1988: Emergency humanitarian response in Africa—an anatomy of ignorance

1988: Emergency humanitarian response in Africa—an anatomy of ignorance
By John Ryle  •  1998  •  “Dispatches from Disaster Zones” conference, London  •  2,543 words

Humanitarian organisations operating in the world’s disaster zones, working in situations of conflict and social breakdown, find themselves—by default rather then conscious choice—the representatives and custodians of an international information order. They become, unavoidably, arbiters of the needs of suffering populations. They negotiate with warring parties for access to these populations and—crucially—for the right to solicit and propagate information about them. And they take responsibility for publicising their plight.

But are aid organisations capable of fulfilling this enlarged role? And is it in fact desirable that they should do so? There are special factors, internal and external, that militate against a proper understanding of events in disaster zones, to which all organisations are vulnerable:

  • Logistical and security constraints on information gathering in the field
  • The subordination of human welfare to the pursuit of military and political control by warring parties
  • Absence of local knowledge on the part of technical specialists and journalists
  • Lack of systematic attention to the long-term political processes that generate emergencies
  • Lack of institutional skills on the part of aid agencies

Drawing on the author’s experience in anthropological research, aid work and reportage, this presentation offers some general observations, under a dozen headings.

1. The kind of knowledge aid organisations seek may not be available

In emergency relief interventions accurate information, like clean water, is an indisputable good. But it is seldom attainable. The nature of contemporary disasters, linked to civil conflict and political and administrative crisis, militates against the rapid collection of, for example, nutritional and demographic data. By the same token—that is, due to the instability or ineffectiveness of state structures—reliable base-line statistics that predate the crisis are seldom available.

Parties to conflicts manipulate information about the populations under their control. Relief organisations, in the rush for funding, promulgate statistics that have been calculated on the back of an envelope. News media repeat and simplify these interpretations.

Recent reports on the current famine in Southern Sudan, for example, put forward a figure of 350,000 people in a single province, Bahr-al-Ghazal, as being “at risk”. This figure is said to represent a third of the population of the province. But despite an international relief presence in Bahr-al-Ghazal going back almost a decade, the figure is based entirely on guesswork. No one knows the population of Bahr-al-Ghazal. There has not been a half-way accurate census since the colonial era. Since then the boundaries of the province have been redefined several times. Moreover, the area itself is internally differentiated in ecological terms and also in terms of military vulnerability, so “risk” of famine is not evenly distributed. And, finally, in this example, no measure of risk was proposed by the agencies promulgating the information, nor any definition of famine. (By western standards of food security, in fact, the whole of Bahr-al-Ghazal could be said to be chronically, or permanently, “at risk of famine”.)

2. The information sought may not be the right kind

The search for neutral, technical data is liable to obscure the political roots of  emergencies. It also conceals the fact that agencies are themselves players in a local political drama. Aid agencies’ areas of concern, such as human movement and nutritional status, are framed by political and economic realities, notably by resource wars in which the physical goods provided by aid agencies themselves play a significant part. A clearer understanding of the role of aid agencies in the local political economy is needed. But agencies are hampered by their reluctance to acknowledge the extent of their unintended impact, and by their understandable but undesirable avoidance of confrontation with the powers in the land, those under whose aegis they operate, whether these are governments or rebel forces.

3. Knowledge flows away from the disaster zone

Those least likely to have access to the information collected in an affected area are its inhabitants. They barely participate in the international information economy of which they are the subject. Displaced people and famine-struck villagers, even those who are literate and educated, seldom know what is being said about them in aid agency reports (though they may be keen to influence the content of these reports). Local understanding of what relief workers and consultants are doing when they attempt to collect information is often at odds with what relief workers think they are doing.  The feed-back loop is broken.

4. Aid organisations lack the institutional capacity to understand the processes they intervene in

Although many non-governmental organizations have policy units and technical research departments in their headquarters in Europe or America, few of them employ regional social or political specialists, except on an ad hoc consultant basis. This applies both to those drawn from the communities themselves and outsiders with a long-term commitment to understanding and representing them. The organisations involved may therefore be at a disadvantage when it comes to understand the enduring processes that engender perceived emergencies. They are forced to take a short-term view because their funding is usually short-term. Their international staff usually have only a rudimentary knowledge of the places they are working in. The attention of aid agencies to specific areas is sporadic. A high turnover of staff encourages institutional amnesia. Agency staff are therefore all the more subject to manipulation by local interests for whom war and relief interventions are part of a long game. And international actors too. In the situations of open conflict that increasingly characterize disaster zones the implications of this ignorance can be grave.

5. Agencies do not know how to speak to power

Agency discourse is riddled with undefined buzzwords and euphemisms. Currently favoured terms include “civil society”, “empowerment” and “grassroots initiatives”. These terms function as a buffer between the discourse of aid and the reality of local political processes, which are usually accompanied by coercion. They disguise ignorance and avoid confrontation with the reality of power relations. The term “complex emergency” is another euphemisms, a term that has a technical air, but is semantically void. Most “complex emergencies” could be more straightforwardly be called wars.

The countries in the disaster zone are areas of direct military contention, where wars are fought for reasons that may include any combination of the following:

  • access to natural resources
  • control of the state, and the power of disposal of economic goods drawn from the international system that accompanies incumbency
  • Lebensraum
  • the perpetuation of conflict per se in order to profit from it.

Some wars, such as the current war in Sudan, have what an outsider can recognise as a just cause, even if the insurgents in have lost sight of this cause in internecine conflict. Others, such as the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, seem to be the work of predatory social formations with no political ideology or long-term goals. The boundaries between war and crime become indistinct.

Most of these wars are also wars fought by proxy, where what appears to be a civil war is sustained—or provoked—by a neighbouring power, which may sponsor insurgency in order to destabilize the government across the border and suppress insurrection within its own borders. Aid organizations working in conflict zones may be drawn into proxy wars, themselves becoming proxies.

Control of relief goods can be a valuable prize. The conditions of war mean that an agency operating under the aegis of a military administration in a war zone has effectively surrendered ultimate control of resources to that administration. Aid organizations are reluctant to acknowledge this.

6. Warring parties consider all information to be military information

Warring parties are liable to suspect aid workers and journalists of being spies. As participants in the conflict the warring parties have little interest in facilitating the free flow of information. The more outsiders know the more difficult it will be for them to control information and maximise their access to the resources provided by aid agencies. Civilians under the control of warring parties are not reliable sources. They may not be free to speak: careless words cost lives.

7. Aid organisations and journalists lack a sense of history

US Senator Hiram Johnson said that the first casualty of war was truth. He assumed that a prior truth existed, a clear factual picture to be shot down and buried by secrecy and propaganda. But it is not that simple.

Africa’s wars have, in fact, been the occasion for the formal elicitation of vast amounts of information, the field reports of hundreds of NGOs and UN agencies, mountains of grey literature that gather dust in back-offices in Nairobi and Geneva, or reside, unvisited, in the wilderness of cyberspace, on relief and development websites. At certain moments these conflicts have also received intense attention from global news media.

But the very density of such information can trap us in the present. Historical perspective is lacking, both in the vast mass of aid agency reports and the great majority of press coverage. Most such reports lack not only a sense of the history of the societies in which the crises are taking place, but also an understanding of their own history, of the role that the international presence itself has come to play in the creation and prolongation of the emergencies.

8. Aid organisations and media organisations have their own unstated interests

The relationship between the three estates—news media, international aid organizations and local and regional powers—determines to a large extent the picture we have of African countries in crisis. It is their interests that shape the representation of these crises.

There is complicity between aid workers and journalists. News reporters draw on aid sources to a greater extent than they would a single source in other situations. They are often physically dependent on aid agencies for accommodation in the field. Aid workers are liable to be their primary informants.

Aid organizations, in their turn, are dependent to a great extent on journalists for publicity in order to raise money for operations. They like to show that aid works, to balance stories of chaos and starvation with stories of successful relief operations. There is seldom any analysis of failed operations.

Recently, press coverage of emergencies has become more critical of aid agencies, but it is still the case that the degree of collaboration between reporters and aid agencies would be considered unacceptable if, rather than aid organisations, it involved commercial organizations or national governments,.

9. In emergency relief operations numbers rule, but they are seldom reliable

The first information demanded of emergency aid workers involves numbers. How many people are there in need? Logisticians and accountants need numbers in order to plan deployment of resources. And no one wants to be responsible for underestimating them. The rhetoric of journalism also demands numbers, the higher the better. And local authorities are concerned to claim the highest possible number of needy people in order to maximise the flow of resources into their domain. So there is liable to be a convergence of interest in exaggeration and overestimate.

Even in situations where a population is under the direct surveillance of aid givers, in refugee camps, population figures are notoriously inaccurate. Refugees distort them by double-registration and seasonal aid-grazing; administrators may be happy with the exaggerated figure because it makes it easier to tithe surplus supplies; and governments of countries where refugee camps are situated may be complicit, particularly if the refugee camp provides supplies for insurgents who they are supporting in the next door country. All these factors contribute to implausibly high numbers.

10. Language differences are a recurrent obstacle to understanding

No British or American organization would dream of sending a representative to France who did not speak French, or to Russia without Russian, but it is rare to find international aid workers in African countries who speak any African language—even rarer in the case of journalists. Thus they are dependent on European linguae francae, and on local staff and interpreters.

We would not give much credence to an analysis of the situation in Northern Ireland by someone who did not speak English. Yet that is a reasonable analogy with many of Africa’s conflicts. Not only that, but in the complex origins of these conflicts language itself plays a part; ethnoliguistic difference may be one of the lines of cleavage. Of course, many Africans speak English, or another European language. Africa is a polyglot continent. Something like 2,000 languages are spoken there. It is rare to meet an African who is not bilingual or trilingual. Most will speak their mother tongue, a national lingua franca, and very likely a world language also.

And many aid workers are locally recruited. So relations of trust and mutual assistance between expatriates and local staff are key. Institutionally, the importance of this is not always understood

It may be relatively easy for outsiders to get the gist of events, but it is more difficult for them to enter the language universe in which the events are taking place. The way, for example, that a politician speaks to his constituents—in the language they share—may well not be the same as the way he speaks to reporters from the international press. The same may be true of a local employee of an aid agency.

For would-be recipients of aid in camps or villages, the manipulation of information can represent an important survival strategy. It is one of the weapons of the weak. They address aid workers as clients speaking to patrons. Elites may have particular things they want concealed or obfuscated; victims may have particular things they want to stress and exaggerate.

There is an expression used in lusophone countries, in Angola and Mozambique, to describe a show put on for outsiders, or for hypocritical behaviour in general. The expression is para Inglês ver—”for English eyes”. Much of what people say to reporters and aid workers in African countries is para inglês ver.

11. Aid organisations don’t understand the local political processes they are intervening in

Even if aid agencies accepted the need to understand these processes they would be hard-put to find the expertise to engage with them. In the past four years Western analysts have spent much ink and airtime discussing the political complexities of a single crisis-ridden region of the world, former Yugoslavia. Intricate discussions of Balkan politics have filled every broadsheet newspaper. Yet most newspaper readers would still be hard put to summarize the issues—or the history even—of the present Balkan Wars.

In Africa—to take a single region of the world—there are dozens of Balkans. None of them have received anything like the attention given to Yugoslavia. Despite the valiant attempts of some scholars, this lack of deep background bedevils all descriptions of African emergencies.

12. At an institutional level, aid organisations are likely to have less understanding of the situation on the ground than their own field staff do

Most aid workers are vividly aware of the issues raised in the discussion above. But they have difficulty persuading the institutions they serve to incorporate this local knowledge into programming. The institutional amnesia of aid organisations, their enslavement to a fuzzy, poorly defined humanitarianism, their fear of jeopardizing funding or access to their operational area by confronting the reality of what they do—all these factors militate against a clearer view of events when disasters happen. ★