Can information and communication technologies (ICTs) allow for a more direct, participatory communication of people affected by humanitarian crisis or war and give the ‘voiceless’ a platform to share their stories on their own terms?
Humanitarian communication is often as complex as its subject matter, and sometimes stories are spun in either a positive or negative way. To this end Lombardi (2016) says that communication for development should not be about creating stories with a certain mood, be they negative or positive, extremely uplifting or deeply dark. Instead the emphasis should be on producing accurate stories with all the shades of emotions. The job of the storyteller is basically to do the story justice without oversimplifying important facts.
I recently read an article in The Guardian featuring stories from besieged residents in East Aleppo:
The tagline: “Aid can’t get in, but stories can get out”. In this case The Guardian used information and communication technologies, Skype and WhatsApp, to enable residents’ voices to be heard ‘in their own words’. The images and stories are mediated but it is the residents who seem to have control of the medium, as they can tell their own ‘unfiltered’ stories.
One of the pictures is a selfie from a teacher featured in the article; another picture is taken by the teacher of her son’s birthday party; then there is a screen grab. All the other photos are taken by a Syrian freelance journalist. However the focus is on the stories on the page rather than the photos themselves, and the photos fit well with the written narrative.
What is important is that the stories do not seem to have been framed by a reporter in a bid to achieve a certain effect or to fit their own agenda. Put simply, the voices sound authentic. To a certain extent the Aleppo residents featuring in the article seem to retain some control over the way their reality is framed and constructed and consequently understood by the reader.
How far can ICT enhance communication for development? For sure it is rarely, if ever, a magic bullet – think Kony 2012, which, according to many critics, promoted a simplified picture of conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa (Hershey and Artime, 2014, p. 640).
Yet ICT is ultimately just a medium, so it’s how we use it and what we do with it that counts.
In this case, I believe that information and communication technologies were used in a positive manner, allowing for a more participatory approach to communication for development: reporting a humanitarian crisis from the point of view of the survivors.
These stories have the merit of showing the full spectrum of emotions, from fear about the current situation, to more down-to-earth details about everyday life. Thanks partly to ICTs these Aleppo residents are no longer anonymous Syrians: they have names, jobs and photos that help to tell their stories.
Susan Sontag (2003, p. 80) wrote that: “Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand”. What is important is that these stories from Aleppo are based on narratives rather than on a single picture trying to encapsulate the essence of a war. In that sense they can help us better understand the reality of war, as well as giving a voice to the people affected by that terrible reality.