Monday, August 15, 2011

The unholy alliance in Somalia: Media, donors and aid agencies


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.

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 “reporting”.

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 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.”

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?

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