Saturday, October 04, 2008

Ethiopian Famine Averted - “That might be what they say, but is it true?”

'Ethiopian Famine Averted' is another gem of a blog post by freelance foreign correspondent Rob Crilly. I am copying it here for future reference for reasons listed below.
From The Frontline - Ethiopian Famine Averted
By Rob Crilly, 04 October 2008

Among many of the titbits of useful advice I picked up as I worked my way through Britain’s regional newspapers was one that has caused me no end of trouble. “Rob,” one of the old hands at The Herald (I should point out this is a Scottish national paper - not a British regional paper) said, “The stories that you don’t write are just as important as the stories you do write.”

The job of a journalist, he went on to explain, is to sift through the assorted rubbish that arrives each day and work out what is true, what is important and what is news. Everything else could be passed over with a dismissive, “The Scotsman might do this tomorrow but frankly it’s bullshit,” to the news editor.

Sound advice. But it has been causing me problems as a freelancer sitting several thousand miles away from the foreign desk. The issue is that a quiet word in the ear of my foreign editor that such and such a story is rubbish, doesn’t stop some hotshot writer from London bigfooting me or another freelancer offering said story to the desk. Often the first I’ll know about it is reading my own paper online.

I raise this now because I deliberately haven’t written about the “impending famine” in Ethiopia. Charities have been taking journalists on junkets to view stick-thin children and talking up the crisis in terms of global warming and natural disasters. This was not enough for me. If I was going to write about an Ethiopian hunger I wanted to discuss the country’s expensive wars in Somalia, Ogaden and Eritrea, its abuse of human rights in Ogaden and its denial of drought. That was the way the to do the story properly.

Meanwhile a steady stream of wannabe Michael Buerkes was filing stories such as this, in my own paper:
Surprisingly, when The Times visited the region, the fields were alive with maize and most afternoons a warm rain fell. “Here the problem is acute,” said Jean de Cambry, the emergency co-ordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières in southern Ethiopia. “It is very surprising and very strange, because everything is so green. But food stocks at household level are empty or close to empty.”
Or this imaginative way of producing a famine story in the LA Times:
They call it the green hunger. Four-foot cornstalks sprout from rain-soaked earth, and wind billows fields of teff, the staple Ethiopian grain. Goats and cattle are getting fat on lush grasses – but the children are still dying.
Each time these stories appeared I would call colleagues to ask whether it was time to go to Ethiopia. Each time they said not yet - including one TV reporter who had just filed a harrowing account of children starving, but had to admit it wasn’t really as bad as all that. A day’s filming was canned because the area was too green.

So it wasn’t a massive surprise when I received the following press release from the Irish aid agency Goal:
Ann Bourke, one of the most experienced of GOAL’s field personnel, reported with optimistic news from Ethiopia today. Ann stated that the interventions of aid agencies such as GOAL, and fact that it has started to rain have had very beneficial effects on the famine in Ethiopia. Although it is too early to be sure, indications are that a major famine may have been adverted.
This is clearly great news for the people of Ethiopia. And it is still early days. And maybe it was the reporting and PR work by charities that averted a crisis. But at a time when fundraisers complain about compassion fatigue could it be another example of journalists putting their critical faculties to one side in favour of reporting a worst-case scenario peddled by NGOs with an interest in collecting cash? Did we jump when they cried wolf? I wasn’t the only Nairobi-based reporter who decided not to go to Ethiopia, only to see a colleague based on another continent file an “Ethiopia Starves” piece.

It all reminds me of another piece of advice I picked up at The Herald, where the editor was fond of shooting down stories in conference with a terse:"That might be what they say, but is it true?"
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Note the following comment from Simon [Visitor] at Rob Crilly's post:
Of course it was true, it was only averted because United States has to arm twist every western nation to pump a lot of money to prop the murderous regime they are backing. You have only to see how much Australia, Austria, Canada, EU, Uk, US etc have to donate just in this year. What amazes me is why is no one reporting on where the funding, so far given to Ethiopia (more than $25Billion) since the current government came into power is ending.Not to mention the $12 Billion ear marked to be given for the year 2008-2011 How come more arid places like Sudan and Eritrea are coping much better with out hardly any Aid ?

According to HRH Ethiopia gets at least $2billion with no accountability
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Postscript from author of Ethiopia Watch

The above commentary is copied here because one of the reasons I have a series of blogs on Africa is to track and chronicle various news reports on alleged genocide and famine in Africa in order for me to study and learn about how and why such things occur and how they are reported by mainstream media.

Check out the following copy of my post at Niger Watch (sister site of this blog, Ethiopia Watch) dated April 06, 2006:
Niger to block foreign press reporting food crisis - What's up with Mr Tandja?

Today, Reuters says Niger's government denied it had stripped the journalists of their accreditation, saying it had summoned them to explain that their coverage was one-sided and did not present the country's efforts to solve its problems:

"We did not expel the BBC. We summoned the team to say their report had caused shock and Niger is more than just recurring food shortages," said Fogue Aboubacar, secretary-general at the Culture, Arts and Communication Ministry.

"Niger is also about the authorities attempts to solve these problems and one must stop focusing on the negative side," he added. "That is what happened in 2005 and we are not going to tolerate it, especially as harvests have been good."

"Be it the BBC, CNN or any other media, we will not hand out more accreditation on the food situation," he said.
And this copy of a post at Niger Watch dated August 06, 2005:
Now we know part of the answer to: Why starving in Niger?

Huge thanks to Tim Worstall for pointing out the following post by Aunty Marianne in Brussels, Belgium who, in her blog Tomato And Basil Sandwiches describes her occupation in 'government' as 'spending your money on humanitarian aid'.

Here is the post, copied in full, just incase Aunty Marianne decides for one reason or another to delete it, as it helps answer my question Why starving in Niger?

August 06, 2005 - OK, I'm fed up and others aren't

I am fed up to the back teeth with this whingeing about donors not reacting on the Niger famine. The EU have been actively looking for aid partners to spend 4.6 million euros since April. The reason why people are starving in Niger now, in August, is because some of those who asked for it to be made available for their feeding projects didn't get their proposals for actual projects in before early July. I also know for a fact that one of the organisations has a massive "emergency reserve" lying in wait for the famine almost certainly about to happen in a certain southern African country, a reserve that could have easily been tapped and replenished. They did not need to wait for donor funds to react.

We've had to release another 1.7m euros now that IMHO we wouldn't have had to, had they taken the first lot in time, because now, for example, therapeutic milk has to be airfreighted in instead of sea/road-shipped, and that's more expensive than the milk itself.

I am disgusted with the blamestorming around this famine, especially when the primary culprits are the ones pointing the finger, I'm disgusted at the waste of time and therefore money and all the additional suffering that it has caused to should-be-beneficiaries, and I wish the reputable media would check their facts better before blindly repeating press releases.

As always, this is just my personal view of things, and in no way necessarily represents the position of my employers.
posted by Aunty Marianne @ 10:59 AM

[My first reaction to Aunty Marianne's post was disgust but not surprise because of what happened in Darfur last year when the UN and its World Food Programme admitted they acted too slowly and had to resort to costly air drops despite the long predicted rainy season. There is something terribly wrong with emergency aid responses and the way they are funded and reported.

A week or so ago I saw a top British politician (Hilary Benn I think) interviewed on UK television news. It may have been a Channel 4 News interview by Jon Snow who asked point blank why the long predicted food crisis in Niger was not responded to. The politician concluded by saying the "system" was not perfect and needed overhauling.

I say, once again, there is no accountability. Whoever is responsible for this scandal, not to mention the outrageous waste of precious public funds, is getting away with murder. Sorry for putting it so strongly but it is sickening to know the money for emergency food aid is there but the people entrusted by the public don't respond in time and then blame donors for not paying up. Of course, it then creates more publicity and an outcry which generates more funds before the food aid has even been delivered. Meanwhile, people starve to death and suffer unimagineable pain, grief and misery and the excuse all because the "system" needs overhauling. If heads rolled over this, the nameless "system" might get overhauled sooner.]
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Lastly, this copy of a post at Niger Watch dated September 01, 2005:
Can aid do more harm than good? Who is spinning lies?

As noted here in previous posts, Niger's President Mamadou Tandja recently said his country was experiencing food shortages but not a famine. He accused aid agencies of exaggerating the food crisis for their own gain, raising serious issues about the way aid emergencies are handled.

American blogger Ethan Zuckerman points out that Henri Astier, a BBC correspondent, after talking to aid workers and experts on African aid, concluded, on balance, that President Tanja was probably right and quoted Professor William Easterly of NYU, as saying: "There were localised food shortages this year - but they were not particularly acute, and are now easing. What Niger is experiencing is not a sudden catastrophe, but chronic malnutrition that makes people vulnerable to rises in food prices."

Note, the report also quotes Professor Easterly as saying "I think NGOs and rich country media do have an incentive to paint too simplistic and bleak a picture, as was the case in Niger's food crisis."

So, going by the above [which does not appear to touch on issues of African politics, land ownership rights, corruption, looting, violence and arms dealing] they seem to be saying:

food aid can distort 'functioning' markets, causing increased food insecurity in the long term;

regional solutions are needed to solve shortages that are not regional famine - so long as participating governments allow that trade to happen and international donors are able to help subsidise food to poorer areas when neccesary.

Note, Ethan praises the BBC saying it provides a terrific space where people from outside Africa can discover, if they listen, that their proposed solutions are often - strongly and validly - opposed by the people they're trying to help.

Unless I have missed something, there still seems to be no proper explanation of who was behind the surge in alarming media reports falsely accusing the world of turning its back on the starving people of Niger.

Who is doing the spin? And why are they getting away with such misleading news? My guess is we are left to believe aid agencies are the culprits. Propaganda is everywhere in the media. It's hard to believe much of what is published. There is so little investigative reporting, the media treats us like simpletons, feeding us by the minute with nuggets of junk.
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Type the word FAMINE into the search box in top left corner of Niger Watch (or click here) and scroll through reports on famine in Niger.

PS Note to Rob Crilly: Sorry I've cribbed yet another of your blog posts but I fear that any links to great posts may, within a few years, end up leading to a blank 'not found' page.



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