Are they helping others or helping themselves?
famine, Norwegian documentary, humanitarians, Niger, 2005, United Nations,
"Every now and then we go through this awakening process that really makes us feel used and manipulated," a colleague told me the other day. Some time ago the Norwegian documentary film "The Famine Scam" was awarded first prize for its outstanding journalistic work on the "famine" in Niger.
Let us go back to July 2005 when we were confronted with photos of starving children in Niger. The UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator in those days informed journalists that more than 3.5 million people were starving to death in Niger. The situation was really bad! Photos of children were frequently shown on TV, and who could not be affected by their suffering? All the big humanitarian organizations appealed for funds and people responded willingly.
However, was it really as bad as that? According to the film "The Famine Scam", there never was a famine in Niger! It was, perhaps, one of those difficult years that these countries go through every now and then, but the situation was not at all the one described to us.
The government of the country protested and said that there was no famine, but its voice was not heard. Film crews went to the so-called disaster areas several times, but nobody recalls having heard about anybody dying of hunger. If, supposedly, one-third of the population was dying, somebody somewhere should have known somebody who knew somebody ...? Amazingly, nobody had heard about anybody dying of hunger. There was one child who died, but that was from malaria.
So, it turns out, the photos of the "starving" children were in fact children suffering from malaria and other diseases that had nothing to do with hunger — the disease made them incapable of eating the food that was provided.
One of the main humanitarian organizations later explained their actions to the Norwegian media. In the beginning, they had been appealing in favour of the malnutrition problem in the country. If you read their press release they are taking about "urgence nutrionnelle" [meaning dietary deficiency rather than actual famine]. They had never spoken about "famine" at all. This affair might be classified under the heading: "Lost in translation". The result was that people were misled into thinking that there was a full-scale food emergency.
On the other hand, those who really did suffer were the local farmers. When humanitarian aid began to arrive, nobody wanted to pay for food when they could get it for free. Instead of offering a helping hand to one of the poorest countries in the world, it turned into another economic disaster!
It recalls that lovely proverb: "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions." We are not here to judge so-called well-intended acts, but one may wonder: what are the reasons for this situation? Who are the winners in this game? What is the impact on the credibility of humanitarian organizations?
As an old African woman says in the film: "My son, there are people out there who talk bad about others in order to help, but what they really do is not help us but help themselves."
On these gloomy thoughts, I wish you all a wonderful day and invite you to read the interview with Per Christian Magnus, one of the producers of this film.