A question of ethics

A while back, Alanna Shaikh, one of my favourite bloggers, wrote about the difficulty of trying to be good while doing good.

When I first started at IMC, I was senior desk officer for East Africa and the Middle East. I had a solid Middle East background, but I had to do a lot of reading on East Africa. I’d been there a few weeks and was starting to realize I’d somehow become an aid worker and I loved it.

I was reading an article about a young mother in Mogadishu. She had a baby and wouldn’t leave her house during the fighting. (this was the 2006 fighting, fyi) Finally she ran out of all food and had to leave the house. She took her 3-month old baby with her. She was killed in the cross-fire and NGO workers found her baby frantically trying to nuzzle at his mother’s dead breast.

My son was three months old when I read that. I was a breast-feeding mother. I sat at my desk and cried, for quite a while. And then I thought “If I had a picture of that, I could fundraise a million dollars, easy.”

Your work saves lives. You can’t do the work without money. It’s very, very hard to keep chasing the money you need to do good, and stay good yourself.

In my own, small way, I’m facing that dilemma. The resettlement agency needs money to continue operating, and we need to bring in donations from members of the community, as well as new volunteers for all kinds of projects. The problem is, most people in this community have no idea refugees walk among them every day. Refugees are just these mysterious newcomers –strange accents on the bus, a group of men and women carrying colorful woven bags, the occasional flutter of a black abaya in the breeze.

Every refugee who comes to this town has a story (such as the young veterinarian  tortured by his government for speaking to a newspaper about the outbreak of a livestock virus). If people knew these individual stories, as I do, I know that many more of them would be open to helping their new neighbors.

But these refugees’ stories were told to me in confidence, and many of them were told with palpable pain. I’ve made a list of refugees I know well and want to interview for my short film, but the whole idea is not sitting easy with me.  The people on my list opened up to me because they trusted me.  Is it exploitative to now ask them to re-tell their stories on camera, for an infinite number of strangers to watch –even if the resulting film helps us (resettlement workers) better help future refugee clients?

I just don’t know.

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2 thoughts on “A question of ethics

  1. My take on this dilemma – if the refugees are savvy enough to understand the implications of going public with their stories, and they understand they personally will not benefit and possibly no one else will from this process, then you’re not exploiting anyone. I know that sounds kind of harsh, but it’s an informed consent thing, I think.

  2. As long as no one feels obligated to speak on camera, as long as the interview subjects understand how the film will be distributed and why, I think you’re OK there.

    The tricky bit is determining whether potential subjects will feel they need to participate to essentially pay you back or do you a favor; you don’t anyone to feel coerced.

    Some people might embrace the idea as a way of reclaiming some agency in their lives and making sure refugees are seen as people and not numbers.

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