Famine coverage, from Malawi to East Africa

Posted 01 Sep 2011 — by davidc_7IF
Category Context and Analysis

In recent months I’ve written a series of posts on famine coverage in ‘Africa’. If you missed these posts at my personal blog, here are some excerpts and links:

  • Stereotypes that Move: in a forthcoming essay on the iconography of famine (which prompted my earlier post on famine photographs and the need for careful critique, and is attached to this post on stereotypes) I have examined the portraits of atrocity that represented the 2002 Malawi famine and which later circulated in charity appeals and the 2005 Live 8 campaign, especially the photographs of a young boy called Luke Piri taken by The Daily Mirror‘s staff photographer Mike Moore. The easy conclusion of this analysis is that famine iconography should be roundly condemned as simplistic, reductionist, colonial and even racist. But before we are satisfied with this comprehensive rebuke we have to ask three difficult questions. First, would we be better off without these photographs altogether? Second, if we want to dispense with the negative, what is the alternative that should take its place if, as I’ve argued earlier, we don’t want to fall into the trap of prompting an equally simplistic ‘positive’ image? And third, what happens if the iconography of famine is politically necessary in certain contexts?
  • The Photography of Suffering as ‘Pornography’? What does it mean to use this term so frequently in relation to so many different situations? What are the conditions supposedly signified by ‘pornography’? Might this singular term obscure more than it reveals?
  • The Starving Child as a Symbolic Marker: Contemporary news photographs are chosen less for their descriptive function and more for their capacity to provide symbolic markers to familiar interpretations and conventional narratives, as one image of a malnourished child shows.
  • Famine Iconography as a Sign of Failure: Prompted by the East African crisis, this post argues we can easily lament the limitations of famine iconography, especially the way it homogenises, anthropomorphises, infantilises and impoverishes. But above all else we have to understand it is a visual sign of failure. The recourse to the stereotypes of famine is driven by the complex political circumstances photography has historically been unable to capture. This means that when we see the images of distressed people, feeding clinics and starving babies, we are seeing the end result of a collective inability to picture causes and context. This argument prompted a considerable debate, which I discussed here and here.

In contrast to the reiteration of stereotypes – even though they can be politically necessary in certain contexts – its important to consider what the new visuals of ‘Africa’ might be, something I broached in a post of that name last June.

“Haiti and the truth about NGOs” – radio documentary

Posted 15 Jan 2011 — by davidc_7IF
Category Context and Analysis

UK aid being unloaded and distributed in Haiti from the Royal Fleet Auxillary ship Largs Bay. Photo: DFID.

On 11 January BBC Radio 4 ran a documentary entitled “Haiti and the truth about NGO’s”. The BBC’s description of the programme is pasted here:

A year after the earthquake, Edward Stourton returns to Haiti to look at problems in the aid industry. How far has the way we help gone bad?

Aid workers have already baptised the earthquake in Haiti a “historical disaster”. But despite more than an estimated 10,000 relief agencies flooding the country in the wake of the emergency, the rescue operation has become notorious for the slowness with which aid reached the victims.

More than one million people are marking the anniversary of the quake still living in refugee camps. How can that be when Haiti has attracted billions of dollars in donations and aid pledges?

Critics say foreign aid groups were out of control – that they failed to coordinate and were therefore ineffective; that they swamped some areas leaving others untouched. One NGO evaluation described a ‘wild west’ situation.

In Haiti, Edward talks to UN officials responsible for coordinating the humanitarian response, to local aid watchdogs about how aid is failing to meet needs, and to Haitian grassroots NGOs about a different way to deliver help where and how it is needed.

Is what has happened in Haiti symptomatic of a wider crisis of humanitarianism?

Insiders say many aid agencies have been compromised by business imperatives and increasing political ties. Inside the sector there is growing concern about previously taboo issues of aid corruption and abuse, and ways to improve weak accountability and deliver relief that local people really want.

An insight into the aid industry as it faces challenging times.

On AlertNet, John Mitchell wrote:

Edward Stourton’s BBC Radio 4 documentary, ‘Haiti and the Truth about NGOs’ aired yesterday, went for the jugular. In the spirit of several polemic criticisms of aid agencies from Willam Shawcross’s Quality of Mercy, Graham Hancock’s Lords of Poverty through to the Linda Polman’s War Games, the documentary cited specific examples of incompetency, ineffectiveness, moral corruptness and waste. It seemed to me that Stourton was persuading the listener the humanitarian system, in Haiti and by implication elsewhere, is a system that has lost its moral compass and is tired if not completely broken.

All of us who have worked in relief situations will recognise many of the anecdotal stories upon which Stourton’s narrative is based and it is particularly worrying that some of the weaknesses that emerged have been identified time and time again in evaluation reports. But is the humanitarian system really that corrupt and dysfunctional?

I think not.

You can listen to a recording of the radio documentary here: