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

Sunday August 7 2011

Images of suffering such as these are hits with aid agencies. Picture: File

Images of suffering such as these are hits with aid agencies. Picture: File 

By Rasna Warah

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?

Business opportunities

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 subsidised — 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 agencies.

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.

Rasna Warah is a columnist with the Daily Nation.