Horn of Africa: ‘Predictable Crisis’, Unprepared Media, Curtailment of Information Flow
Author: Patrick Mugo Mugo
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 09/01/2011
We are at it again. The media and humanitarian agencies will tell you: Africa needs humanitarian help, precisely the Horn of Africa, to fend-off the ravages of drought and famine that is threatening the lives of 10-12 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and of them all, Somalia, the hardest hit. Yes we are in 2011, but if you monitor the media coverage and listen to intervening humanitarian agencies right across the Horn of Africa, it’s like listening to remix music.
This sort of ‘remix music’ has triggered Prof. Makau Mutua, of State University of New York to seek some answers: “Which one of us isn’t utterly ashamed — to their core — by media images of starving Somalis and Kenyans? How — in this day and age — can people die of hunger? How? Death from starvation is the most degrading failure of any country. That’s why we must demand accountability and say — never again!” Not my words, but Makau Mutua’s.
This story is not new, and if you think it’s new, then words like ‘never again’ or the many questions going around as to why a permanent solution hasn’t been found wouldn’t be with us. If anything, the recurring nature of drought or famine across the Horn of Africa has brought forth an assumption in the minds of many that thi disaster is “natural”. In view of Dr Anne Roberts, Associate Professor at University for Peace, we have been given a distorted perception of what is ailing the Horn of Africa, which should be no different than Britain, India, and China, where drought and famine once threatened the populations of those countries as well.
Missing in this case is what Keen (2008, pp. 162-163) calls “a rounded understanding of the complexity of conflict” (or disasters) that would go along way to informing intervention strategies that will not harm, but same time minimizing the possibilities of fuelling over-simplification definition of the enemy (or causes) and underlying issues. Others, like Aly Khan Satchu, a financial analyst, argue that the ill-conceived interventions and profiteering that have become the hallmark of many interventions have put-off many and creating fatigue among others. The result is lopsided media coverage of the crisis, curtailed information flow, and a limited understanding of the underlying factors that have made drought and famine the Horn of Africa a ‘common occurrence’.
Drought and Famine: The ‘Necessary Evils’
Over time, the pattern of reaction by media and humanitarian agencies to disasters of this kind has over time revealed a certain degree of convergence of interest. War, disasters and drought attract the attention of the media and humanitarian agencies than any other issue. De Waal (1997) argues that journalists and NGOs have a kind of mutual dependence that prioritizes last-minute assistance at the expense of political solutions.
In other words, there is a convergence of interests from the media on one side, and humanitarian agencies on the other, when it comes to the story of the “4Ds” and Africa. Simply put, if not Destruction, it’s about Diseases, if neither of the two, then it about Drought, our present predicament. If you have been keenly listening to the two institutions, media and humanitarian agencies now deeply entangled with the crisis at hand, they have arrived at a conclusion that if nothing is done within the shortest time possible, then the end result is Death. According to UNICEF, the interplay of the 4Ds, is claiming a child every 6 minutes in the hardest hit areas of Somalia, and the US government reports that 29,000 Somalia children have been claimed by the 4Ds in the last 90-days, and counting.
For the media, these 4Ds attract larger audiences, which often translates to increased ratings and market shares, which we all know tends to informs the decisions of the advertisers – the end result being financial gain. Those who say they are not profit motivated cannot argue otherwise when it comes to need for a larger share of the audience market. According to Dr. Victoria Fontan, Head of Peace and Conflict Studies and a journalist who has covered several disasters, media is a business that aims to sell and make profit and thus every story must have returns, yet disasters are difficult field for media to prepare for or understand. Rather than investigating and understanding each disaster, it is easier to use an existing narrative. Jonathan Benthall (1993) observes that disaster stories might be ready even before a journalist begins writing, based on templates designed for the target audience. While not condemning media coverage of disasters completely, Keen notes the tendency of television coverage in particular to provide ‘snapshots’ of the situation rather than a sense of the underlying processes due to its emphasis on updates rather than understanding (2008).
On the other side, when it comes to humanitarian agencies, war, disasters, and drought crises are their survival bloodline. It’s through them that they thrive and it’s during moments of crisis that humanitarian agencies are most relevant and visible. In view of Fontan, this is where the relations between humanitarian agencies and western nations gets blurred, as it is through them that western nations reinforce their superiority and moral force on other nations that look up to the relief agencies for help. Fontan further notes that relief agencies take advantage of these crises to showcase themselves and fundraise, as did the American Red Cross during the Katrina disaster in America and Catholic Relief Agencies did in Kenya during the 1990’s drought. Fast forward to 2011, in this time of cash-strapped global world, and it is understandable that humanitarian agencies are seeking ways of attarcting funds for present and future operations, as another disaster might take a long time to come along.
This is what one can call a ‘necessary evil’ that joins the media and humanitarian agencies for a common cause; all feeding from the same crisis with the victims acting as ‘movie stars’. There are those who argue this symbiotic relationship is vital when it comes to saving lives and no one can dispute that. The critics of this symbiotic relationship will tell you that this convergence of interest has complicated the search for a long lasting solution to some of the endemic crisis of our time.
Media and Stereotyping of the Somali People amidst a Simmering Crisis
The plight of the Somali people is more complicated than superficial media coverage allows. Two decades of protracted conflict, prevailing drought and famine, and neglect from the international community, have all played a part in this famine. The UN’s humanitarian agencies say famine has now spread to five regions within Somalia, an additional four regions as the international humanitarian responses gathers pace. According to the United Nations, the lives of 3.7 million Somali people hang in the balance, with those in al-Shabaab controlled regions being at higher risk. An estimated 750,000 others are now refuges with more than half a million on them in Kenya, and the rest either in Ethiopia or ‘internally displaced’ in Somaliland.
Given the ineffective response to this crisis, it’s worth listening to Keen (2008, p. 149) when he argues that among those affected, flow of information is sometimes seen as more important that the more commonly discussed flows of grain. At the moment, all debates about how to fend-off Somalia crisis are about the flow of humanitarian relief into Somalia, with little attention payed to the outward flow of information from those affected about how best to respond to the crisis. In view of Allen and Seaton, the arbitary and superficial qulaity of international media coverage of disasters raises the issue of what kind of voice affected populations can hope to have (1999).
Keen also mentions the recurring myth of the heroic journalist. Journalists who like turning themselves into the story by portraying parts of the world as irredeemably dangerous for anyone to dare go there, and for audiences to demand such a heroic journalist. Phillip Knightly (1989) calls this ‘I was there’ coverage, noting that it is driven by a desire to be seen to be at heart of the action than in understanding it causes. In Somalia, few journalists have ventured beyond Mogadishu, and in any case, the reporting is comparably superficial to fellow journalists who have not been at epicenter of Somalia’s ‘calamity’ and ‘despair’.
From the reporting we have, however, one does understand that the famine ravaging the Lower Shabelle region of southern region of Somalia, now under Al-Shabaab control, is at the epicenter of what has been called Somalia’s food basket. Prior to the present predicament, this region was a net food exporter to Europe and the Arabic world. But over the last three years, all the power of the population, now victims of famine, has been dessimated due to protracted conflict, including al-Shabaab tactics that have scared away farmers, professionals, and business people. Even the transitional Somalia government, charged with the protection of Lower Shabelle’s people, is endemically corrupt and functionally unable to extend its authority beyond the capital, Mogadishu.
From the news reports and hummanitarian agencies, one might belive that Somalis are dependent by nature, to the contrary, they are among the most enterprises and innovative people in the world, having survived a 20-yrs protracted conflict and years of neglect.
It’s worth noting that all the various parties to the Somalia conflict have a claim that is worth listening to, despite the contrasting and sometimes ‘barbaric’ acts that some groups have taken in expressing their grievances. It’s from making sense out of such and employing reasonable creativity that a permanent and all-inclusive solution to Somali’s present predicament will be arrived at, with any intervention preferably led by the African Union.
When it comes to the breakaway region of Somaliland, less is known about her ‘success story’, thanks to the curtailed flow of information. If anything, the biased media and humanitarian agencies have deliberately refused to talk about Somaliland and the fact that it’s hosting a substantial number of ‘internally displaced’ Somali famine victims. The region, which is a breakaway territory from war-ravaged Somalia, is a beacon of hope and stability for the rest of Somalia, due to its functioning centralised authority coupled with a homegrown democratic systems that has witnessed a change of government through the power of the ballot box rather than the power of the gun. Among major news agencies, only Al-Jazeera has given Somaliland the positive press she deserves.
Dr. Victoria Fontan quotes a senior government official of Somaliland claiming “that the day United Nation will set foot on Somaliland, that will be the day the prevailing peace and stability in Somaliland will be lost”. For many in Somaliland, the UN and her agencies are more of a problem that a solution. This begs the question – why has the ‘doctor’ come to symbolise source of pain and aguish to an ‘ex-patient’?
Why? Your guess is as good as mine. But if we borrow ideas from Keen when it comes to shaping debate, he says human beings have a strong tendency to make new information conform to existing views – by dismissing information as inaccurate, by explaining it away, or by otherwise accommodating it within an existing belief system (2008, p. 150). In other words, available information from the media and humanitarian agencies support the assumption that Somali people will not in the near distance future be under or respect centralised authority, nor be receptive to any international intervention, even that of humanitarian agencies. Anyone who has ever attempted to reason differently or contradict above assumptions, is always reminded that when United States intervened in Somalia in 1992-1994 through Operation Restore Hope, it had to pull out due to local hostility and ‘savage acts’ taken on US Marines. Rarely does this debate factor in the United States’ misunderstanding of local dynamics or the valid reasons that had compelled Somalis to resist then President Siad Barre’s autocratic centralised authority.
William Bowles of Global Research argues that the realities behind the ‘natural disaster’ in Somalia are different than the Western media portrayal of events and advises one to go back in time, prior to 1991 when IMF transformed Somalia into a ‘failed state’. To understand Bowels, one has also to listen to Michel Chossudovsky who reports that, according to documents obtained by the Times, nearly two-thirds of Somalia was allocated to the American oil giants Conoco, Amoco, Chevron and Phillips in the final years before Somalia’s pro-US President Siad Barre was overthrown and the nation plunged into chaos since 1991. In view of the two, far beneath the surface of the tragic drama of Somalia famine, four major U.S oil companies are quietly sitting on a prospective fortune in exclusive concessions to explore for oil.
Going back to the media interactions with the Somalia famine, Bowles says that between 5 July and 3 August, the BBC had ran 30 stories on the famine, “but without exception not a single story recounts the history of Somalia or the role the West in creating the conditions that have led to the unfolding disaster”. Bowles reminds all that prior to the 1970’s, Somalia’s pastoral economy accounted for 50% of the population’s livelihood, with its commercial output contributing 80% of export earning until 1983, and that despite recurrent droughts, Somalia remained virtually self-sufficient in food until 1970s.
The missing link when it comes to media reports and humanitarian agencies now controlling the discourses when it comes to Somalia according to Bowels is simple. “The IMF-World Bank intervention in the early 1980s had a disastrous effect. The economic reforms undermined the fragile exchange relationship between the ‘nomadic economy’ and the ‘sedentary economy’ – i.e. between pastoralists and small farmers characterized by money transactions as well as traditional barter. A very tight austerity program was imposed on the government largely to release the funds required to service Somalia’s debt with the Paris Club. In fact, a large share of the external debt was held by the Washington-based financial institutions.” Bowels’ conclusion is clear, that far from a ‘natural disaster’ events in Somalia can be traced directly to Western intervention, an intervention carried out in at least one hundred indebted economies the world over in the name of “structural adjustment.”
In view of Keen (2008, p. 155), even when policy makers fail to achieve their stated goals, it is quite possible that they are achieving other, unstated goals; thus, a disaster does not necessarily imply policy failure (that is, it might be a policy success, depending on the interests of various parties). Dr. Fontan argues that both the media and humanitarian agencies have contributed to the perception that African crises can only be solved or mitigated through international intervention, due to the entrenched belief of cultural superiority. She says, should international interventions fail, the crisis will fester on, thereby reinforcing the perception that Africa must always look to outside intervention at time of a crisis or disasters.
According to Keen (2008, p. 164) the story of the west as a savior has often been highlighted to the exclusion of other crucial processes, and this has certainly been the case in the current crisis. Of all the media stations that are now engaged with the Somalia famine debate, Western, Arabic or African, none has gone back in history in an effort to understand the cause of this tragedy. If anything, their stories are about how Washington-based financial institutions have stepped forward to help Somali’s at their hour of need, and laying blame on Al-Shabaab and the corrupt transitional Somalia government.
Media and Humanitarian Agencies and Ethiopia’s Drought and Famine
Powerful nations have turned a blind eye to the atrocities that continue to be committed by the Ethiopian government against its people, which include denials of civil and political rights. When it comes to Ethiopia, economic management is weak and major political groups are systematically excluded from political processes (Worcester, 2008). In view of Keen (2008, p.149) when people are unable to articualte their grivances, they are vulnerable to exploitation withiout redress. While Advocating for a free press, Keen argues that the silencing effect of violence is often compounded by the international system (including the international humanitarian systems), which can add a further layer of muffling and censorship to the voices of the victims of disasters.
Other tendencies of the Addis Ababa government include discrimination when it comes to distribution of relief aid. In a joint undercover investigation BBC Newsnight and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism uncovered that the Ethiopian government was using billions of dollars of development aid as a tool for political oppression. In the story, the team came across whole communities in the southern region of Ethiopia starving after being allegedly being denied food, seed and fertilizer for failing to support Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. In question here is the long-term development aid, not the emergency aid provided in response to the current drought. BBC did hit at Britain, the third largest donor to Ethiopia, for turning a blind eye to the atrocities by Addis Ababa government. Despite the broadcasting of the story, however, no single western government commented on the matter, and the BBC service did not call the British government to account for its continued support of the Ethiopia regime, let alone the humanitarian agencies that continue to work closely with the Ethiopian government irrespective of its human rights record.
In his book Anatomy of Disaster Relief, Randolph Kent notes that accepting substantial resources from government donors may compromise an NGO’s independence. Moreover, Robinson (1991) suggests that, with the rise in government funding of British NGOs in the 1980’s, NGOs became more muted in their criticism of the British government’s aid arm, not forgetting that Britain’s Charity laws impose restrictions on “political activity” by NGOs.
Let’s cross the boarder to Somalia. WFP says it withdrew from al-Shabab-controlled areas in 2010 because of attacks its staff and the imposition of unacceptable operating conditions, including the imposition of informal taxes. The same WFP is the only organization with muscle to tame the famine in Somalia, if we are all to agree that there is no other option. But BBC reports will tell you that because WFP is heavily dependent on US funding – and tied up to beltway politics then WFP ability to maneuver is highly constrained. BBC says WFP’s great weakness is its leadership operating tactics of megaphone diplomacy that cannot win anyone any friends anywhere, let alone in Somalia.
In this case, one can accuse the media of being involved in positive or good propaganda. Good propaganda tends to involve slogans that nobody is going to oppose and that will not encourage people to think (Chomsky, 2002). In other words, media emphasizs the negative aspect of a regime or a grouping with whom they have shared interests when it is absolutely necessary so as not to be accused of bias, but at same time not giving such reporting the prominence or follow-up it deserves so as not to antagonize the regime or groups being focused on.
In reality, media sources are not homogenous or autonomous as is sometimes suggested by the use of the term. Thus the media cannot themselves make decisions and, while they are persistently manipulated, there is no big, underlying meta-conspiracy. The media must be de-mythologized if we are to understand it. In reality, media does not exist outside the political and social world they describe, although the claim of objectivity is often repeated (Allen & Seaton, 1999).
In my previous article on this same issue (Mugo, August, 2011), I argued that the mere mention of Ethiopia being ravaged by drought or famine has come to activate the guilty conscious that media implanted in us way back in 1984, and does send a chilling message into our analytical mind, with statements like ‘not again’ being evoked. Media has over the last three decades interacted with Ethiopia’s food insecurity with a lot of caution, if not refrain, when it comes to holding governments and relief agencies into account since the worst food crisis in African history, the great famine of the 1988-1992, which killed one third of Ethiopia’s population and also afflicted suffering in Somalia, Sudan and Tanzania (Shikwati, 2005).
Keen (2008) argues that slogans like ‘Never again’ are so seductive and apparently unobjectionable that wider society tends not to argue with them, yet it would be reasonable for people to ask about the similar cases that have happened since then. Keen says that when we proclaim ‘never again’, the blindness and complacency that come along with it is mixed with our fine sentiments and good intentions. In other words, our abilities to depend on our analytical mind is not only curtailed, but also redirected at focusing at the present crisis rather than the underlying factors.
The Question of Marginalisation and Dispossession in Kenya
In Kenya today there close to 3 million people in need of relief food, while the government has categorically stated that it does not need external help to fend-off the drought ravaging large parts of the country. It’s with the same mouth that the Kenyan government has admitted some challenges when it comes to delivering the food it has in the stores to where it’s needed most. Don’t mind that Kenya has one of the best organized militaries in the region and, if it had been mobilized in time, Kenya would not be where she is today. Unfortunately, Kenya’s military, like other African militaries, was designed for external military aggression, not for fending off security threats from drought and other disasters, yet drought has now become a common visitor in Kenya, as the military lays in wait for the imaginary external enemy.
One of the most interesting things that the present drought crisis has brought to the surface in Kenya is public awakening against international intervention, and a drive for home grown intervention. Through this process, dubbed ‘Kenyans for Kenya’ the local media was very critical at raising the public emotions first, then whipping the same public towards raising funds so as meet the transport cost for food to the areas of needs from government warehouse. Yes, it was a noble idea, but it does not erase the fact that, the Kenyan government had failed in its cardinal duty, which the same media was stopping short of challenging the government about.
Still, there are those Kenyans who have found it wise to ask questions that would not be music in the ears of those in Power. Prof Makau Mutua queries: “why are Kenyans starving at this point in time? Why don’t we [Kenyans] not, for example, capture rain water and use it for irrigation? It rains in northern Kenya — sometimes in terrible floods. Instead, Makau observes, all the waters washes out to the ocean through rivers – it washes out to the Indian Ocean.” Prof Makau apportions to the blame to what he calls “failure to imagine” as such gallons of water could have been used for irrigation.
The Kenyan story of drought does not end there, the implications are already clear. By early August, according to Kenya’s Livestock Development permanent secretary Kenneth Lusaka, prevailing drought had decimated livestock worth more than Ksh 64.2bln ( $710 million). Let’s flip the argument. The Kenya government says it needs Ksh 30 billion ($ 330 million) to fend-off the raging drought. In short, Kenya has already incurred loses way beyond than she investing in fending off drought. This begs the question – why should victims of drought in Kenya be called poor people and in need of help. If one is to add the figures, you would see that, from the onset Kenya economy is the minus of $1 billion, loses that could have been prevented. If the Kenyan media and local humanitarian agencies, in view of David Keen paid attention at the flow of information about the whole crisis more so from the victims themselves, they would have realized that the flow of the ‘grains’ or relief food is not as important as the flowing information (2008).
Conclusion: Taming the ‘Necessary Evils’
In view of Foucault (1981) and Clay and Schaffer (1984), humanitarian aid and flows of information, when it comes to local or international NGOs are often seen as transmitting needs and information ‘upward’ from needy people and transmitting resources ‘downwards’ through what Keen says are conceptualised as separate channels. But in reality, says Keen, the channels have no firm barrier between them; in particular, the flow of resources ‘downwards’ tends to disrupt the flow of information ‘upwards’. What would work better in this sort of circumstances is bringing intreventions and media coverage inline with the evolving needs of the victims.
In reality, this has not been the case and Keen reminds us that the success of an aid organisation (and individuals within it) may depend on presenting an image of success, perhaps bringing the portrayal of a crisis into line with the favoured response or massaging the way that the response is portrayed (Keen, 2008, pp. 156-157). In the coming days, if the media does not to learn that it’s necessarily to investigate; who has the ability to shape the information environment of the victims so as influence what courses of action people perceive as rational. Who is able to shape the interpretations that are put on the past? Who has the ability to manipulate the emotions of others? (Keen, 2008).
So, we are at it again and everything is sounding like remix music. Given the familiarity of the story, with the 4Ds and the Horn of Africa, Keen’s (2008) views might after all be vindicated. Still there is a serious question left unanswered: we all know that drought or famine have been tamed elsewhere, and that all the Arabic nations, for example, are found within a desert, yet victims of hunger are alien to such societies; therefore, the media and humanitarian agencies owe us one answer: how can this keep happening to the Horn of Africa?
Bio: Patrick Mugo Mugo is a Multimedia Senior Researcher from Kenya and a master’s student in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies at UN-mandated University for Peace, Costa Rica. email@example.com