How NGOs write the world
- Richard Poplak
- 22 Mar 2011 02:39 (South Africa)
In a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, “Hiding the Real Africa”, former Wall Street Journal reporter and current managing editor of The Nation, Karen Rothmyer exposes some unsettling links between NGOs and journalists. It’s not that the two are in league, claims Rothmyer, but rather that they inhabit the same sparse ecosystem. The resulting symbiosis has done no harm to NGOs, but few favours for international reporting. By RICHARD POPLAK.
Rainstorms in Kabul are a welcome respite from the heat, at least for the first few minutes. After that, when the sluices overflow with viscous gunk that resembles chocolate-marshmallow pudding, they become somewhat less appealing. Thus, one morning several years ago, I waited under a corrugated iron awning just outside the Pakistani embassy, sheltered from the deluge, listening to a fulmination.
The orator in question was a young journalist working for a media group I was reporting on, called Killid. The target of his rant was the NGOs that were, and still are, ubiquitous in Afghanistan. We’d just been soaked by a tsunami of chocolate-marshmallow goop by four passing Landcruisers, belonging to Unicef. The gist of his argument was NGOs are stifling the development of Afghanistan by filling the cracks where, ordinarily, regular Afghanis would go. “They are literally taking our jobs, and earning the money back in the West. We earn pennies here, they live in New York or London and get a nice CV. And from them, it is always bad news, bad news. They have an agenda.”
There was nothing particularly new in this disquisition and it did contain a measure of hypocrisy: Killid itself was an NGO supported by several EU groups, with seed financing from USAid. Indeed, he was talking about three separate if intersecting issues that had become obsessions for Afghanistan’s intellectual class: The morality and sustainability of aid, how that aid distorts the natural development of a society and how that distortion is dependent on another fundamental aberration - data that supports the position of aid groups. Killid was an indigenous Afghan media outfit, and there was something in the reporter’s closing refrain—“always bad news, bad news”—that resonated. Killid did what they could to publish good news. The same could not be said for Western media outlets in Afghanistan.
The question quickly becomes: “Is there any good news in Afghanistan?” It depends how you look at things. Or, alternatively, it depends on who you ask. If you are asking representatives of NGOs working in the field, the answer will almost always be a version of the following: “Things are bad [statistics]. They were worse before we got here [more statistics]. They are getting marginally better [graph]. We see an upward trend, but it’s precarious [another graph]. We’re tenuously hopeful [pamphlet].”
This isn’t glibness for glibness’s sake, but rather a means of pointing out the easy narrative built into the essential NGO story. There’s an arc, a trajectory, an element of suspense and a glint of sunshine through the clouds that makes for a good byline and a satisfied editor. In short, when journalists are in the field in difficult countries, covering anything unrelated to the specifics of a certain battle or a particular piece of policy—in other words, “colour reporting”—we tend to rely on NGOs for both numbers and outlook.
We should briefly take a moment to define what I consider to be NGOs in the context of my acquaintance’s rant, and Rothmyer’s fine article. Western-based non-governmental organisations delivering what can sweepingly be described as “aid” have become an essential element of civil society all over the world, filling the gaps where government is unwilling or unable to operate, from Lithuania to Lesotho and everywhere in between – including South Africa. These are the plethora of institutions that infiltrate almost every institutional sector in developing, failing or failed states. They can be enormous like Unicef, or tiny like Right To Play. They can be furiously nonpartisan like Medisans Sans Frontiers, or entirely subservient like USAid. They are not one amorphous block that thinks or works in consort, but rather a phenomenon that occurs when governance frays, however catastrophically. Like most things in life, their intentions are almost always good and the result of their work is almost always ambiguous.
Except for a lucky few financed solely by volunteers or wealthy patrons without an agenda (ha ha!), NGOs are reliant on fundraising, and are thus partly focused on marketing. Editorial, as anyone with a cursory knowledge of business will tell you, is a great way to get free advertising. Take a glance at your morning publication of choice, page or click over to the “World” section, and scan the articles. Notice how many statistics and quotes come from NGO spokespeople or analysts working in the field. Rothmyer doesn’t use the word, but she hints at it: “addiction.” She suggests, correctly in my opinion, that this journalistic “jones” is largely a result of cutbacks in foreign bureau budgets and the need to feed the blogging maw with gobs of insta-content. It’s difficult, and in some cases impossible, for a journalist to get around on her own steam in places like Afghanistan. It’s easier to embed with Isaf forces, the Taliban or one of the hundreds of NGOs working around the country. They offer free trips, free data and compelling stories. Most of the journalists I met in the country did not stray from this paradigm. The outcome? Reporting on Afghanistan has been almost uniformly skewed, Western-focused and obsessed with issues that aren’t necessarily issues for Afghans.
It’s no different working in Africa. When Western journalists enter areas like Alexandra or Soweto, our first encounter is often with NGO workers. In part, it’s cultural familiarity, most are Western, or Western educated, combined with ease of access, especially in areas that can seem, initially at least, bewildering and “unnavigable”. But it also comes down to professional lassitude, both on the part of writers and editors. Of the dozens of stories bubbling away in Alexandra during the 2010 World Cup Finals, my international editors were most interested in those with a Western angle, which in this case meant an EU-funded football NGO staging a shadow tournament in the heart of the township. Where were the reporters? At the feet of the NGO spokespeople, who dispensed a stream of data that assembled, Matrix opening-sequence-like, an image of crime and destitution so bleak it made for a fabulous 700-word feel-good narrative. Elsewhere in the township, a different story emerged. The NGO spiel missed the entrepreneurship, the fact that crime was down prior to the influx of security during the Cup Finals and the dozens of small stories that help depict Alexandra in all of its furious complexity. This wasn’t Manhattan, folks. Nor was it the fourth ring of Hell. Like most places, it was somewhere in between.
Whose responsibility is it to deliver the “somewhere in between”? Surely not the NGOs, who are not interested in “in betweens”. They have staked a position and their existential fettle depends, in most cases, on a relationship with truth that skews in favour of their organisational mandate. Some groups simply go where the sick and dying are—they don’t necessarily need numbers or stories to justify their existence. Others, however, do. It comes down to whether journalists are willing to be complicit in that justification. Too often, we are.
Complicating matters, NGOs are often rampantly activist in protecting their positions. Rothmyer doesn’t mention this in her piece, but most journalists who refuse to sing the set tune tend to come in for some serious opprobrium in the form of letters to the editor, highly disappointed emails and, in some cases, the threat of lawsuits.
My beat in Afghanistan was hardly conventional: I was looking for examples of American pop culture and examining how it influenced Afghan (and, more broadly, Muslim) society. This left me on the outside of the trademarked narrative, which was: Afghanistan is a failed nation constantly at war, ergo war defines Afghanistan. In 2004, Children’s Aid had initiated a survey, asking Afghan children what they were most afraid of. Smack-dealing Islamofascists? Soviet-era butterfly landmines? Starvation? Sodomy? None of the above. Instead, the kiddies were terrified of sharks. This is astonishing for a landlocked country, until we learn that after the fall of the Taliban, bootlegged DVDs became an entertainment mainstay and the 25-year-anniversary edition of “Jaws” was a local favourite.
Children’s Aid dismissed the data as a blip, or worse, proof that the American invasion—in addition to lobbing Patriot missiles at preteen Afghan goat herders—had heralded a cultural assault. I disagreed. As far as I was concerned, this was a polled testament to the power of pop, more proof (as if any were needed) that great entertainment crosses borders and cultures and taps into something universal: in “Jaws’” case, fear Itself. I believed that this was—gasp!—a good thing, that it presaged a cultural openness that was complete anathema to the Taliban’s worldview. It would, in years to come, have a positive influence on the country, another in a series of local awakenings. I wrote this, and it was not appreciated.
In many cases the opprobrium has been more pointed and significantly more divisive. To use but one example, legendary South African journalist Rian Malan came in for a time of it after expending his solid investigatory skills debunking the official Aids statistics in South Africa. The NGO the Treatment Action Campaign went after him with alarming rabidity, accusing him of endangering lives and undercutting years of successful Aids campaigning. They weren’t without a point: Malan knowingly waded into South Africa’s longstanding and rancid Aids quagmire (see: Mbeki, Thabo), but that didn’t change the fact that his data was at least worthy of consideration. At the heart of Malan’s argument was the fact that Aids activists constantly and systematically suppressed good news, so much so that the disease became the defining African story for at least a decade. If we wonder why the West has such trouble understanding Africa as anything other than a starved cesspool of ape-born sexually transmitted super-viruses, we need look no further that the Aids aid industry, and its handmaidens in the press.
Which brings us to the gummy crux of the matter. What matters more? Sound data and solid reporting unencumbered by activist points of view? Or fewer Aids babies? Rothmyer suggests that the two need not be mutually exclusive. “Even with shrinking resources,” she writes, “journalists can do better than this. For a start, they can stop depending so heavily, and uncritically, on aid organizations for statistics, subjects, stories and sources. They can also educate themselves on how to find and interpret data available from independent sources. And they can actively seek out stories that deviate from existing story lines.”
Bad journalism leads to bad policy. A distorted perspective on one issue leads to a distorted perspective on others, warping the entire landscape. Personally, I’m committed to breaking my NGO “jones”. I just wish their Landcruisers weren’t so comfortable, their Heineken’s weren’t so cold and their research budgets didn’t dwarf the investigative reporting budgets of major international newsrooms.
Not all NGOs are that jacked, of course, and not all of them drink cold Heinekens; the majority get by on pluck and determination. Their employees often do admirable work, risking and losing their lives for what they believe in. They are a story, certainly. But they are not the only story. And they do not get the right, even by accidental dint of the collapse of newsrooms and the rise of the Internet, to define the world. Nobody does. DM
Further reading: “Hiding the Real Africa” in the Columbia Review of Journalism.
Photo: A woman carries a box of soyabean oil during a food distribution in Buge village, Wolayita region in southern Ethiopia in this picture taken on September 8, 2008 and released by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) on September 23, 2008. The United Nations appealed on Monday for $460 million to feed some 10 million Ethiopians hit by drought and high food prices. Photo taken September 8, 2008. REUTERS/Jose Cendon.
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