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Is there a time and place for (humanitarian) shock and awe?

July 10, 2011

Don’t feel bad though. It’s disempowering.

Look. I get the whole ‘stop the portrayal of Africans as victims’ debate. I really do. Empowerment and portrays of empowerment are important.

But I can’t help but be slightly frustrated with this entry at UN Dispatch which discusses the “shock and awe” approach to fundraising for disasters.

Penelope Chester (apparently a professional Canadian humanitarian) quotes Peter Gill (who has written on the Ethiopian Famine) stating that the West :

certainly has no proper answers to the conflicts and dislocation that lead to starvation and deathIn northern Kenya, to which so many thousands of Somali pastoralists have fled in recent months, the West does have an answer of sorts – it can feed people in the world’s largest refugee camp, in the thin expectation of better times back across the border.

And that:

Ethiopia must keep addressing the image of destitution and the reality that too often underpins it, but it needs to promote other images as well. Instead of the risk of starvation, it also needs to be able to draw attention to impressive annual economic growth figures. Instead of food hand-outs, it also needs to be able to emphasise its big drive for inward investment.

She then comments:

In highlighting Gill’s argument, I’m not suggesting that the international community should eschew necessary emergency aid and interventions to help protect vulnerable populations. Instead, I think there is an important truth in the notion that images of Africa as a continent full of powerless victims are part of a vicious cycle of irresponsibility.
Aid and international organizations, western donors (governments and individuals) and African governments are caught in a western-centric approach to humanitarian relief, where the effective mobilization of funds and good will seems to be proportionate to the inevitability of a crisis. In other words, there is still a lot to be done to appropriately deal with threats and improve local capacity to prevent famines – whether it be through the development of strong early prevention systems, improved strategic food reserves or improving access to agricultural and pastoral technology. The Guardian’s concluding paragraph in an editorial on this issue captures the sentiment: “As it is, aid agencies race from one drought to another. And the fact that the shortfall in WFP funding is 42% in Somalia, and 67% in Ethiopia and Kenya, speaks volumes about the mentality of donors who are only moved to act when it is too late.”

I suppose my biggest frustrations with the argument are twofold.

First, I can’t figure out who this is aimed at. The West? The media? Aid agencies? Donors? Who? Who is supposed to change this? And how and when?

Second, the “world weary” humanitarian lecturing tone to people that I can only assume are actually trying to feed some starving people. Yes, you think you’re doing a good thing, but really you’re not. You’re perpetuating an evil stereotype when you feel bad for those people on television.

It’s true – the West has a very strange view of Africa and famine. I need only look at my family, the people around me and my own memories to see this. Noting someone’s thinness, my Grandmother comments that they look like a “Biafran”. Some of my first memories are listening to “The Tears are Not Enough” on the radio to raise funds for the Ethiopian Famine in the 1980s. (It was Canada’s “We are the World”. It’s terrible, but had the cast of Les Miserables!). And one of my students made a comment about someone looking like a starving Darfurian a few months back. It’s like we can trace generations via the famines that have been marketed to them by aid agencies.

I also accept, that as Alana Tiemessen blogged here earlier this year that photos without context and understanding can strip individuals of their dignity. As she points out, the pictures (like the one used in this post) do not help us “understand the causes and conditions of state failure and nor do they prescribe solutions. They simply invite shock and awe.”

So I’m not saying this isn’t an issue. But as these aid agencies trying to raise funds in an emergency situation/impending famine, is it really the time to start explaining to my parents the dynamics of African development? Or give narratives of empowerment? Would these same narratives have raised £6 million in a few days? I’m all for re-thinking our portrayal of Africa, but I don’t think Chester’s arguments really answers these questions.

Is this a simplification of her argument? Possibly. In defence of Chester I suspect that she is thinking in the mid-to-long term rather than the immediate present. But there is also a real note of hypocrisy in the air: Oxfam’s internal reports may say: “The world is moving away from a western-inspired, UN-centric model of humanitarian action to one which is much more diverse and localised, and sustainable. This is both a trend and a desirable outcome.” But a visit to its website today said in gigantic red banner: “The worst food crisis of the century has left more than 12 million people in East Africa in desperate need of food and water. Support our biggest ever emergency appeal for Africa”. Not so much empowerment then, just trying to feed people.

Which is probably what they should be doing.

PS: I’m not a famine/African expert so happy to hear why I’m very, very wrong on this by Duck readers. 

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Stephanie Carvin is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Her research interests are in the area of international law, security, terrorism and technology. Currently, she is teaching in the areas of critical infrastructure protection, technology and warfare and foreign policy.

Stephanie holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and published her thesis as Prisoners of America’s Wars: From the Early Republic to Guantanamo (Columbia/Hurst, 2010). Her most recent book is Science, Law, Liberalism and the American Way of Warfare: The Quest for Humanity in Conflict” (Cambridge, 2015) co-authored with Michael J. Williams. In 2009 Carvin was a Visiting Scholar at George Washington University Law School and worked as a consultant to the US Department of Defense Law of War Working Group. From 2012-2015, she was an analyst with the Government of Canada focusing on national security issues.
Stacie Goddard