I was prepared for heartbreak and challenging conditions in Nepal. I wasn’t prepared for the ethical minefield of international aid
KATHMANDU, Nepal — My plane from Istanbul to Nepal just three days after the April 25 earthquake was a kaleidoscope of colors: fluorescent green vests, yellow helmets, silver reflective stripes on heavy-duty bright blue work pants. Patches and badges and matching backpacks filled with useful gear like ropes and flashlights and bandages. There were firefighters from Spain, Turkey, the US, Korea, Japan. There were Red Cross volunteers from the US and Norway.
There were over 200 people with tools and axes and years of experience in disaster relief. They came in groups, with matching uniforms, introducing themselves to their teammates as we boarded the plane. The waiting area buzzed with icebreakers and nervous laughter as people tried to use the weak Wi-Fi at the coffee shop to send one last email home, unsure of what awaited us in Kathmandu.
And then there was me, a journalist, all by myself. No uniform, no helmet, no paramedic bag or medical knowledge. Just a grungy beat-up backpack filled with granola bars, a notebook, a camera, my computer and a few pens.
I went to Nepal believing — naively — that journalism is an integral part of the response to natural disasters
I went to Nepal believing — naively — that journalism is an integral part of the response to natural disasters. We news people are not on the level of paramedics or rescue teams, but we are still a part of the layers of response.
In Israel, in the wake of terror attacks and war, I have found this to be true for journalists. News organizations that publish accurate, timely, unbiased information provide an important service to the public, by combating misinformation and rumor. Everyone has a job to play when tragedies strike. Each person is one cog in a vast and complicated response, and this is my role.
But in Nepal, we journalists were clearly part of the problem. In the Yak and Yeti Hotel, the 5-star hotel where the major news outlets stayed (and The Times of Israel visited for breakfast), the air reeked of testosterone and competition. Hardened war photographers sat at the breakfast buffet and traded tips on the most-demolished villages, in a perverse competition to present the most photogenic destruction porn.
Israeli tourists told me they delayed going to Kathmandu because of reports in the Israeli media that the city was demolished, and also dangerous. In fact, during my nine days in Nepal, I encountered not a single instance of price gouging, much less looting and lawlessness
In Israel, some of the most popular news sites somehow neglected to mention in their hysterical coverage of Nepal that nearly 80% of the buildings in Kathmandu were untouched by the quake, according to the National Society for Earthquake Technology Nepal, the leading Nepali earthquake safety organization.
Israeli tourists in Nepal told me they delayed going to Kathmandu by several days because of reports in the Israeli media that the city was totally demolished, and also dangerous because the population was violently looting. In fact, during my nine days in the country, I encountered not a single instance of price gouging, much less looting and lawlessness. Even the lines for food distribution in the hardest-hit villages, where people hadn’t eaten for days, were orderly and calm.
But that’s not the sexy image of a disaster that gets the page views and the Facebook clicks. Show me a wide-eyed girl clutching her doll in the rubble, a mother sobbing over the loss of her entire family, earthquake dust in her hair. Don’t show me that the roads are mostly unharmed or that electricity was only out for 12 hours, and the cell phone lines stayed open for the majority of the time.
This phenomenon was not just created by the media on the ground in Nepal. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there are 330 organizations from dozens of countries serving in Nepal, and most of them are competing for donations back at home. The more desperate the story, the more donations they will receive.
All the search and rescue teams wore GoPros, wearable cameras to capture their heroics in real time. I saw footage of teams from different countries fighting over body bags and stretchers to make sure the helmet with their logo got into the frame so they could get credit for the rescue or body retrieval. This is how the world works now — tweet, or it didn’t happen. Even the organizations I found doing incredible work were forced to play this game — they have no choice.
This is how the world works now — tweet, or it didn’t happen
We in the media are not solely responsible for this hysterical need for documentation, but we are absolutely fanning the fire.
On my first day in Nepal, I was caught up in this game as well, for lack of knowing any better, when I covered an Israeli team that seemed to be there rather too much for the press than for the actual good. Of course, they wanted to help, and hopefully they did. But I know that by giving them the press they so desperately craved, which they illustrated by delaying their mission so that another journalist could join, I was part of the problem.
This craving for attention isn’t just confined to the aid groups. Consider the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s emergency airlift of Israelis out of Kathmandu on April 28 — which it completed before any trekkers could arrive in the capital — but right on time for the insatiable Israeli media to lap up photos of emotional reunions. Certainly, it was wonderful that the embassy was able to bring so many Israelis home so quickly. But when the trekkers finally made it into Kathmandu, a week after the earthquake, after the headlines had faded, the ones that wanted to go back to Israel found no free flight. Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nachshon said that since the international airport was functioning and there were open seats on commercial flights, the Foreign Ministry did not see the need to send another plane.
While driving to remote villages on bumpy roads, I spent hours discussing the ethical issues of disaster relief with veteran aid workers, trying to make sense of whether or not I should be in Nepal taking up valuable resources at such a delicate time. Steamrolling over potholes so big that I often hit my head on the roof of the jeep, I was struck in those discussions by just how ethically fraught massive aid responses can be, not just for journalists, but for everyone involved, including the aid workers.
When you have leftover food, how do you decide who gets it? Do you give it to the most well-connected people, so you can continue to operate with the blessing of community leaders? Do you give it to the sickest people, who may die anyway? Or do you keep it for the healthy, to prevent them from getting sick? What if you don’t have enough food? How do you decide who gets to eat? And why are you the one who gets to make the choice?
One night at dinner, two doctors from IsraAID spent hours hashing over a medical-ethics dilemma still haunting them from their mission to the Philippines in 2013. These questions are not easy, for anyone involved.
Everyone wants to help in a situation like an earthquake. The aid groups want to help from the bottom of their hearts; that’s why they work in disaster relief. But poorly executed aid, without a sufficient local network of contacts, or without a long-term plan coordinated with organizations that will stay more than one week, can do more harm than good.
I, too, wanted to do good. I went to Nepal as a neutral observer, but obviously with a great empathy for the Nepali people living through this nightmare. I can’t save lives, but the tool that I use for positive good in the world is my pen, and that I can put into service.
The ethical dilemmas, of course, won’t end as the country moves from emergency to recovery. Quite a few Nepalis I met tossed around the phrase “disaster tourism” as an attempt to save the tourism industry, which employs 1 million Nepalis. Disaster tourism will bring another whole host of moral issues.
“Oh, you’re a journalist?” one Israeli backpacker asked me at the Chabad House. “You’re one of the ones who run in the opposite direction. When everyone else is running away, you run towards.”
And yes, I’ve always been like that, this overwhelming need to see firsthand, to observe, to uncover, to understand, and then to try to make sense of it all in a well-structured article for a few thousand people. To try to put a bit of order into the chaos of reality in 500 words or less.
So should I have come to Nepal? Perhaps I shouldn’t ask myself, or the readers of The Times of Israel. I should ask the Nepalis. They’re busy, now, rebuilding their country after the second quake, while the world has moved on to the next tragedy.
Given what I know now about the moral dilemmas, will I cover the next disaster? On a selfish level, that feeling of adrenaline is addictive — of being there to witness something that the world is watching, firsthand. Once you’ve experienced that, it’s hard to give up.
In the days since I’ve returned to Israel, I ask myself over and over, did I do good?
In the days since I’ve returned to Israel, I ask myself over and over, did I do good? On those flights to and from Nepal, filled with aid workers and firefighters, I sat silently in my seat, embarrassed to tell them my role. Journalism feels so unimportant, sometimes, compared with the work that they do. I ask myself again, did I do good here? And I don’t know that I’ll ever know the answer. Or that there is a single answer.
I am glad that I went, that I saw, that I understand this complicated problem of international aid and the unique challenges that Nepal faces as the country starts to rebuild. And I hope I conveyed some of that to our readers in a way that informs and engages them, with who knows what constructive consequences. But some of the aid organizations and media coverage left me with a bad taste in my mouth as I flew home, long after I washed away the last of the dust from the earthquake.
This write up has been originally posted in THE TIMES OF ISREAL on May 15.