truth appeal

Life sometimes feels like tortured repetition. A bit like going to the gym. But at least at the gym you get fitter. When it comes to politics, life feels like a running machine which keeps you running but makes you fatter, more depressed and more miserable until the rolls are seeping out from under your lycra trouser leg, over the circulating rubber, down the stabilising side and out onto the manmade fibre carpet. I’m thinking about the BBC’s refusal to broadcast the Gaza appeal for humanitarian agencies, which has had me yawning and yelling in equal measure. As a former employee and correspondent of the BBC World Service, the one thing that strikes me about all of this is quite the extent of the hypocrisy. It’s so alarmingly vast.

During the seven odd years I worked for the BBC – both as a correspondent in the, er, ‘field’ and as a producer and sometime editor on the desk – I was always infuriated and intrigued by the amount of pressure we all were under to rely on information provided by foreign aid agencies (all Western, mostly British, American and French or Belgian or Dutch etc). The moment one of the big agencies – CARE, Save the Children, Oxfam, and any UN department – produced a report or issued a press release about yet another ‘worst humanitarian situation’ (they are, believe me, always the worst), the team would always want to run the story. Various reasons were and still are behind this: it’s easy to get an aid worker on the phone (even an ISDN line), they usually speak English, they will be concise, and free, and more often than not they are always willing to speak. Much easier to chat to pressperson X from the WFP in the middle of Darfur, than track down a local Sudanese who has intermittent access to a wobbly mobile phone and doesn’t speak a word of English. Such are the time pressures of modern day broadacsting, most producers and editors (culled to the minimum on each show) will go for the easy and reliable and cheap option. Aidworkers fit this description perfectly. Nevermind if their information is inevitably partisan. (No one knows everything: remember!) Even in the Africa service, for which I worked, and even among African staff, the accepted opinion was it was better to get information and an interview from a foreign NGO or the UN than a local NGO or civil society association.

Such is the overlap between the BBC and aid agencies, many BBC staff end up going to work for them. I could provide a long list of former colleagues who now work for the WFP as spokesmen and spokeswomen, as press writers and publicty experts. I know people who’ve gone to Cafod, all branches of the UN, Oxfam, and countless others. The attractions – particularly to the UN – can be summed up in one word: money. The UN pay ever so nice and you get a nice house in a sunny country with free education for the kids, plus extras for moving and extras for all sorts of other stuff. You might get a driver, you’ll definitely get a car. Etc etc etc. Even after all the horrible things I wrote about the UN and aid agencies, I was offered a job twice by the UN as a spokesperson.

Because of this link – between ex BBC staff and aid agencies – the BBC is even more inclined to interview its ex-reporters who now work for agency Y or Z. I used to chuckle so loudly when I heard former BBC reporters suddenly being ‘grilled’ by their former colleagues: they sounded exactly the same as they always had. Peas in a pod. This says a great deal about the BBC and the agencies, about the language used by all these organisations/corporations and their view of the world. The overlap grows and grows and grows. And another thing to watch and listen out for are the number of BBC reports which are courtesy of correspondent Z being taken care of and escorted by a particular aid agnecy: so the slant of the report favours the NGO in question, giving it international publicity and the BBC reporters gets cheaper travel and infromation… and everyone’s happy.

Except, perhaps, the ‘needy victims’… But anyway…

But what has also intrigued me about the explosion of debates on the BBC’s decision not to air the appeal is the anger, particularly from some on the Left. The sudden support for these aid organisations and their appeals raises, for me anyway, a series of questions: when does a western aid agency stop being a representative of the West and its hypocritical policies to help people it helped kill or injure in the first place? When should that aid end? At what point will the aid to Gaza cease to be emergency or disaster relief, and start to be some sort of controlling arm of paternalism? When does western aid start to blind us from the politics at the heart of, in this case, Gaza and the regional politics? When do we cross the line too far, to pity the Palestinians as opposed to assisting them in self-determination? I sense, in some cases, that there are some who are so loathing of the BBC (and believe me, I sympathise) that they forget other factors at play in all of this, other larger issues that deserve consideration.

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7 thoughts on “truth appeal

  1. Graham Hancock’s account of UN’s “aristocrats of mercy” is still valid, twenty years after publication.

    Here is a little synopsis:

    On top of all this is the enormous waste of the UN bureaucracy. By latching on to the generous mammaries of the UN welfare state, many consultants have become wealthy. Graham Hancock’s damning 1989 expose, Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business, estimated that most of the $60 billion plus that comprised governmental, UN, and World Bank or IMF-type ‘aid’ was siphoned off. Mostly by elites in poor nations with their Swiss accounts, special interests (like agribusiness in donor countries, which dump their subsidised excess produce), but also, startlingly, the aid agencies’ own personnel budgets, which waste as much as 80 per cent of the funds for lavish (first-class) travel, salaries, and perquisites. Similarly with the UN’s extremely generous salaries and benefits.

  2. SK – thanks for this. Indeed, Hancock’s book was an inspiration for me in the early 1990s.

    A more recent take on this topic – against aid – has just been published, written by a Zambian woman, Dambisa Moyo. It’s called Dead Aid. I’ve not read it yet, but it looks interesting. I think, though, that I might struggle to go along with her reported faith in free markets. But let’s see.

    (There’s a good column in this weekend’s FT about her, interviewed by William Wallis.)

  3. I found it difficult to take Dambisa Moyo seriously when I learned that the foreword to her book was written by Niall Ferguson. Her faith in fads like “micro-finance and changes to property laws” and “her belief in the ultimate power of free markets apparently unshaken by the prevailing gloom” will get her a cushy career in places where they like that kind of talk.

    Even after all the horrible things I wrote about the UN and aid agencies, I was offered a job twice by the UN as a spokesperson.

    Speaking of cushy jobs, this is the type of stonewalling needed of a UN spokesperson. Ironically, in a past life this very person used to sing an “ode to the joys of free speech rather than the corruption of power.” You can see more of that persona here.

  4. SK, thank you for these excellent links. I am with you on reservations about Moyo, but I’m still interested to read the book – read her logic – in terms of understanding ideas and criticisms of aid from Africans as opposed to always from the North. But, yeah, it is telling that someone like Moyo – with her faith in fm – gets publicity in the FT and a publishing contract.

    Thank you for these links. I’ll look at them now. And, pray tell, who are you? Do we know each other? Do you have a blog?

  5. Just seen and read the stuff on Montas. There you have it. Shame shame. The UN is blotting paper to so many people like MM, once fighters who – through naivety? desperation? greed? exhaustion? – flock to its doors to work.

  6. I’m just a fan of your work from LRB (where I first read your excellent piece on oil). The “agents of virtue” in saintly organizations (and white Land Cruisers) are also a source of shared fascination, I suppose. Hope you’ll touch more on these themes and their intersection (PDF) in the future, esp. as most of Africa remains a chasse gardée for these folks to project their fantasies on.

    Here’s a neat epigraph from The Democracy Makers that might describe certain actors who at one time were known for their activism:

    One has heard of double and triple agents who themselves in the end no longer exactly knew for whom they were really working and what they were seeking for themselves in this double and triple role playing…On which side do our loyalties lie? Are we agents of the state and of institutions? Or agents of enlightenment? Or agents of monopoly capital? Or agents of our own vital interests that secretly cooperate in constantly changing double binds with the state, institutions, enlightenment, counterenlightenment, monopoly capital, socialism, etc., and in so doing, we forget more and more what we our “selves” sought in the whole business?

    -Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason

    A few passages from The Democracy Makers can be read here.

  7. I’m working for the UN in Africa and don’t have a car! I only have access to one for work related activities. I have to beg if I want to borrow it for shopping when I’m in the capital. And I’m not the only one… 😉
    Excellent article, but please do not describe the life of UN workers in the field as a tropical paradise. For many of us, it isn’t.
    I’m far away from EVERYTHING, and I don’t even have running water.
    Thanks!

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