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How should journalists cover aid?

Nick Kristof has one answer: Focus on the individuals in the story, leaving the aid bureaucracies just outside the frame. Make readers care about places and people they will probably never see by bringing them stories of hope and inspiration: the American woman who leaves behind her family to help rape survivors in the Congo; the orphan boy in Zimbabwe who dreams of and gets a bicycle.

Philip Gourevitch, writing in the New Yorker this week, has another:

…Surely at least we who work in journalism can do a public service by treating humanitarianism the same way we treat other powerful public interests that shape our world…Why should our coverage of them look so much like their own self-representation in fund-raising appeals? Why should we (as many photojournalists and print reporters do) work for humanitarian agencies between journalism jobs, helping them with their official reports and institutional appeals, in a way that we would never consider doing for corporations, political parties, or government agencies? Why should we not regard them as interested parties in the public realms in which they operate, as giant bureaucracies, as public trusts, with long records of getting it wrong with catastrophic consequences, as well as getting it right?

…[H]umanitarianism is an industry. So we should examine it and hold it to account as such. To treat humanitarian or human-rights organizations with automatic deference, as if they were disinterested higher authorities rather than activists and lobbyists with political and institutional interests and biases, and with uneven histories of reliability or success, is to do ourselves, and them, a disservice. That does not mean—as the many books I reviewed, and many more still, make clear—taking a hostile stance toward N.G.O.s. It simply means not accepting their hostility to critical scrutiny. It means not letting them claim to do our work for us. It means insisting on asking the questions for which they may have no good answers.

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11 Comments

  1. The key question for us in the development sector to consider–are donors and international organizations really interested in supporting local civil society to become more mature, autonomous, networked, and able to manage funds without their permanent intermediation? International and local NGOs alike should be subject to scrutiny, yet we also need to acknowledge the vision, structure, inherent strengths, and impact that under-recognized and under-resourced local organizations can and do have, despite the failings of the aid industry.

    I’ve worked in children and HIV programming in southern Africa for over a decade. What is undeniable to me in this time is that most children are getting by not because of sweeping national-level policy protections or major internationally-funded programs. Rather, those who survive and thrive do so because of the local efforts of people who organize their communities to extend support and services to children in areas not sufficiently reached by government or international agencies.

    You can read more about the overlooked capacities of local organizations at:
    http://www.how-matters.org/2010/11/08/missing-from-diy-aid-debate/

    Posted November 11, 2010 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  2. You can also see a great panel discussion on journalism and aid, covering lessons learned from The Guardian’s Katine Project in Uganda at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2010/nov/11/katine-project-lessons-learned

    Posted November 11, 2010 at 5:14 pm | Permalink
  3. We in ALNAP ran a major meeting on the topic of humanitarian aid and the media in 2008, chaired by Kate Adie, and bringing together journalists and aid workers to discuss the often troubled relationship between the two groups of actors.

    The title of the meeting report gave a clear message to both parties: “Don’t Chase Headlines, Chase Good Quality News… Don’t Be First, Be Accountable.”

    The report provides a summary of the aid-media relationship in all its myriad complexities, and points to some key changes which could bring about improved outcomes for those affected by disasters.

    You can download the report here: http://www.alnap.org/pool/files/23_media.pdf

    Posted November 11, 2010 at 8:17 pm | Permalink
  4. Don Stoll wrote:

    The trick lies in synthesizing the Kristof approach with the Gourevitch approach and more, the challenge of which one scarcely captures by demanding to see both forest and trees. Focusing on intimate details as Kristof wants risks putting the idiosyncratic at center stage, while treating humanitarians as a powerful interest group flirts with—despite Gourevitch’s protest to the contrary—”taking a hostile stance toward N.G.O.s.” The first comment by Lentfer implies exactly what is wrong with Gourevitch’s thesis: her “under-recognized and under-resourced local organizations” constitute nothing like a powerful interest group, especially since many and perhaps most such organizations labor in ignorance of one another.

    Gourevitch nevertheless has a point, as does Kristof. But each man’s point is either too sharp or too blunt in isolation.

    Posted November 11, 2010 at 8:24 pm | Permalink
  5. Ben Parker wrote:

    Too often, a typical media story about a relief operation leans to one of two extremes: gushing or scandal-seeking.

    But such accounts usually don’t go deep enough to give the taxpayer or donor, let along the disaster victim, a full picture.

    Why should good intentions make aid immune to journalistic scrutiny?

    Who’s to blame? Spin on the aid side and disinterest on the media side seem to conspire to keep it unclear.

    The ethical grey areas and internal workings of this largely unregulated $18 billion industry get little serious media attention.

    Aid agencies, along with their donors, tend to like it that way.

    Ben Parker
    Director
    IRIN
    Nairobi

    [I am director of the largest specialist media production outfit on humanitarian issues, the award-winning Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), which operate from five bureaus in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

    We publish daily online in English, French and Arabic. The news, features, photos and films are viewed by 150,000 unique users per month and are widely syndicated, including to the Thomson Reuters Foundation's AlertNet site and the Guardian's new Development Network.

    We plug some of the substantial gaps in mainstream media coverage of humanitarian issues.]

    Posted November 12, 2010 at 3:26 am | Permalink
  6. Mike Durham wrote:

    The correct URL for Aid Alert is http://www.aidalert.org.uk – though this is strictly a temporary site in development.

    Posted November 12, 2010 at 8:00 am | Permalink
  7. Mike Durham wrote:

    This is an interesting subject. As a journalist I’ve covered a few aid stories and also devoted much energy in the recent past to exposing one particular that is a blight on the ‘aid industry’, especially in Africa. I have been struck how reluctant even the most respectable donors and aid organisations are to accept responsibility for ‘policing’ their own back yard – there seems a powerful inclination to turn a blind eye, lest the aid industry as a whole is somehow tarnished. The result is a lamentable lack of transparency. Is this a case of a professional group closing ranks to protect its own?

    I am exploring the idea of developing a network of commentators, investigative journalists, aid professionals and perhaps ‘whistleblowers’, provisionally called ‘Aid Alert’, to publicise some of the most blatant examples of aid fraud, and to make it a positive step that would be welcomed by the aid community, and not just something negative. I would certainly be interested to hear any ideas on how to achieve this. I’ve started discussions on LinkedIn http://tinyurl.com/393rz4d and on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/aidalert.

    Posted November 12, 2010 at 8:01 am | Permalink
  8. Aid worker wrote:

    if you really want to help – expose the problem in aid agencies of the “catholic church syndrome” – i.e. – aid agencies are notorious for PSYCHO bosses that staff associations continuously attempt to hold accountable – but all that happens is HQ shuffles them around to different countries, instead of sacking them. I am talking about seriously abusive people – did they become that way due to the stress? Or did they achieve promotions due to their manipulative natures and lack of social responsabilities (i.e. no family, or too damaged to bother with their families)?

    You should set up a website where you can shame organizations that do not sack their staff members that have a proven track record of abuse.

    THAT would be an accomplishment.

    Posted November 12, 2010 at 3:21 pm | Permalink
  9. Jeffrey K. Silverman wrote:

    Very carefully, as I can tell you on a personal level how a journalist can be blacklisted, especially when they did into hardcore investigative stories and not so hidden agendas. I was cut from Radio Free Europe, Crime, Corruption and Terrorism site and another on-line publication in one week over one of my stories that was not favorable to US foreign policy, that one is not so current but this one still has an audience and first published:

    Take for instance,
    USAID Corruption in Afghanistan

    Publication time: 3 December 2006, 22:49
    by Jeffrey K. Silverman

    The ARF is a venture capital fund set up at the beginning of early 2004 to make investments in Afghanistan, in such sectors as agriculture, stone mining, and other key sectors of the Afghan economy. The principal manager
    is a company called Afghanistan Capital Partners, headed by one Pierre Van Hoeylandt.

    Van Hoeylandt claims to be a former Rhodes Scholar, a former manager at the ultra-exclusive consulting firm McKinsey & Co., and at one time, a journalist covering the Rwanda massacre (it is likely that nobody has checked whether his CV claims are true or not). He is known to have high-ranking friends, especially inside the US Embassy (it is believed the US Ambassador is an admirer). Van Hoeylandt always speaks in a low slow voice, to convey an
    impression of calm and sophistication. He also has gained attention by squiring around Kabul a blonde bombshell half his age. He is always dressed to perfection.

    ARF is a temporary fund, meaning that after a certain number of years it will be dissolved and the principal and earnings will be redistributed among the participating investors. Source believes the term of the fund is eight years.

    A number of sucker multinational donors have invested money in this fund, captivated by Van Hoeylandt’s charm and impeccable “credentials.” Chief among these, of course, is USAID (in Afghanistan always willing to throw money at anybody with a “bright idea”), which invested million in 2004 through a now terminated agriculture project. Other investors are Asian Development Bank, the Canadian development organization, and others. This despite the fact that venture capital funds in general have had an embarrassing record in these parts of the world. It is unclear total level of donor involvement versus that of private investors, but total capitalization of fund is million, so USAID alone contributed 25% of the total.

    Van Hoeylandt has set up a very tricky scheme, whereby donors are in a more disadvantageous position compared to the private investors. Payments to the private investors take precedence over any payment to donor investors. The donor funds were there to “protect” the investments of the private investors.

    The USAID “investment” was of an even more unusual nature. It appears that there is no requirement that it will ever be repaid. In other words, what may remain from that million will be divvied up among the private investors. If they just don’t lose the money, they stand to make a million dollar bonanza. It is unclear if other donor “investments” obey this same pattern.

    Naturally, Mr. Van Hoeylandt is the leading private investor in the fund. Others are reputedly “Afghan-Americans” with links to the warlords. The cavalier generosity of the donors was not limited to investment. They also provided quite a bit of money in operational grants. It should be noted that
    managers of the fund have been assigned very high salaries, to “compensate them for the difficulty of prudently handling these investments in this inhospitable environment.” Van Hoeylandt, as General
    Manager of ARF, assigned himself a by no means meager income of 100,000 per year plus many other benefits, and several other key managers have salaries above 80,000. The donor operational grants went to pay for this, the fund itself did not have to do anything on its own.

    Number of investments made by the ARF to Afghan business as of late November 2006: 0
    Amount invested in Afghan business as of late November 2006: 0.

    It is quite unclear what is going on in the ARF. Van Hoeylandt was running around at the beginning of 2004, claiming to be doing massive work to get the fund going. At that time he claimed the fund would close in September 2004. However, the fund did not close until early 2006. Furthermore, reports are that ARF has still not hired any field Afghan staff. Van Hoeylandt goes around telling everybody that “we are on the verge of making our first deal.” He has been saying that for 2.5 years now, and still does this. One possibility why nobody has run him out of Dodge is that everybody in USAID and other donor organizations keep rotating out of Kabul. Therefore, very few people know his full track record.

    NB – he was ran out of town and the fund closed after this article.

    KEY FACT: In early 2006, lower level managers of the USAID agriculture project that made the donation to ARF formally took a decision to obligate Van Hoeylandt to return the funds, based on complete non-performance by ARF of its contract with the USAID project. However, Van Hoeylandt then personally met the US Ambassador and USAID Director, who then issued an order countermanding the decision of the project managers. The project managers then had to give up, and all control over ARF was lost.

    There is complete dismay among many of the development professionals as to how Van Hoeylandt has been able to get away with this for so long, almost three years. Above all, they attribute it to his ability to have key friends in high places. Whenever ARF is mentioned, people roll their eyes. But among lower-level USAID officers, nobody dares raise a ruckus or even ask questions.

    INTERPRETATION: The sense is that Van Hoeylandt is not intending to make any real investments. Probably he will make a couple of symbolic deals. But obviously the idea is to hold on until a time when he can cancel the fund and divvie up the donor funds among himself and his partners. In the meantime, keep enjoying the salary. There is also the question of what he has done with the million in his possession. Clearly, if he places the funds abroad, at a 5% interest rate, that is a cool million per year. Not bad for doing nothing.

    WHO IS SCREWED: US taxpayers for one. million gift to one slick operator. USAID credibility, of course, with senior USAID managers overruling professional managers as if they were kings, rightful owners of the million. Also, all the Afghan businesses that have approached ARF for funds and put on an “indefinite waiting list.”

    AND THEN THEY WONDER WHY AFGHANS WANT THE TALIBAN BACK.

    Posted November 14, 2010 at 6:11 pm | Permalink
  10. Jeffrey K. Silverman wrote:

    Update on USAID Corruption in Afghanistan, and where did the money go – and all details were reported to USAID Office of Inspector General but no action was ever taken or did they ever follow-up.

    I had inside sources at the time working in USAID Afghanistan and with various projects that were feeding me the intel before I posted it on a blog that was not friendly to US foreign policy – and by some was called a terrorist website. NOW THAT GOT THE ATTENTION OF LOTS OF PEOPLE AND THE FBI WAS EVEN IN MY HOME STATE OF KENTUCKY ASKING IF I HAD EVER CHANGED MY RELIGION, WHAT MY PARENTS DID, AND HOW MANY LANGUAGES THAT I SPOKE.

    http://www.atlanticfreepress.com/news/1-Opinion/12488-us-embassy-gambles-away-afghanistan-aid-funds.html

    Posted November 14, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Permalink
  11. Update of Corruption Scandal, information just received.

    Background:

    Name:” E. G. wrote by email several weeks ago: “I read your article from 7th September 2010. I agree with you in all you wrote and want to give you some facts about corruption among Eldar Jafarov, ACDI/VOCA and USAID in Azerbaijan. Also materials about wheeler-dealer finance of Eldar Jafarov. Do you speak Russian? […]” 23.10.10.”

    Subsequent information provided, summary:

    “Here is something you might want to look into, and how can I get in contact with you to give you more. I was provided documents yesterday from Azerbaijan of a major fraud case involving USAID and credit unions, (perhaps some World Bank money too), involving approximately 3.5 million dollars.

    I also have a copy of the letter sent to the US Embassy in Baku about this corruption – and it is alleged that the Credit Agro, which was established with US and World Bank money operated a pyramid system and gave fake rural credits to various organizations. This will not be the first major cover up of USAID in Azerbaijan and Georgia – and they have also been active in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even some of the same human resources. You know all about these things, even better than I do.

    Currently Creditagro operates in 27 districts of Azerbaijan. Can you suggest how best to distribute this information – also – do you have anyone in DC that can go to ACDI/VOCA and get all the reports and complaints made under a FOIA request about alleged corruption in ACDI/VOCA for both Georgia and Azerbaijan. The point of contact would be Seth McDonald, Project Coordinator/Financial Services 202 469-6172 or Bill Polidoro, Chief Operating Officer, President Office.

    A complain has been made to the US Embassy in Baku but there has been no reaction on their part, only closing ranks – and this is a pity, and more than 60 honest employees of the organization have been replaced as part of the cover of a massive corruption scandal.

    Again, as with earlier complaints to ADCI/VOCA and the Office of Inspector General – the home office is telling that it is ‘a non-meritorious claim, and there needs something to be investigated – not just generalities.’ The person at the center is Eldar Jafarov, and he has organized some kind of pyramid scheme and payments for credits are made by money from the organization and not the creditors themselves. The so-called world financial crisis was also used as a cover to write off some loans as bad when they were not. In many cases the loans were not even in arrears, and the purpose was to devalue the worth of the credit unions in order to privatize it at not to nothing.

    I will let you connect the dots, as it is possible that there are other dark forces of such schemes and various scenarios. Employees of the credit union, “Credago” suggest to you that a commission should be set up that knows credit and finance, and this body consist of independent people (those not working for CredAgro) to carry out an audit. Most of the corrupt loans were given out in the period 2007-2008, and the vast majority in the second half of 2007. It is clear that some other motivation was involved – as the change was sudden, credit policy, and this set up the conditions for the above-mentioned pyramid scheme, as an effort to reduce the risk and cook the books. However, in spite that the risk exposure was brought down on paper, outstanding old debts continued unabated.

    In order to try to shut up the staff of the credit unions, so to turn blind eye to illegal practices, promises were made to give some share of ownership when the credit unions were privatized. Those that did not play along were forced to resign and in some instances, set up in cooperation with local enforcers in the government, and sent to jail on bogus charges. Naturally it would appear that there is direct government involvement in the fraud – as few would take such a risk of sending innocent people to jail unless they were well paid. The motivation is clear, not only for the director Eldar Jafarov, to bankrupt the organization, make as much money in the process by writing off loans, pocketing the money, along with corrupted officials and then to turn around and set fresh by privatizing the credit union and then to seek fresh international funding from various organizations such as the Word Bank, German Bank for Reconstruction and Development (KFW), European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and others, especially the greatest milk cow of all – USAID.”

    NB: Background as earlier posted on this site:

    Corruption in USAID Azerbaijan and ACDI/VOCA

    On-going investigation of corruption in Azerbaijan and USAID

    Name:” E. G. wrote by email today: Content: “I read your article from 7th September 2010. I agree with you in all you wrote and want to give you some facts about corruption among Eldar Jaffarov, ACDI/VOCA and USAID in Azerbaijan. Also materials about wheeler-dealer finance of Eldar Jafarov. Do you speak Russian? […]” 23.10.10.”

    Here is the case file on this investigation and it has many side plots and connection with funding mechanisms in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Afghanistan.

    Posted November 20, 2010 at 7:03 am | Permalink

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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