Project Project
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Public Discourse and Understanding in Light of Humanitarian Crises


Subject Matter

This project concerns the internal dynamic of public debate over humanitarian crises and ways of overcoming these crises. The starting point is the observation that societies remain highly selective concerning their perception of and the definition of humanitarian emergencies as a societal problem. Moreover, in view of resource deficits, journalists must increasingly depend upon international institutions such as the UNHCR or “Doctors without Borders” (MSF) as reliable sources and suppliers of background information and photographic materials. These institutions, in turn, seize the opportunity to come into play as competent, highly adaptable and efficient agents of public concerns. They push national states into providing flanking measures and, in so doing, impact significantly the formation of public opinion concerning the application of proper instruments and adequate measures in disaster relief.
In light of this situation, the project addresses the following questions. To what extent do disaster relief organizations increasingly gain the symbolic authority, in the context of public debate, to define and determine problems and measures, and thus to influence decisively societal selectivity? To what extent do the main frames of reference in this context shift from the national to the transnational or supranational level? The project also investigates the extent to which the increasing power of disaster relief organizations and the competence attributed to them for solving problems determine societal expectations of and demands placed on these organizations. Do the “audiences” relevant for humanitarian aid become politicized? What consequences do the exclusivity, non-transparency, and selectivity of international organizations have for their public image and authority in dealing with particular crises. Does the need for a public control mechanism arise as an “unintended” side-effect of humanitarian aid capacities beyond the scope of emergency state aid?

Relationship to the Research Unit’s Program

This project investigates both of the research unit’s main theses from the perspective of public debate. On the one hand, it attempts to show whether, in light of assumed trends in the direction of transnationalization and supranationalization, the authority of humanitarian relief organizations increases so significantly that the definition of problems and measures occurs progressively more on the transnational or supranational levels, rather than on the national level. On the other hand, the project analyzes the extent to which the growing significance of disaster relief organizations may have resulted in significantly increased demands on the part of both donor and recipient societies for greater legitimacy, efficacy, and transparency of these institutions. Thus, the issue, in accordance with the research unit’s second thesis, is the extent to which politicization has or may have occurred within these transnational or supranational domains.


Ecker-Ehrhardt, Matthias (2007). Neue Autoritäten. UNO und Nichtregierungsorganisationen: mächtige Experten in der Darfur-Debatte? In: WZB-Mitteilungen, 116, S. 22-25.

Ecker-Ehrhardt, Matthias (2007). Neue Autoritäten? Ein kommunikationstheoretischer Blick auf die Deutungsmacht inter und transnationaler Akteure in der Darfurkrise. WZB Discussion Paper, SP IV 2007-303, 42 S. Full text PDF (available in German only)

Ecker-Ehrhardt, Matthias (2008). Neue Autoritäten? Die Rolle von NGOs und Internationalen Organisationen im parlamentarischen Diskurs. In: Ulrich Sarcinelli und Jens Tenscher (Hrsg.), Politikherstellung und Politikdarstellung: Beiträge zur politischen Kommunikation. Köln: Halem, S. 63-82.

Ecker-Ehrhardt, Matthias (2009). Inter- und transnationale Organisationen als symbolische Autoritäten der Mediendemokratie. In: Frank Marcinkowski und Barbara Pfetsch (Hg.), Politik in der Mediendemokratie. Politische Vierteljahresschrift Sonderheft 42/2009, S. 585-608.

Ecker-Ehrhardt, Matthias (2010). Aid Organizations, Governments and the Media: The Critical Role of Journalists in Signaling Authority Recognition. In: Sigrid Koch-Baumgarten and Katrin Voltmer (eds.), Public Policy and the Mass Media: The Interplay of Mass Communication and Political Decision Making. London: Routledge.

Ecker-Ehrhardt, Matthias (2012). ’But the UN Said So …’: International Organizations as Discursive Authorities.” Global Society, 26:4, 2012, S. 451-471.