Foreign Policy Blogs

Uncomfortable Questions from Somalia

Pro Nikon Photographer at Morro Rock 04 Dec 2007

This post is not really about global health.  However, there’s little in the news to go on (which sort of contributes to my later points) as the famine in Somalia and drought in East Africa are everywhere in the media recently, as are photos of starving children.  Apart from being a very real humanitarian crisis, the way in which the famine has been represented in the media has raised issues about romanticized starvation or famine photography (or pornography, as some have called it), the representation of Somali agency, and the pitfalls of humanitarianism.

The Irish NGO association Dóchas has pulled together a list of articles and posts on starvation photography and the ethics of photojournalism from a wide range of view points.  It’s well worth a look.  It is not easy to balance desiring to spur action (and/or, more cynically, sell papers) with avoiding exploitation.  Photojournalism, in many ways, is impossible.  It cannot be done effectively without taking away someone’s dignity, as this post from a photojournalist at Reuters points out.

Dóchas also writes about (and translates) a recent Dutch article that outlines 14 reasons against and one reason for donating to relief efforts for the famine.  The article has kicked up a fair amount of controversy and, as Dóchas points out, makes a few key journalistic mistakes that worsened the negative response.  But in my opinion, it boils down the central problem and absolute necessity of humanitarian aid: it’s nowhere near the best solution.  But  it’s also the one we have.  And a Band-Aid solution that saves lives is better than nothing.

In the face of economic uncertainty and a vastly divided political scene that has threatened the future of US government foreign assistance programs (as I wrote recently), President Obama has authorized $105 million from an emergency fund to address the crisis in Somalia and around the Horn of Africa.  It looks like the Democratic side of the aisle, at least, may also push for a response.  Senator John Kerry wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post that raises very valid points about the importance of foreign aid.  At the same time, as a friend pointed out to me,* Senator Kerry’s piece in some ways puts the onus on the United States for the famine in Somalia–for failing to do more–and simplifies (or simply does not mention) the vastly complicated situation that has led to the crisis, including the US’s role in geopolitical issues like terrorism, food exports/imports and security, and global health that have probably worsened the situation.  A very angry post from Rebecca Sargent at “A Peace of Conflict” has more on the over-simplification of the situation in Somalia and of the solutions.  Two glaring issues that my friend and Rebecca Sargent evoked are those of taking away agency from individuals who are at the receiving end of foreign aid (or media coverage) and of portraying localized (or not) issues as the universal problems of a stateless, borderless, helpless “Africa.”  This gets back into the questions around the ethics of photojournalism, the importance of preserving dignity, and the need to avoid exploitation.

Here’s the problem: we have a series of broken systems–governments, humanitarian/development/assistance programs, global bodies, health care organizations, food access and pricing systems, and a host of others.  In the long run, the short-term, emergency (though certainly not always easy) solutions don’t work because they’re Band-Aids over the deeper problems.   Furthermore, as The Economist writes, this all could have been foreseen and relief efforts could have already been underway, at a much smaller human and economic cost.  In essence, however, there is no real call for funding until we’ve reached crisis stage, just as media coverage is scarce for vast development, health, and other problems until you can take a picture of a malnourished child.  It’s a problem connected to funders and readers as much as it is to implementing agencies/global bodies/etc. and publishers.  Starvation photography and crisis aid exist on the same plane: they’re last-ditch efforts to get someone, anyone, to pay attention.  And sometimes, they work.  Take, for example, the Live Aid concerts in 1985, or text-to-donate programs after the earthquake in Haiti, although in both instances the larger result was an increase in global awareness and a successful fundraising drive, since criticisms around the actual disbursement of funds and implementation of aid have surfaced for each of the efforts.  We’ve painted ourselves into a corner because we have not addressed the root problems that have snowballed into crises like the Somali famine.  What that means is that relief agencies, governments, and other bodies are forced to keep throwing up expensive solutions that will be worn away over time or broken through more quickly.  At this point, we no longer have a choice.



* Thanks again, Melanie!


Original header photo here, from mikebaird, CC BY.



Julia Robinson

Julia Robinson has worked in South Africa at an NGO that helps to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV and in Sierra Leone for an organization that provides surgeries, medical care, and support to women suffering from obstetric fistula. She is interested in human rights, global health, social justice, and innovative, unconventional solutions to global issues. Julia lives in San Francisco, where she works for a sustainability and corporate social responsibility non-profit. She has a BA in African History from Columbia University.