian organizations and their funders, news and media organizations also need to become more engaged on this critically important topic. For example, because a humanitarian crisis reporting code of conduct training is often mandatory for many media outlets, coordination and related topics should be made a part of that effort.

There may be no silver bullet solutions to changing humanitarian organizations’ media incentives and most solutions will require reform of the funding model. Meanwhile a stronger focus on performance outcomes and communicating them to the public-at-large may dilute the incentives to focus too much on media exposure and will bring greater focus to coordination.  


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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