Sitting together underneath the tree, going on a mutual journey, and making love: Intimacy at a distance in humanitarian communication - A view from NGO practitioners

TitleSitting together underneath the tree, going on a mutual journey, and making love: Intimacy at a distance in humanitarian communication - A view from NGO practitioners
Publication TypeConference Paper
Author(s)Orgad, S., and B. Seu
Affiliation (1st Author)Senior Lecturer, Department of Media and Communications, LSE, UK
Section or WGCrisis Communication Working Group
DateFri 28 June
Slot CodeCRIF3a
Slot Code (Keyword)CRIF3a
Time of Session14:00-15:30
Session TitleJournalism, Civil Society and Crisis Communication
Submission ID6607

Humanitarian and international development communications practitioners engage in continuous self-reflection and critique of their practice, of approaches to communicating crises and distant suffering and the challenges and opportunities these approaches present. However, this discussion overlooks the prominent evocation of intimacy in NGO communications. Recent academic research sheds some light on how and with what consequences media and NGO representations of distant suffering seek to develop ‘intimacy at a distance’. However, it relies almost exclusively on textual and visual analysis and focuses only on the symbolic construction of intimacy between spectator and distant other. This paper contributes to these debates (NGO practitioner and academic) by exploring the centrality of ‘intimacy at a distance’ in NGO professionals’ thinking about the communications they produce. The discussion draws on in-depth interviews with 17 practitioners from 10 UK-based international development and humanitarian NGOs engaged in planning and production of communications (e.g. campaigns, appeals). It shows how intimacy at a distance governs practitioners’ thinking and practice in two ways. First, practitioners hold that to engage western spectators with distant suffering and mobilize them to care and respond, e.g. to humanitarian disasters, atrocities, and global poverty, the spectator (symbolically, via mediated communications) should become an intimate of the distant sufferer. Second, practitioners regard the creation of intimacy between the NGO and its audience crucial to mobilizing spectators to care for and act about distant suffering.Our analysis demonstrates how NGO practitioners’ thinking draws heavily, albeit implicitly, on western cultural models of intimacy and communication styles that emphasize blurring boundaries between self and other, egalitarian exchange, and ‘being there’ and first-hand experience as guarantors of authenticity, understanding and care. We argue that NGO professionals’ embrace of the communicative model of intimacy is a response to post-colonial critiques of their communications and that it is strongly connected to the growing influence of business, advertising and branding models on humanitarian communication, and to increasing use of information technologies, primarily social media, in the humanitarian field. We conclude by discussing two tensions emerging from the centrality of intimacy in humanitarian and international development communications. First, the temporality of intimacy is ongoing and long-term; intimate relations are based on mutual emotional commitment that develops over time. However, this temporal orientation, reflected in the metaphor of ‘taking the supporter on a journey’ frequently used by practitioners, is in tension with the nature of their practice and their forms of communications. The latter, by definition, are fleeting, and based on the idea of emergency: the urgent disaster, here and now. Second, while practitioners often explain their prime motivation as that of eliciting recognition of the distant other’s vulnerability and difference, and attending to his/her plight on his or her own terms, the model of intimacy they draw on is geared towards the opposite. It conveys a message of similarity rather than difference, and fosters collusion with, and understanding of the other which is conditioned upon the far-away other being ‘like me’, the western spectator and the western NGO practitioner.

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