“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:


Ethiopia and the recurring famine: same story, same pictures?

Posted 23 May 2010 — by davidc_7IF
Category Conventional imagery

The 1984 famine in Ethiopia that led to the Live Aid phenomenon was a watershed for contemporary understandings of food crises, especially in the UK. Going back through my files the periodic coverage of food crises in Ethiopia that references the 1984 pictures (directly or indirectly) is prominent.

Mohamed Amin and Michael Buerk, Korem, Ethiopia, 1984

Consider some of the more recent examples:

  • In July 2008 Oxfam warned that spiralling food prices were helping produce a food crisis, and worked with photojournalist Nick Danziger to provide visual evidence. Danziger’s photos appeared in The Guardian, were used by the Daily Mirror for its story on “A Catastrophe in the Making” (25 July 2008, p.4, which connected the story back to the 1984 famine), and were broadcast in a short ITV news report that interviewed the photographer. Oxfam used them to produce a short video setting the crisis in context, but Jim Johnson offered a careful critique of the Danziger pictures.
  • In October 2009 the BBC broadcast reports about a new food crisis in Ethiopia. Mike Wooldridge’s video report made a direct reference back to the 1984 famine, including images from that crisis. In addition, there were links on the right of the news page to two 1984 videos — including the famous Michael Buerk/Mohammed Amin TV report from October 1984 which got the Live Aid/Band Aid ball rolling.

This repetition of story and imagery must lead us to ask two questions. First, if food crises are endemic, doesn’t that mean we are dealing with the product of an economic and political system rather than failure attributable to natural circumstances? Second, how could photographic visualizations move away from the legacy of 1984 and begin to portray the endemic and systematic nature of food crises, while still recording the human devastation of these crises?

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