From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Tue Aug 30 2011 - 17:26:42 EDT
Somalia's unholy alliance: Media, donors and aid agencies
2011-08-30, Issue <http://www.pambazuka.org/en/issue/545> 545
cc GuledBehind slick aid agency publicity campaigns designed to raise funds
for famine in East Africa lies an aid industry that is complicit in
corruption and the promotion of unaccountable government.
The season of giving has started - and it is 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.
MEDIA-SAVVY AID AGENCIES
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. More often than not, it is told by aid agency
staff on the ground or independent filmmakers. News organisations that do
not have the resources to send reporters to far-flung disaster zones such as
the camp in Dadaab, have entered into an unholy alliance with aid agencies,
whereby the aid agencies' spokespeople - wearing T-shirts and caps bearing
the logos of their respective organisations - 'report' the disaster via
satellite to international audiences. Even when journalists are present on
the ground, they rely almost exclusively on aid agencies' version of the
disaster. The narrative about the famine in Somalia has, therefore, become
both predictable and one-sided.
Dutch journalist Linda Polman believes that the 'unhealthy' relationship
between journalists and aid agencies does not allow for independent,
objective reporting, and is often slanted in favour of the agency doing the
Media-savvy aid workers fully exploit the eagerness with which journalists
accept their version of a disaster or crisis. On their part, says Ms Polman,
journalists 'accept uncritically the humanitarian agencies' claims to
neutrality, elevating the trustworthiness and expertise of aid workers above
journalistic scepticism.' This non-nuanced, simplistic story about African
disasters has foreign policy implications, says Karen Rothmyer in a
discussion paper published by Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Centre
early this year.
'Top US officials responsible for Africa policy who begin their days with
media summaries focusing disproportionately on Africa's problems are
unlikely to see the continent's potential.'
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
'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.'
In a recent phone conversation, Ms 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?
Even more alarmingly, there is almost no attempt on the part of news
organisations to independently verify the facts and figures disseminated by
aid agencies, which, as I discovered when I worked with a UN agency, are
quite often inflated or based on erroneous data.
The temptation to exaggerate the extent of a crisis in order to raise more
funding is always present, says Ahmed Jama, a Somali agricultural economist
based in Nairobi. Jama believes that it is very likely that many parts of
Somalia that have been declared as suffering from drought, such as the
fertile lower Shabelle region - which experienced a bumper harvest last year
- may actually be food secure, and that it is possible that the people
suffering there are not locals but those who migrated to the region from
drought-prone parts of the country.
He 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. Jama says
that while parts of Somalia have always suffered from cyclical droughts, the
lack of sound agricultural and livestock policies have ensured that droughts
rapidly turn into famine, which was not always the case. In the 1980s, for
instance, he says, Somalia met 85 per cent of its cereal needs, thanks to
government and international community investments in agriculture.
Disasters such as the famine in Somalia fuel the aid business, with each aid
agency eager to 'brand' itself as the most competent in handling the
disaster. In her recently published book 'The Crisis Caravan', Polman
describes how crises become 'business opportunities' for aid agencies.
Aid organisations that want to remain on top of the game, she adds, need to
be fluent in the language of product positioning, proposal development and
client relations. Physical presence in the disaster area is critical because
'aid organisations that fail to put in an appearance at each new
humanitarian disaster miss out on contracts for the implementation of aid
projects financed by donor governments and institutions, and are bypassed
left, right and centre by the competing organisations that do show up.'
THE REAL STORY
Aid agencies rarely report the root causes of a famine, though in the case
of Somalia, there is a tendency to blame the civil war and militia such as
Al Shabaab, which until recently had banned aid agencies from entering areas
under its control.
For more than two decades, civil war and famine have dominated the narrative
about Somalia. But the Cape Town-based Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah
believes that much of the commentary on the Somali civil war is based on 'a
false premise' - that the Somali civil war is the consequence of an age-old
clan conflict. This view, he says, is unfortunately also held by a number of
Somalis, who have no memory of the Somalia of his childhood, where the
cosmopolitan capital Mogadishu 'was not only one of the prettiest and most
colourful cities in the world, but also decidedly the oldest in sub-Saharan
Africa and older than many of Europe's most treasured medieval cities.'
The real conflict in Somalia, he says, is not so much between clans but
between urban and pastoralist communities, especially those which migrated
to Mogadishu, and who visited havoc on the capital city in 1991 by forming
contingents led by city-based men and 'armed with ancient injustices newly
recast as valid grievances'.
'The pastoralist Somalis, who are by nature urbanphobics,' he writes, 'saw
the city as alien and parasitic, and because it occupied an ambiguous space
in their hearts and minds, they gradually accumulated hostility towards the
city until they became intent on destroying it.'
However, some economists believe that the international community is largely
to blame for the crisis in Somalia. Michel Chossudovsky, professor of
Economics at the University of Ottawa, claimed in his 1993 book 'The
Globalisation of Poverty' and the 'New World Order', that the International
Monetary Fund and the World Bank had a negative impact on Somalia's
stability after they imposed structural adjustment programmes in the 1980s
that forced Somalia to adopt austerity measures that destabilised the
national economy and destroyed agriculture.
He blames the Bretton Woods institutions for, among other things,
reinforcing Somalia's dependency on imported grain, periodic devaluations of
the currency that led to a hike in prices of fuel, fertiliser and farm
inputs, and the privatisation of veterinary services. US grain supplies that
entered the country in the form of food aid also destroyed local
agriculture, he says. Food aid, in turn, was often sold by the government on
the local market to cover domestic costs.
The diversion of food aid is nothing new. Ms Polman's research shows that in
almost every crisis area around the world, warlords, militia, and soldiers
have benefited by imposing 'taxes' on humanitarian agencies or stealing and
selling food aid to buy arms. Quite often, refugee camps become safe havens
for militia, who use the safety of the camps to regroup and recuperate.
Refugee camps thus indirectly prolong civil wars.
AVENUES FOR BRIBERY
What is also not mentioned in the appeals for funding is the fact that a lot
of the funds are used to pay off or bribe officials and militia to allow aid
convoys to pass. (In Somalia, Ms Polman claims, the 'entry fee' charged by
warlords has in the past run to as much as 80 per cent of the value of the
aid.) In many countries, it is not militia, but government officials, who
steal aid money.
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. D.T. Krueger, a former employee of the Food and
Agricultural Organisation, estimates that as much as three-quarters of
funding received by a UN agency is used purely on itself. Much of the aid
also ends up back in the donor country in the form of salaries for experts
who are nationals of the donor country, and in the form of inputs for
development projects that are purchased in the same donor country.
Despite all these glaring inefficiencies and failures, the aid industry
continues unabated; in fact, it is going from strength to strength.
Statistics indicate that the number of aid agencies and NGOs have mushroomed
since the end of the Cold War - in Kenya alone, for instance, there are more
than 6,000 registered international and local NGOs that contribute more than
$1 billion to the Kenyan economy.
In my assessment, there is a strong relationship between the number of
donors and aid agencies in a country and its level of poverty - the more
donors and aid agencies there are, the less likely that country is to
significantly reduce poverty levels.
And here is why. Aid to governments often has the net effect of suppressing
local economies and initiatives. In Somalia, for instance, Maren noted that
food production was suppressed by food aid, as farmers had no incentive to
grow their own food. Aid also makes governments less accountable to their
own people. When the work of government is taken over by aid agencies and
NGOs, and when government budgets are heavily subsidized - or entirely
funded -by foreign donors, governments become less accountable to their own
citizens, and more accountable to the donors. It also makes it easy for
governments to blame lack of donor funding for their failures to carry out
development programmes. This leads to a vicious blame game, where the victim
is always the ordinary citizen.
Donor aid also reduces countries' sovereignty. Aid is the most effective
(and cost-effective) way in which foreign donor countries control other
countries without being labelled as colonialists. It leads to bizarre
situations where a donor country -and even more alarmingly, an international
aid agency - sets government policy for a poor country, while presidents,
ministers and permanent secretaries look on helplessly. Donors have a keen
vested interest, therefore, in keeping the aid industry well-oiled. They
cannot do this without the help of their foot soldiers, the aid agencies -
who also rely on donor funding - and journalists who surrender all claims to
neutrality and objectivity by becoming mouthpieces of these same aid
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.
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