Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Every year since the mid-1980s, when the late Mohammed Amin filmed the famine in Ethiopia, the UN and humanitarian aid agencies have announced a ‘historic disaster’ in some part of the world. In 2004, it was the Indian Ocean tsunami that wreaked havoc in parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India. In more recent years, it has been the conflict in Darfur in Sudan that displaced millions of people, the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Pakistan – and now the famine in Somalia.
There is a familiar script that accompanies each of these humanitarian crises. Each disaster is described as ‘historic’. Fundraising appeals are supported by heart-wrenching images of displaced or starving women and children. The international community, led by the UN, descends on the disaster area, cameramen in tow, to witness the humanitarian catastrophe first-hand. This is often followed by fundraising concerts and live appearances by celebrities at camps for displaced people.
The problem is that the images and stories that we see or read in the international media are not as impartial as we would like to believe. More often than not, they are told by aid agency staff on the ground. Journalists rely almost exclusively on an aid agency version of the disaster. The narrative becomes 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. For their part, says Polman, journalists ‘accept uncritically the humanitarian agencies’ claims to neutrality, elevating the trustworthiness and expertise of aid workers above journalistic scepticism.’ 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 sometimes inflated or based on erroneous data.
Humanitarian crisis or fundraising opportunity?
Despite the usual acceptance of aid agencies’ figures, an increasing number of sceptics are beginning to wonder whether the famine declared in Somalia is as big as they would have us believe, or whether UN agencies and international humanitarian aid organisations have prioritised fundraising over accuracy.
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 some parts of Somalia that have been declared as suffering from famine, such as the fertile lower Shabelle region, may actually be food secure, and that the people suffering there may not be locals but those who migrated to the region from drought-prone parts of the country. He says 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 UN uses a scale developed by the Food and Agricultural Organisation-managed Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit to determine levels of food insecurity. This ranges from ‘generally food secure’ to ‘famine/humanitarian catastrophe’.
The unit’s estimates for the number of Somali people ‘in crisis’ in the period August–September 2011 indicate that less than half a million people – not the four million cited by the press – were experiencing famine. About 3.5 million people were experiencing some form of food insecurity but they were not dying of starvation as widely reported. And some of the food insecurity was related to inflation and rising food prices, not necessarily to drought.
Since 1995, the European Commission (EC) has been providing millions of euros for rural development and food security projects in Somalia. Yet every year Somalia continues to receive food aid.
In fact, food aid has become a permanent state of affairs in the country since the civil war in 1991. ‘Clearly there is a mismatch between the resources made available by the EC to UN agencies and the dismal picture emerging from what are generally considered the most agriculturally productive regions of Somalia,’ says Jama. ‘How is it possible that the EC investment in agriculture could not avert a famine in those regions?’
Does food aid help?
George-Marc André, the European Union representative to Somalia, cautiously admits that the EC is concerned that its efforts in Somalia are being hampered by UN agencies flooding the capital Mogadishu with food aid. In an environment where free food is readily available, he explains, farmers do not get value for their produce. Delivering food aid during the harvest season further distorts the food market. André says that UN agencies such as the World Food Programme could actually have ‘slowed down’ Somalia’s recovery by focusing exclusively on food aid, instead of supporting local farmers and markets.
Given that most of the food aid comes from the US and other countries outside Somalia, there is also concern that declarations of famine do more to help farmers elsewhere rather than supporting local producers. The food aid industry allows countries such as the US to offload food surpluses to poor countries. This distorts local markets and disrupts local food production. In other words, food aid destroys local economies, especially when it is provided over long periods of time, as in Somalia.
What is not mentioned in the appeals for funding is that a lot of the funds are used to pay off officials and militia to allow aid convoys to pass. In Somalia, the ‘entrance fee’ charged by warlords has in the past amounted to as much as 80 per cent of the value of the aid.
Also suppressed are reports about the regular diversion or theft of food aid, which is rampant in Somalia. In March 2010, for instance, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia reported that as much as half of food aid was stolen or diverted by corrupt contractors, local businessmen, local NGOs and even by UN employees. That report led the US to withdraw funding from the World Food Programme, although it now says it is carefully monitoring food aid and that very little is being diverted. However, in August this year, the Associated Press reported that the sale of food aid in Mogadishu’s markets is still quite common and often occurs with the full knowledge of UN personnel on the ground.
Like Somalia, Haiti offers a perfect example of how aid can destroy a country. This island in the Caribbean has received so much foreign aid over the years that it has been described as ‘a poster child for the inadequacies of foreign aid’ because of its extremely poor development record and widespread poverty. Every few years, a new disaster strikes Haiti and the world rallies around through massive fundraising campaigns. But Haiti, like its distant cousin Somalia, continues to remain poor, under-developed and the site of much misery – ideal ingredients for yet another fundraising campaign.
Rasna Warah, a columnist with Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper, is the author of the recently published book Red Soil and Roasted Maize: Selected essays and articles on contemporary Kenya
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee