How to Tell People about the Famine in Somalia
Give $10, feed a child. This is a common campaign tagline among aid groups and charities especially those that work amidst the food crisis in East Africa. But does this one-liner oversimplify the complex issues in crisis areas particularly Somalia? In an article on The Guardian, the head of an international medical charity accused aid groups of misleading the public on the real situation in Somalia.
"There is a con, there is an unrealistic expectation being peddled that you give your £50 and suddenly those people are going to have food to eat. Well, no. We need that £50, yes; we will spend it with integrity. But people need to understand the reality of the challenges in delivering that aid. We don't have the right to hide it from people; we have a responsibility to engage the public with the truth," Dr Unni Karunakara, president of Médecins Sans Frontières, said.
Karunaka’s statements sparked debate on Twitter and even had New York University professor Bill Easterly and Oxfam spokesperson Ian Bray trading blows for a while.
@bill_easterly To Bray @Oxfam: "no debate allowed" on Somalia is worse than "aid agencies arguing w/ each other."
@IanOxfam Aid agencies trading insults will not improve access in Somalia. Misrepresenting my quote will not either. Grow up
@bill_easterly Thx for help growing up. Now can you address the criticism?
@IanOxfam Criticism dealt with in quote, you may not agree with it but it was dealt with so 2nd time please do not distort what I said
@bill_easterly But @IanOxfam you don't answer how you cope with lack of access to people inside Somalia
@IanOxfam thks Bill Yes access big challenge Joint work with local partners Reached 600k last week Gedo M+L Juba L Shebelle Banadir
A commenter also criticized The Guardian for publishing the story, saying it just gives an excuse for people not to donate and may even result in reduction of donations. Twitter war aside, the discussion highlighted issues on ethics of fundraising and public education on the intricacies of humanitarian aid.
With so much available media and a shorter attention span of people nowadays, awareness and fundraising campaigns have to be short and direct. They must also appeal to the emotions of people. Most of us donate because we want to feel helpful; we want to feel like we’re doing something that makes a difference in such a horrible catastrophe. To affirm this, fundraising ads are crafted in such a way as to say that the $10 you gave was translated to actual food for the famine victims.
This method however, also runs the risk of delivering simplistic messages that don’t cover the complexities on the ground. How then can aid groups make donors and the public understand, for instance, the difficulty of access to Somalia, Al-Shabaab blocking aid delivery, incidents of corruption and the myriad of other problems that plague humanitarian relief? But one could also say: does it even matter? Isn’t the important thing to raise money in whatever way possible? If a simplistic message gets people to give $10 for the famine in Somalia, then it’s good enough and has served its purpose.
The importance of better public education on humanitarian aid, I think, is its potential to reduce donor fatigue. Going back to the earlier point of people giving because they want to feel helpful, people get tired of giving not because they don’t want to help anymore. They get tired of giving because they don’t see the impact of what they give. When an aid group asks people to give $10 for the famine in Somalia and then the situation still doesn’t seem to improve, they begin to wonder if it even makes sense to donate in the first place. It leads to the callous but candid mindset of “What else is new? People are always starving in Africa anyway.”
But if there is better public engagement and discussion on the realities of the crisis, people would have a deeper understanding of the situation on the ground and why the problem calls for more than just delivering food packs. Campaigns could also go beyond the usual poverty porn and the shock value of photos of emaciated children. On the longer term, this may even be better for aid and development. When people understand the intricacies of the famine and the factors that contribute to it, it may be easier to mobilize support for long term solutions.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-1205/Kate Holt. Somalia, 2011. On 27 July, people collect water during a distribution in a camp for people displaced by the drought, in Mogadishu, the capital.