I blogged a while ago on the response of our aid industry to the “perfect storm” of emergency appeal factors — er, I mean, the perfect storm of factors causing the crisis in Somalia. I felt rather smug about waxing ethical on the way aid agencies dumbed down this incredibly complex crisis to drought drought and more drought, with a hint of livestock mortality.

Then, about five weeks ago, Dr. Unni Karunakara (MSF’s International President) stirred the pot with an opinion piece on the Guardian website, decrying the overly simplistic messaging of us NGOs. (In a related article, one journalist even quoted him as calling it a “con”!). There was quite a diplomatic reaction within the UK aid community, muted of course by the judicious desire to avoid a public spat.

Fundraisers and comms people, along with their CEOs, expressed concerns about the effect of “truthful” messaging that highlight the complexity and difficulties of providing aid, though of course denied any suggestion of having pumped the public with overly simplistic notions of causality ( innocent victims preserved) and of aid success (innocent NGOs as well). Return fire even included the smack of moralistic bleating, allegations MSF’s message would reduce public confidence and hence reduce donations and hence reduce the number of living Somalis. Something to that effect. Bleating aside, it’s a worthwhile discussion . The aid industry is stuck on the tricky question of whether the ends justify the means, because we know that an effective response to the crisis in Somalia will require massive funding of the sort dependent upon public generosity.

It wasn’t until I read (somewhat belatedly) this blog on AlertNet, that I realized what was bothering me with the entire discussion. The pros and cons of our messages on Somalia were being squeezed through the lens of fundraising. Thank goodness for Dominic Nutt of World Vision, who said something that might have gotten him a right bollocking in many agencies: that we have censored ourselves on issues related to politics. I’d take that further. What gives us the right to say anything about Somalia that fails on so many levels to inform our publics? That fails to help people here in the safe world understand even one tenth of what the suffering is about, staring at your wasting children in that horror of a war and depredation zone? Or that fails to advocate forcefully for access or to denounce the obstruction of groups and governments alike? No, the terms of discussion reinforced the progressive subjugation of our voice to the twin masters of the fundraising appeal and our brand identity.

Funnily enough, I heard a few comments from operations people in other organizations, and they actually praised Unni’s message. Not for its own oversimplification (making it seem “impossible” to deliver aid in Somalia), but because they were sick and tired of the sanitized messages spurting from the top floor of their own offices. Seems I belong on the top floor myself. I got locked into a closed-termed debate around income, pontificating that integrity in messaging is the only way to safeguard our publics in the long term. As if that wasn’t the smallest of reasons for integrity! For that; for losing sight of what really mattered in our voice; for becoming an aid bureaucrat: Mea culpa.

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