Book Review: Caring in Crisis? Humanitarianism, the Public and NGOs

Martin Scott

January 24, 2018


By Martin Scott (@martinscott2010). According to United Nations, the world is currently experiencing the largest humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War, with more than 20 million people facing starvation and famine. Given this, how do non-affected publics respond to images and information about such suffering and what shapes these responses?

Whilst this question has been gaining increasing attention within media studies in recent years, empirical research in this area has often been piecemeal: focussing on only one dimension of public understanding at a time. Indeed, what makes this question particularly difficult to answer is that it requires attending, simultaneously, to the complex interactions between multiple psychosocial factors. According to Irene Bruna Seu and Shani Orgad, these include audience’s immediate and routine responses to humanitarian information, the broader moral scripts informing their attitudes and actions, and the biographical and emotional factors that may facilitate or discourage action.

In Caring in Crisis? Humanitarianism, the Public and NGOs, Bruna Seu and Orgad present the findings of a 3-year study, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, designed to analyse public responses to humanitarian information in a way that takes account of these multiple factors simultaneously. Their research involved 20 focus groups with nearly 200 members of the UK public, a further 39 individual in-depth interviews with 16 of these participants, as well as interviews with 17 practitioners from 9 UK-based humanitarian and international development NGOs.

The greatest achievement of this book is the formulation and articulation of what is described in Chapter 2 as a ‘3M’ model of psychosocial connectedness. Based on a thematic analysis of their audience data, Bruna Seu argues that a sustained public connectedness with humanitarian issues depends on three conditions. Firstly, whilst emotions are vital to such connectedness, they have to be appropriate and not overwhelming. Secondly, such manageable emotions have to be linked to an adequate understanding of both the context of the suffering and the individual’s ability to act upon it. Finally, any opportunities for action should stem from principles of care that the public are familiar with. In short, the 3M model suggests that people respond positively to humanitarian knowledge when it is, ‘emotionally manageable, cognitively meaningful, and is morally significant to them’ (Seu 2017:23).

The value of this ‘3M’ model is that it not only takes account of the complex, contingent and conflicted nature of public responses to humanitarian information, but it offers its explanations in a way that it likely to be both meaningful and actionable for practitioners. In other words, it follows its own advice in presenting information in a way that is both cognitively meaningful and morally significant.

The other major original contribution made in this book stems from an analysis of the intentions and frameworks guiding the communication practices of NGOs. In Chapter 6, Orgad draws on her interviews with NGO practitioners to identify some of the most common strategies of communication adopted by NGOs, such as fostering a sense of intimacy, or closeness, with beneficiaries and a tendency to create comfortable, non-threatening relations with the public. Orgad also highlights some of the consequences of these strategies. The former, for example, risks excluding other important ways of relating to distant others, while the later risks the erasure of emotions such as rage and indignation, which can also sustain humanitarian action.

The Conclusion sets out a series of differences between the ways in which NGOs and the public think and feel about humanitarian communication. Perhaps the most surprising contradiction is that, whilst there is a tendency amongst some NGOs to try to make the public ‘feel good’ when representing humanitarian issues, the public generally expect to be upset in such circumstances. In fact, Bruna Seu and Orgad argue that the public may respond with cynicism if they sense they are being manipulated to feel otherwise. It is also argued that the public perceive NGOs predominantly as money-collectors and gatekeepers, seeking to monopolise their connection to distant suffering. This creates further distrust amongst the public, towards NGOs. Ultimately, Bruna Seu and Orgad conclude that whilst the humanitarian principle of helping distant others in need is not in crisis, the relationship of NGOs with the public might be – and furthermore, that NGOs do not yet fully recognise this.  

This extremely clearly written and well-organised book makes an important and well-evidenced contribution to our understanding of humanitarian communication. It is also a rare example of a research-based book that will appeal both to academics and students – and to practitioners. This broad appeal is reinforced by the inclusion of a number of chapters, written by practitioners and other academics, reflecting on the implications of Bruna Seu and Orgad’s research.

But while these chapters do offer very readable and often provocative commentaries, their inclusion does involve a compromise. There is, unfortunately, little space left to dwell in detail on the rich empirical data generated by the research. There is little discussion of the various ways in which public connectedness with humanitarian issues manifests itself, for example. There is also no consideration of the way in which public responses to NGO communications interact with their consumption of news coverage of humanitarian issues. Nevertheless, the decision to adopt this particular format was probably the right one as this book will likely become required reading in both NGO offices and universities alike.


Caring in Crisis? Humanitarianism, the Public and NGOs (2017) is written by Irene Bruna Seu and Shani Orgad.

Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 165 pp. ISBN 3319502581

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