Interview with Pat Banks, Co-ordinator and founder of the Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN)

1 February 2008
Interview with Pat Banks, Co-ordinator and founder of the Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN)

IRIN, OCHA, United Nations, Information, disasters, humanitarians,

The Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) celebrated its tenth year of operation last year. A part of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Human Activities (OCHA), yet independent, IRIN was established in 1995 to provide accurate and timely information about the Great Lakes crisis so that the humanitarian community would be better informed of complex situations and events. Initiated as a text service covering Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), today IRIN is a multimedia humanitarian news service covering sixty-one countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Asia and, since last year, the Middle East.

Over its years of operations, IRIN has evolved into an innovative news service providing news and analyses, film documentaries, TV news footage, photo services, radio training and content packages that focus on key humanitarian issues and emerging or neglected crises. These services are provided free of charge to ensure the widest possible access to this information.

You are the person behind IRIN. What was your motivation?

I have always been an information person. I was a journalist in my former life before I joined the United Nations. Then I joined CARE, working in camps in Thailand for refugees coming from Cambodia. From there I joined the United Nations in Ethiopia, and then went out to other places, such as Sudan, Angola, Mozambique and then eventually the Caucasus and then back to Rwanda in 1995.

I have always felt that information was very important. Obviously, it is a way to help with co-ordination, but it gives people early warning about what was happening and also what is the likely prognosis for certain events. When I reached Rwanda-it was post-Genocide in early 1995-I felt in that there had been a great deal of information available indicating that the threat of genocide was growing and also later when it was happening. Many people were saying that there was not enough information and that it was not being disseminated in the right way. I felt that we could do better. So I put a proposal together to look at how we could help disseminate information-important information-to the widest possible audience in the hope that nobody would ever again be able to say that we did not know that a genocide was fomenting. That was the rationale for starting IRIN.

I was very lucky. I was working for the Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA), which was the forerunner of OCHA. Very fortunately, they liked the idea of having this information structure in Nairobi aimed predominately at the Great African Lakes Region, since it would help facilitate the flow of information.

Why did you choose Nairobi and not somewhere else, such as Addis Ababa?

We were only concerned by the Great African Lakes Region. We needed to be close to the Great Lakes, and to the countries concerned. Ethiopia was not at that time concerned. But it was not possible to carry out the operation from Rwanda either for two reasons. First, it is not easy to circulate what is considered to be quite sensitive information about a country from within that country. Second, we were working with electronic mail. It was a time when the e-mail system was still very new. In Rwanda there was frequently no electricity and no Internet connections. This made it difficult to do the things we wanted to do. So we chose Nairobi.

We were primarily looking at three countries: Rwanda, Burundi and Eastern DRC where refugees had congregated. From there, very quickly in 1996 as you know, the DRC conflict became acute and also impacted on other countries. So many other countries, both across southern Africa and also to the west, became involved. We expanded the operations to cover these areas too. When I started IRIN I did not really have a vision of writing many reports-certainly not daily reports. The idea was we would look at the background information. We would bring together the information that already existed, making sure that it was accurate, and then creating a platform for sending it out to a wider audience. Where there were gaps in the contextual background information, we would help people understand why things were happening. It became clear very early on that there was a need for a daily reporting service, particularly as the conflict in DRC became more and more serious and drew in more countries. So, from that point on, we started doing the daily reports that you see today.

Nairobi is still the main base. We have an office for Southern Africa based in Johannesburg, and there is another one for West Africa in Dakar. We have a sub-office in Abidjan and another one in Liberia. We have a radio project office in Angola. That’s just for Africa!

We are working now with Central Asia where our office is in Ankara, with other smaller offices in Islamabad and Kabul. We have just opened an office in Dubai for the Middle East. We have a liaison office here in Geneva and another one in New York. So, today, we have sixty-three staff members. In addition, in each of the countries where we are not present we have a local correspondent. This means that we have sixty-six local correspondents who submit stories and information and get paid for it. These "stringers" ensure a permanent presence on the ground in every hot spot, as they enable IRIN to continue reporting directly from areas where regular UN staff would not be allowed to go for security reasons.

You also propose training. What kind of training do you offer?

We offer several levels of training. With our stringers-the local correspondents-we provide mentoring on a daily basis as many of them are not really trained journalists. So we train them daily: they submit their stories; we tell them what is wrong and send them back. From time to time, we actually bring groups of our stringers together for a training workshop. For example, we have held two in Nairobi: one for our French-speaking stringers and the other for our English-speaking stringers. We had another one in Kyrgyzstan for our stringers in Central Asia who are mainly Russian speakers. We plan another for 2006 for those in the Middle East. Altogether, we carry out about four per year-if we can get the money!

Talking about money … Where do you get your money from?

Mainly from the donors; it is voluntary contributions. We do obtain some funds from OCHA, which is very useful. In fact, the money comes from the Trust Funds. One was set up for Iraq and we have received money from that to set up offices in the Middle-East Service and Afghanistan, but for the rest we have to ask the donors. Every year we have to convince donors that it is worth putting money into IRIN. This is not easy, but the donors have been very generous. Right from the start they have been supportive because they saw the need for such a service. Our budget right now is about US$6.1 million a year, and that is only for the core of IRIN. In addition to that, we have radio projects that operate on about US$1 million a year. We also have what we call a "PlusNews service" about HIV/AIDS for which we need another US$1 million on top of that.

You said earlier that you provide the information for free. Why?

We give the information free because we want the widest possible audience to receive it. So, if a student, a group of students or a university would like some information about what is going on in a country, they can access it. If a major donor wishes to obtain some information about a country, it can access that too.

I have also seen that you are in contact with television channels. Why don’t you make them pay?
We started making films about two years ago as an advocacy tool. We have been providing texts for ten years already, and I think that still has its place. However, if you really want to show people what is happening in a country, visually, of course, a film has a stronger impact. So we made a pilot film on what was happening in Northern Uganda. In particular, that the LAR comes in and kidnaps people, takes them away, etc. That was very successful and it helped to raise awareness about what is happening and the lack of response on the part of the international community.

Your services are quite well known in Africa. Do you feel it is difficult to reach out to the Europeans, for instance?

We would like them to use it more. We are now more aggressive and expect people to place materials. We are transmitted at present on UN-TV. We put our slots on there as soon as we have something and they are re-transmitted quite widely. I think there are about 500 broadcasting companies who use the APT, and many of those are in Europe. We have also signed a deal with the South African Broadcasting Company, and they cover all of southern Africa. We are looking at individual contracts with Reuters; Alert Net already takes our materials. The BBC has used some of our materials. A number of agencies are now approaching us directly to see what we have in our archives that can be of use to them. So the more we become known and the more we produce, the more people will use it-and, of course, it’s free! With the downsizing of news services in many parts in Africa, it is going to be more and more useful.

Are you not afraid of criticism from the others, such as AP and Reuters, who sell information, whereas you are giving the information away free?

I would be, of course, if they had something to sell, but they do not anymore. For example, Reuters are using our material since they cannot afford to send out their own crew. So we have never received any criticism so far, and I think that the other news agencies tend to see us more as a service. Many of the media use our text materials for the same reason-in order to see what aspect they would like to focus on themselves.

Are you not afraid that people will become tired of always seeing the same pictures of the famine in Ethiopia for instance, and that one day they will say no matter what we do things will never change?

This is a problem, and I think we have faced this situation in the humanitarian community ever since I can remember. "Famine fatigue"-you see the same pictures over and over again. Nevertheless, I have great faith in the public. When they can see it and when they are really confronted with it, they have never failed to respond. Yes, there are emergencies, such as those in Northern Uganda and even in Darfur, which to a degree did not get proper publicity. As soon as the TV screens exploded with all these pictures about what is happening, people started to respond. So they might be saying that they are tired of seeing pictures of famine, but generally they are very generous when they can see the misery.

Africa is deeply affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. What have you done in this field?

In 2001, IRIN saw that there was a need for a specialist news service for people living with HIV/AIDS in Africa and all those involved in fighting the pandemic. Thus, PlusNews was born. It kept people informed of the latest developments. We have one staff member in Johannesburg who is HIV/AIDS positive. He writes a diary every week which tells his story, talking about what it’s like living with HIV/AIDS, how his family reacted and how people react to him. This is now going out through the schools because of the problems in southern Africa. Nobody wants to admit that they are HIV/AIDS positive as there is a stigma attached to it. This means that even when drugs are available, they do not go and get them because they do not want people to know. So this colleague offered to write about this as a way of trying to encourage people to come into the open and to take up the offer of drugs available to anybody.

Where will IRIN be in ten years?

In the next ten years, I would like to think that we are covering more countries and we will have a reputation for being a solid provider of humanitarian news. This will help broadcasters to do better programmes and also help the people on the other end receiving the programmes. We also want to give the so-called victims a voice, which is increasingly what we are trying to do through radio and film. It is very important as these boys and girls do not have any another channel to make their voice heard. This is one of the reasons why we started do radio programmes.

Two years ago, we launched a "soap opera" through IRIN radio for the Burundian refugees in camps in Tanzania. It’s very popular. It is even more successful because the actors are the refugees themselves-they are trained amateurs and they have taken on the characters of this "soap". The story contains all kinds of things: life in the camps; drunkenness; their own problems; what happens when they go home; other affairs. It is a way of getting them to tell their own stories, but it is also a way of getting the people back home to get them to know them better. It is also broadcast in Burundi twice a week by four of the major radio channels. It is done like a proper "soap".

What are your objectives, and what would you like to do if you had the necessary funds?

If I had enough money to do everything, I really would like to expand the visual side of what we are doing, to expand our ability to get into crises earlier so as to show people what is happening and to explain the reasons for it. I think it is a process of learning-if we can reach the public and convince them that it is not only a question of responding to malnourished babies, but more a question of getting the right aid to the right people at the right time. Much of that is development aid. That is one of the reasons why you have the problems in Niger right now, as there is very little money going into development. That is what is needed in order to stop the pictures of starving children. If you could have a campaign that would convince the public that this is the way to reduce the pictures of famine, and that if they would respond to that and the donors would then came forward with the money and the right programmes to launch-then that would be the best for me. I would feel as if I had achieved something. However, I feel that I have achieved a lot-but not enough. I still have a long way to go!

Obviously, we can only stay alive as long as the donors continue to support us in terms of funding. I am hoping that what we are doing in the Middle East will also be exciting and that we can help provide a bridge between the two cultures-the West and the Arab culture. Right now there is little cross-fertilization of information from one to another. If you look at most of the Arab press, they do not carry anything about humanitarian programmes. And vice versa, there is very little about in the Western press about what is happening in Arab countries from a humanitarian point of view, about NGOs, what the health problems are, etc.

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