I had the privilege of working alongside Tim for a year at Oxfam Australia where he was renowned for both his witty copywriting and for being a genuinely good human. Over the seven years since, we’ve shared countless Carlton after workies, the occasional weekend away and a mutual appreciation for Alanis Morissette, 90’s bangers and lip sync battles. Tim strives to see the best in just about everyone, ensures those around him feel valued and has a unique ability to make any situation ten times more hilarious. While Tim works tirelessly to amplify the voices of those not often heard, he rarely talks about his own achievements. I’m really grateful that Tim chose to share his story with me and even more grateful to be able to call him a close mate.
“Part of my job as a Humanitarian Communications Advisor is to help tell the stories of some of the most vulnerable people in the world. I have travelled to many different, and often exciting, humanitarian responses. The stories my team and I collect are the stories we share with decision makers, it’s how we advocate on behalf of people all over the world, and it’s how we inspire staff and inform the public about what’s going on.
But despite the terrible things I’ve seen and heard in my career, I still complain about my own ridiculous problems. I think that very few of us understand how lucky we are to have been born in Australia, and I personally try to put things in perspective and remember the people I’ve met along the way, but it’s not always easy.
Ten days after starting my first role at Save the Children, I went to Cambodia to gather stories for an end of financial year fundraising appeal. It was a challenging trip. The women I spoke to lacked access to essential maternal health services and as a result had lost their babies during childbirth.
I already had some understanding of the content the fundraising team would need me to gather. I’ve worked for a number of different not-for-profits, both in fundraising and communications, so I understood the sorts of stories and photos that resonate with supporters. But I spent a lot of time in Cambodia doubting whether the interviews and quotes I was getting would be a good enough reflection of the issues the women were actually facing.
There’s a delicate balance for content gatherers. Part of my role is generating content to compel (largely Australian) audiences to take action or donate, and this requires strong quotes that demonstrate the severity of issues facing people around the world.
But the people that we are working to help shouldn’t be portrayed as victims and we take serious measures to ensure they don’t feel disempowered. Over the last few years safeguarding processes have been really enhanced to guarantee NGOs are strictly adhering to a ‘do no harm’ principle.
It’s so important that as an industry we continue to put people first – well before a good story or a good fundraising ask.
The journalists I work with face similar challenges. They want to uncover the truth and share it with the Australian public, but there are competing forces at play. The media landscape is changing, with most people now consuming their news online. As a result, journalists are being measured on how many people have clicked through to an article. This creates mounting pressure to get harder hitting stories and stronger quotes.
This is one of my biggest concerns. Journalists are sent to cover a crisis where they’ll speak to some of the most vulnerable people in the world, and they are facing pressure to get the most shocking quotes they can. I find it sad that stories need to be so dreadful to compel people to take action. Why do we have to shock people into taking action – or even to just read a news story? Ultimately, if people can afford to do so, they should be giving to NGOs because it’s the right thing to do.
After that first trip to Cambodia, I visited a very remote location in the Solomon Islands. One program I visited was in a village where children as young as 14 were being sold as maids to the miners who lived across the river. Like all programs, this was a really complex situation because many of the young women were attracted to the promise of the new life that came with their role as maid, but they were often left stigmatised and cast out from their community after the miners had left.
After a year or so in the communications team at Save the Children, I moved into the Humanitarian Surge team, visiting our emergency responses and programs in conflict zones.
I went to Fiji to document the devastation of Cyclone Winston. To Nairobi to generate awareness of the impact of El Niño in East and Southern Africa. To South Sudan during our response to conflict, drought and famine. I also travelled to Myanmar and Bangladesh to cover the Rohingya crisis.
I then spent time in the Middle East in some of the most urgent and ongoing conflict crises before traveling to the Democratic Republic of Congo during its most recent Ebola outbreak.
One thing that struck me during these deployments was that even amidst a humanitarian crisis, people continue to get on with their lives. What we see in the headlines (if we see anything at all) is often portraying the worst of the worst.
The second thing that’s become obvious is the long-term impact of many of these issues. For example, in Iraq, there’s a continued lack of access to clean water, education and employment. There’s also an ongoing challenge for anyone who was deemed to have an affiliation with ISIS. The humanitarian community coined the term, ‘people with a perceived affiliation with ISIS’ and that has become problematic. Family of ISIS members are lumped together with those who actually subscribe to ISIS ideologies. This is an ongoing issue that’s a long way from being solved.
Another thing that shocked me was the media’s disinterest (prompted by the wider public’s disinterest) in many devastating events. Trying to get coverage during the Ebola crisis was a challenge until the rest of the world felt threatened. People tend not to pay much attention until an issue might impact them personally.
I feel proud of the work that I do to amplify the voices of people who wouldn’t normally be heard. I hope that I can use my words to show how difficult life can be for people and to shed light on the important work that NGOs like Save the Children are doing. If one person reads the story of a family I have met and decides to donate, then I’ll feel as though I’ve made a difference.
I hope people find a way to proactively get a better understanding of all the awful things going on in the world, so that NGOs no longer have to use heart-breaking images and journalists no longer have to uncover sensational stories because people will already be donating, or campaigning, or advocating for people born into less fortunate situations.”
Photography: Rob McKechnie, Save the Children