Doctors Without Borders exhibition in the USA


The other day while I was driving to work I was listening to NPR public radio. I sometimes question this choice since morning commute time is not too dissimilar to 3 am TV adverts. 3 am TV adverts in the USA are often pictures of starving children in a developing country and a older white man telling us how $3 a day can help this child get food and go to school. NPR morning radio often air stories about people and the difficulties they have overcome. Completely different but with the same result, basically it is very hard for me not to cry on my way to work in the morning. So a couple of days ago the story was on “Forced from home” the traveling interactive exhibit created by Doctors Without Borders. Over the period of two months people in 5 US cities are able to live the experience of a refugee. In the interview (Aizenman 2016) we get to meet a group of people following guide Dr. Ahmed Abdalrazag who works at a refugee camp in Tunisia. He is telling the group to imagine that our country is at war. He takes us (the group and the listeners to the show) through the steps that are the most common for people fleeing war. During the tour the group has choices to make under time pressure, they are physically walking along a route. As a listener the sounds make you imagine that you are walking along. At one point in the tour we get to the coast and there is a small rubber boat waiting for us. The people are asked to sit down in the cramped boat. At this point one of the women turn to the reporter and tells us “It feels too real now. I don’t want to – I don’t know. Part of me doesn’t even want to sit in here ’cause it’s too real. Like, I don’t want to go. I want to go home, not here, you know.” I admit at this point I had reached work but I stayed in the car to listen to the end of the interview. To me just listening to someone else go through a mock version of what millions of people go through every day gave me a whole new way of looking at the refugee crisis. It made it even more real and much more personal.


Today more than 65 million people (About 2016) have been forced to leave their homes and it is time that we all understand what that really means. It is far too easy for us to sit at home, watch the news and comment on the sad state of the world and then continue on with our lives. It is only when we truly put ourselves in other people’s shoes that we can start to make real change. Doctors Without Boarders have decided to use interactive role-play, videos of people telling their stories and their website to try to make us see the people behind the new story.

So what is different here? Both images are making me upset. Both images make me want to help. The main difference is that in the 3 am advert the child I am looking at could not be my daughter whereas the woman on the rubber boat with a child could really be my baby and me. The image that Doctors Without Boarders is trying to help create is one of understanding – that the other could just as well be us. The people fleeing are no different from you and me. Martin Scott (2014) calls the 3 am advert the “shock effect appeal”. The advert that is one of the most damaging forms of development adverts. Obviously still used because they do create enough guilt to make people give, but destructive because they create a barrier between the giver and the receiver. This is what Doctors Without Boarders is trying to change. They believe that we are just as likely to help if we can empathize with the victims of war or natural disaster.

About the exhibit (2016)
Aizenman N. (2016) Traveling exhibit shows what it’s like to be a refugee
Scott, M. (2014) Media and Development Zed Books: New York

One Comment:

  1. Charlene Thompson

    I was not familiar with this exhibition but having read your blog, I looked at the links and found it very interesting. It is in a similar vein to some animation videos UNICEF produced called ‘UnFairy Tales’ which is also aims to provide viewers with a sense of what it is like to be a Syrian child escaping war. (link: Reading your comments about how the two images make you want to help but that one is much stronger in making you connect to the situation, reminded me of a study conducted by Nandita Dogra which she details in her book, “Representations of Global Poverty” where she analyses the print ads of several UK-based NGOs and how they attempt to connect a UK audience with people and communities in distant, poor countries. Finally, this post made me think about the role social media can play in effectively connecting and bringing situations of the poor and disadvantaged to those living in wealthier/developed countries. I think the UNICEF ‘Unfairy Tales’ is a good attempt at using new media and I would guess that social media has the ability to connect individuals and tell stories in real time. I enjoyed reading this post.

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