Everywhere you turn these days there are pictures of starving Somalis trekking across the Horn of Africa headed to refugee camps in Kenya with the hope of being resettled in places like the US and Australia (here is one story from Australia saying heads-up, more are coming).
Even last week the US State Department was scrambling to explain to the clamoring media what the US would be doing in light of the “catastrophe” (but “senior administration officials” didn’t want their names publicized!).
[Incidentally I think there is a good chance that the Obama Administration is getting ready to unleash Samantha Power and her ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine (recently on display in Libya) on the problem. Basically, she says war is justified wherever we have good intentions to “save” the people.]
Now along comes a story from the East African questioning whether some of the “crisis” is exaggerated so as to keep the aid money flowing to the United Nations and NGOs whose staffs and offices need a steady flow of fresh capital.
The title of the story is: The unholy alliance in Somalia; media, donors and aid agencies by Rasna Warah (emphasis mine).
The season of giving has started — and it not even Christmas yet. Leading international aid agencies, including the United Nations, Oxfam, Save the Children and Islamic Relief UK, have launched massive campaigns to save the thousands of Somalis who are facing hunger in their own country and in refugee camps in neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has asked donors for $1.6 billion in aid for Somalia and the World Bank has already pledged more than $500 million towards the relief efforts.
The appeals for food aid have been accompanied by heart-wrenching images: children with swollen, malnourished bellies, emaciated mothers with shrivelled breasts that no longer lactate, campsites bursting at the seams with hordes of skeletal refugees. Almost all the large humanitarian aid agencies are rushing to the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya to witness, photograph and film the crisis. We have seen these images before — in the mid-1980s when Mohamed Amin filmed the famine in Ethiopia that triggered the trend of rock stars becoming do-gooders. Since then, famine has become the biggest story coming out of Africa — and one of the biggest industries.
Images of starving Africans are part and parcel of fund-raising campaigns, as are journalists. As one leading humanitarian official told the BBC’s Andrew Harding, the UN can produce endless reports, but it is only when the images of starving people are televised or placed on the front page of newspapers that politicians take action.
The problem is that the story that they see or read is not as impartial as they would like to believe.
Journalists are not impartial (no kidding!)
The cosy relationship between aid workers and journalists has thus distorted the way Africa is reported. Journalists often do not get to the heart of the story or take the time to do the research into the causes of a particular crisis. Africans do not feature much in their stories, except as victims.
“In public affairs discussions the term ‘starving Africans’ (or ‘starving Ethiopians’ or ‘starving Somalis’) rolls from the tongue as easily as ‘blue sky’,” wrote former aid worker Michael Maren in his 1997 book The Road to Hell.
“Charities raise money for starving Africans. What do Africans do? They starve. But mostly they starve in our imaginations. The starving African is a Western cultural archetype like the greedy Jew or the unctuous Arab.”
Political correctness reigns supreme!
In a recent phone conversation, Ms Polman [Dutch journalist Linda Polman] told me that the “starving African” story is not just the easiest to tell, especially in a continent that does not generate much international media coverage, but is also the most “politically correct.” After all, who in their right mind would want to be accused of doing nothing for dying people?
UN and aid agencies: we need money for our stuff!
He [Ahmed Jama, a Somali agricultural economist based in Nairobi] adds that it is in the interest of UN and other aid agencies to show a worst-case scenario because this keeps the donor funds flowing.
The other fact that is conveniently overlooked is that a large proportion of the funds raised is used to cover aid agencies’ administrative and logistical costs. Staff has to be hired, four-wheel-drive cars have to be bought, offices have to be set up, highly paid international experts earning hefty per diems have to be flown in or consulted. All this costs money, lots and lots of money.
Complicity of African governments shouldn’t be overlooked
So we have the journalists, the donors and the aid agencies, and the African governments motives to consider before you open your checkbook.
However, neither the donors nor the aid agencies could play their part without the complicity of African governments, which have unquestioningly taken on the roles of victim and beggar.
I recommend you read the whole article, it is packed full of all sorts of information including a discussion on how Somalia became the hell-hole it is.
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard all of this. In 2009 the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled, ‘Why foreign aid is hurting Africa’ and reported here at RRW. And then Irish author Kevin Myers* was rhetorically crucified when he dared to challenge the politically correct notion of more aid to Africa and said this:
The wide-eyed boy-child we saved, 20 years or so ago, is now a priapic, Kalashnikov-bearing hearty, siring children whenever the whim takes him.
* It’s amusing to consider that Ireland has produced Samantha Power and Kevin Myers in not quite the same generation, but within a few decades of each other.