When I get nostalgic for folksy American journalism, I think of Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story” broadcasts. In his rather unique delivery, Harvey would tell some story, hiding until the end the identity of its protagonist. That was the surprise that transformed the rest. Like a story about a kid who was so scared of heights, he was afraid to get on a playground swing. The poor lad would have been mercilessly teased and abused a child, crying to his mama on a daily basis. And then (after the commercial break!) Harvey would reveal that child to have grown up to become somebody like Orville Wright or Yuri Gagarin.
Now Saturday’s Observer brings us similar broadcast. A fading superpower rides the high and mighty humanitarian horse of generosity, compassion and moral imperative into crisis. The good nation sends heavyweight envoys to demonstrate commitment. They make thoughtful, pained pronouncements on the terrible suffering of the innocents. The good nation scolds other actors into stepping up the response. The good nation even organizes a conference to help stabilize the country, because it’s a very messy place. Then, lo and behold, it turns out there is oil to be found underneath that mess; a failed state whose failure doesn’t bode well for extraction industries based in the good nation. The countries? The UK and Somalia. “And now you know the rest of the story. Paul Harvey. Good day.”
I doubt very much that The Rest of the Story broadcasts would have lasted over thirty years if they contained such an anti-climactic finish as that one. Sorry, you probably saw in coming. And I have no doubt there will never be a self-contained “rest” of the story for Somalia.
Appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Andrew Mitchell, the UK’s International Development Secretary, strenuous denied the accusation, awarding the Observer’s journalist “the prize for the most cynical piece of journalism this century”.
Unfortunately, sexy accusastions resonate a lot better than predictable denials. (Odd, isn’t it, that the one thing retractions don’t have is traction?). Somalis will be repeating for two generations that we humanitarians were sent to their country because of the oil. Here’s Bashir Goth’s take on it: “No politician and especially a British for that matter flaunt naked objectives. They have to be sugar coated with diplomacy and altruism.” So billions of dollars of work is reduced to the colorful exterior of an M&M.
Apologies for repeating the message of the previous blog. But humanitarian don’t need more nails in the coffin of our perceived integrity. As if the good doctor were not enough. A government like the UK working to advance its military, economic and security interests is, well, what a government like the UK is supposed to do.
What is maybe more interesting is the rest of the story. We humanitarians are often in search of our own oil, in search of the donations we are able to extract from our (marketing claims of an effective) presence in the Horn crisis. Humanitarianism is increasingly constructed on this basis of extraction and exploitation. Using misery to mine gold. That doesn’t mean it fails to deliver good. Ditto for the UK government in Somalia. But we need to make sure Somalis like Goth aren’t writing the same thing about us.