"A human being is part of a whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself,  his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." Albert Einstein

Fame, famine and the aid game

“If [aid agencies] stop [sending aid] people will die, but if they supply aid, the war carries on anyway.  Who suffers in the end?  It’s the people on the ground.”

“If [aid agencies] stop [sending aid] people will die, but if they supply aid, the war carries on anyway.  Who suffers in the end?  It’s the people on the ground.”

“There is nothing like a disaster to boost an aid agency’s profile.”  It’s a truism evidenced by every humanitarian crisis in recent history, from the Sudanese famine captured by Kevin Carter’s iconic photograph as described in The Bang Bang Club, to the crisis now gripping West Africa.

Carter’s haunting image, of a starving child stalked by a vulture, attracted worldwide attention when it was published on the front page of the New York Times in 1993.  Five years earlier the Times warned of Sudan’s “looming famine” as the UN called for intervention.  By 1992, the UN said $190 million was needed to help 1.5 million people facing severe food shortages.  By 1993, that number had escalated to 2.6 million people, according to the international development agency US Aid.   ­

What the UN and the media had struggled to do until Carter happened upon the scene of a dying child was show the incontrovertible evidence of a human tragedy – the international community could no longer avert its gaze. Carter went on to win the Pulitzer Prize but as with the people on whom the camera lens momentarily shines, and millions on whom it never does, the child’s fate remains unknown.

“The media can be as powerful as a weapon,” says Jean Luc Dushime, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and a photojournalist whose experiences of how the Western world “participated in the crisis” has moved him to seek alternative ways to use photography to advocate for change.

In 1994, at the height of the conflict that claimed 800,000 lives, Dushime and his family walked for miles through the Rwandan jungle to find refuge in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Their only access to the outside world was Voice of America, whose reports they heard on mobile radios.  “The media were telling people not to go to areas that were under siege.  Because of that, thousands of people who were trying to get out stopped trying and were trapped,” he recalls.

“Most of the time the Western media is trying to tackle the symptoms instead of the real causes of the disease.  I have been a refugee so I know that when aid organisations give food it ends up in the market and is used by warlords and to buy other things; that all perpetrates wars.

“If [aid agencies] stop [sending aid] people will die, but if they supply aid, the war carries on anyway.  Who suffers in the end?  It’s the people on the ground.”

Today, 15 million people across the Sahel including in Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Chad and Senegal are facing food shortages that the humanitarian community warns could result in a crisis akin to that which began in the Horn of Africa last year.  As with Sudan, the early warning signs from both regions came long before the tipping point.

Christian Aid has been working with communities in the Sahel for the past three years to build their resilience against disaster.  News and Campaigns Editor Andrew Hogg says it is “deeply frustrating” that people do not respond to calls for prevention, “but the reality is that the numbers have not been catastrophic and the crisis was not of sufficient magnitude until now to prompt a more significant response”.

Christian Aid avoids using images of starving children in its campaigns.  However, Hogg, a former foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times, concedes that the impact of photographs showing a child in extremis cannot be ignored: “As the situation was unfolding in the Horn of Africa it did not attract any headlines.  The absence of stark images coming out of Somalia, owing to the restrictions journalists’ faced trying to get into the country, meant that it did not get much coverage either.”

Dushime is not unsympathetic to what he feels is the self-perpetuating system that journalists and humanitarian campaigners have become entrenched in.  But he challenges the claim that their mission is to protect people’s dignity.

He believes the portrayal of Africa as a continent in perpetual need diminishes the resilience of Africans and causes the West to lose faith.  Rather than enabling citizens to heal, images that reinforce the sense of desperation create a dependency on aid that is fuelled by the mainstream media and only sustains the organisations that Dushime describes as part of a “money-making machine”.

“What’s happening in Darfur, Sudan, the Congo?” he says.  “These are all deeper issues, where private corporations are mining the place of minerals and resources, which fuel the warlords and feed corruption.  That’s the issue that needs debating.”  He adds: “We talk about the Sahel but why not show these pictures in Khartoum or in neighbouring countries so that Africans can find a way to help themselves?”

The case for disaster risk reduction is a sticking point for the aid industry.  According to Oxfam, Ethiopia lost an average of US$1.1bn to drought every year between 1997 and 2007, compared with the US$1.3bn provided each year by international aid over the same period.  While in 2005 in Niger when the country’s children were facing malnutrition, CARE International said immediate intervention would have cost US$1 a day compared to the US$80 it ultimately cost to save one child’s life.

Katie Hatch, an aid worker who has worked with refugees in Africa since 2002, suggests that non-governmental organisations, like society, are overwhelmingly reactive: “Not enough value is placed investing in research that would lead to the development of a new proactive programme.  That would involve dismantling the current aid model and rebuilding it in such a way that addresses the problems that we know exist.  It would mean examining everything we do and questioning our approach, which could lead NGOs to admit they have been wrong all these years.  That could be a risky move – which donors will give to an organisation that admits that?”

Dushime plans to return to Africa to help people tell a more positive story that does not rely on the mainstream media.

“The machine is broken,” he says. “It will take time and willingness in Africa and from countries outside to actively engage in debate.  We need to find a new agenda, we need a new picture.”

Welcome to Britain: The Ugandan Asian Diaspora