A report from Oxfam and Save The Children on the East African food crisis shows that thousands of lives could have been saved if aid organisations had acted earlier. This was not a sudden disaster and yet not enough was done to prevent it escalating:
Early signs of an oncoming food crisis were clear many months before the emergency reached its peak. Yet it was not until the situation had reached crisis point that the international system started to respond at scale.
Jan Egeland UN Emergency Relief Coordinator 2003–2006
At this point it is usually the media that get blamed for their attention deficit disorder. But a recent report by the International Broadcasting Trust, (which is funded by NGOs to promote coverage of this kind of issue) on the East African Famine is more ambiguous. It does highlight criticism of the media’s ‘slow response’ but generally applauds serious and reasonably widespread coverage of what was a slow-moving and complex story.
Even the Oxfam/Save The Children report acknowledges that that the media is not fundamentally to blame:
“Why was the international system so slow in responding to accurate early warnings? One reason is that raising large sums for humanitarian response currently depends on getting significant media and public attention – which did not happen until the crisis point was reached. But this misses the point. Waiting for a situation to reach crisis point before responding is the wrong way to address chronic vulnerability and recurrent drought in places like the Horn of Africa.”
So it is the politicians and the civil servants who failed to respond?
Again, the Oxfam/Save The Children report is not over-simplistic. It recognises the difficulties of taking action based on forecasts. It stresses the need for structural change:
There also has to be a fundamental shift to integrated, long-term, flexible programming that aims to reduce the risks faced by people whose livelihoods are extremely vulnerable.
And that is where we come to a contradiction within the NGOs themselves. Go and look at their messaging and it is overwhelmingly about crisis, not long-term structural change. It is largely about what Western publics or politicians should do, not about regional politics. In East Africa, for example, there is no shortage of food in Kenya and even Somalia has reasonable supplies. The reason people are starving is as much about the divisive politics of those states and the exclusion of certain people from support systems. Throw in a drought and other factors such as food prices and you get severe malnutrition.
That is a much harder story to tell, of course, and one that journalists struggle with, as well as the NGO marketing departments.
But as the IBT report shows, NGOs are in a cleft stick. They want to raise funds for immediate crises, and the DEC appeal for East Africa did raise a lot of money:
“simple, direct calls to action were most effective in raising funds to alleviate immediate suffering.”
More self-aware NGOs told the IBT that they were aware of their own complicity in short-termism:
Other NGO interviewees felt that it was difficult to criticise the media for superficial coverage when their own messages were often too simplistic and failed to address the limitations of humanitarian aid in the face of the violence and political chaos in Somalia.
Polis has been working with various NGOs on this set of issues around the contradiction of short-term marketing and long-term structural change. Some NGOs claim that their fund-raising has not diminished, despite the recession, so what’s the problem? I would suggest that the excellent Oxfam/Save report suggests there is a problem with the development model in general, not just the response to the latest East African crisis.
Thanks for one comment below and some comments via Twitter
Two interesting comments via Twitter from Justin Forsyth, the Director of Save The Children UK that commissioned the report:
Generally governments have a responsibility of early warning systems and disaster risk preparedness but the Intl committee also has measures in place to calculate the level of emerging crises. At times, governments’ action or reaction to emerging crises can be dependent on political or trading concerns or often misplaced belief they can deal with the crisis themselves.
The British public’s generosity is overwhelming and we welcome the fact the UK government is keeping its promise on aid. However more needs to be done to mobilize donor funds earlier to avert predictable crises. It’s also known that donors’ reaction is mostly dependant on visible signs of distress and catastrophe in the media, so it’s vital to illustrate the effect early action can have in preventing a crisis becoming a widespread catastrophe.
We know for example, that the nature of food assistance needs to change from being reactive to being far more proactive. This is why we’re investing large resources in work that will reduce the risk of disasters across East Africa. We are focusing on strengthening the ability of children and their communities to withstand future crises by introducing measures like drought-resistant crops, alternative farming techniques and rainwater harvesting.
Ask the ‘generous UK public, politicians and NGO’s’ a simple question: what would they prefer:
To spend £2 about 6 months earlier and probably save 2 lives.
Spend £2 when it’s too late, and use £1.75 to try desperately (and probably unsuccessfully) to save a life, and the other £0.25 to bury a body.
Life is cheap, but death ultimately costs a price that I consider far too high.
Unfortunately the problem is not something that you can just throw money at, even if you have it. The logistics of getting aid to where it is needed the most and to be administered by trustworthy people on the ground are horrendous. I would hate to have that kind of pressure on me to make the right life or death decisions quickly.