The East Africa correspondent for The Economist, Jonathan Ledgard, talks about a cynical famine, moral dilemmas in war-torn areas and other awkward issues that aid workers talk about in the bar at night.
betterplace lab: Jonathan, how the famine is playing out in civil-war-affected southern Somalia?
Jonathan Ledgard: Southern Somalia is cut off from all aid efforts, because at the moment definitely one of the most dangerous areas on the planet, even more dangerous than the Taliban areas. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Muslim or Christian, black or white, if you are not local Somali you are probably going to get executed by the Al-Shabaab militia if you go there. These guys hate women, they hate freedom of thought, they hate education; they are very dangerous. It’s essentially impossible to help the people of southern Somalia from the outside.
lab: So far Unicef and the International Red Cross have managed to deliver 400 tonnes of food to the area. Are the militia also help those facing starvation themselves to try and win support and popularity?
Jonathan: Al-Shabaab are providing schools and some basic relief work, on the condition that the community meets extremely strict Islamist guidelines. On the other hand we know they’re also often confiscating farmers’ harvests. Intimidating the people is their main tactic, also partly due to the fact that Al-Shabaab are not especially well organised.
lab: Are the people free to flee to refugee camps such as Dabaab in Kenya?
Jonathan: Al-Shabaab will try to stop them fleeing, harassing and intimidating them. But many people have managed to sneak through the bush. Here and there along the way they have to pay a little bit of money to bandits, so only the wealthier can do it that way. And because the journey takes several days on foot, only the strongest make it.
lab: Droughts in Africa are commonplace, and to predict this one you only had to look at the weather reports. So why does the catastrophe have to reach the stage that the media takes an interest and starts showing pictures of starving children, before any action is taken?
Jonathan: I’ve been asking this question since late-2010, when wrote a story saying the drought was coming and we need to organize. It’s cynical. Rich countries aren’t really interested in the poor people. And the whole Band Aid, Live Aid kind of culture that we’ve developed in Europe and America means that people only look at the problems here in a sentimental kind of way. So the system as a whole doesn’t work. Once you’re inside the system there’s often no exit-strategy. The World Food Programme, for example, do a good job of keeping people alive in emergency situations but do a very bad job of getting communities off food aid.
lab: You mean the people become dependent?
Jonathan: Yes. For example Ethiopia had a terrible famine in 1984/85. But now 25 years later you still have six to twelve million people every year receiving food aid from foreign countries just to stay alive. This also leads to complicated and politically delicate questions about population growth and what size of population a region can sustain. It’s a topic that no politician will touch, but it’s what aid workers and economists and African ministers talk about in the bar at night. The Somalians just have too many people in areas where they can’t feed or support them. A friend of mine, who’s an aid worker, said to me that food aid is like crack. It’s an addictive drug and once a community is on food aid they’re not farming properly and they’re not looking after themselves properly.
lab: Aren’t catastrophes like this also important to get people to donate who normally wouldn’t?
Jonathan: Yes, and for that reason the big charities and the NGOs are inflating the numbers of people affected. It’s a really bad issue – they’re using the famine for their own fundraising efforts. However, we do have a really critical situation in Somalia at the moment. If we aren’t able to reach the area held by Al-Shabaab we’ll be looking at mortality figures of 60,000 to 120,000 within the next three or four months.
lab: Is the Al-Shabaab militia profiting from the aid deliveries?
Jonathan: Our food aid is supporting Al-Shabaab. But I don’t know if I’d be courageous enough to say we shouldn’t send the aid. Who’s going to tell a mother whose child is starving to death that her child isn’t going to get the food because that might support the bad guys? But we’ve seen it clearly throughout African history: food aid supports and underwrites rebel armies – it’s true here as well. Al-Shabaab will try and hold off until they have full control of all aid. Then they’ll have 50-80 million US-dollars in cash, and then they’ll start fighting again.
lab: Cellphones are widespread in Africa and very innovatively used. Has this technology also been deployed in the relief effort?
Jonathan: Ushahidi isn’t working in Somalia because in the Al-Shabaab-controlled areas people have very restricted use of mobile phones and it is monitored by Al-Shabaab. So the people there have barely any access to telecommunication. That’s why it’s difficult to gather crowdsourcing information. But in Mogadishu lots of people are online, on facebook and so on – at least on the side of the city controlled by government troops.
lab: Now that the catastrophe has been portrayed in the media and the people have seen these images, many of them want to help and to donate. Will this help actually reach those who need it.
Jonathan: That’s a difficult issue. I would definitely recommend that people donate. The question then is to whom and in what way. This is just my personal opinion from being on the ground – but I’m not convinced that private donations are particularly useful for emergency relief work. I think that private donations are more effective if targeted specifically. In the case of a great catastrophe the government will provide hundreds of millions of Euros, and the amount given by private donors is an insignificant part of the equation. I think it is better if the money is donated to areas that are not covered by normal emergency funding – say to organisations working with the handicapped or elderly in the camps. Identifying those areas and projects I think is much more useful that simply donating without consideration.
Jonathan Ledgard is the East Africa correspondent for The Economist. The 40-year-old has lived in Africa for the past five years, primarily in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. “But my main ambition is to be a novelist” says Jonathan. Following his debut novel Giraffe, his new novel Submergence was released a few days ago. Joana has already finished it and described it as “Very good, well worth a read!”