Monday, August 08, 2011

The Poverty Industry

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. Media-savvy aid workers fully exploit the eagerness with which journalists accept their version of a disaster or crisis. On their part, says Dutch journalist Linda Polman, journalists “accept uncritically the humanitarian agencies’ claims to neutrality, elevating the trustworthiness and expertise of aid workers above journalistic scepticism.” 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”. Ms Polman explained 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?

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.”

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 by-passed left, right and centre by the competing organisations that do show up.”

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. 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.

Aid agencies rarely report the root causes of a famine. 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 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.

The aid industry continues unabated. 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.

Adapted from Rasna Warah, Daily Nation

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