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Is the 'One Campaign' Being Unethical?

October 15, 2011

(Nick Scott is assistant to the publisher at PND. In his previous post, he chatted with Barbara Ibrahim, director of the Gerhart Center for Philanthropy at the American University in Cairo, about the situation in Egypt.)

ONE_Campaign_svgChoose the better tagline to promote disaster relief efforts in the Horn of Africa: "The situation in Somalia is complicated, but we'll do our best." Or, "Let's put an end to famine." It's the latter, of course, even though the first is a more accurate characterization of the situation on the ground.

Does it matter?

With contributions from American donors for famine relief lagging well behind previous disaster appeals, and the UN reporting a significant gap between the amount of aid pledged and the $2.5 billion it says is required to address the crisis, U2's Bono has pulled out all the stops, recently enlisting a Who's Who of celebrity spokespeople for his One Campaign, which bills itself as "the campaign to make poverty history." Mike Huckabee, Michael Bloomberg, Arianna Huffington, K'naan, Clive Owen, Jessica Alba, Idris Elba, Colin Farrell, Liya Kebede, Annie Lennox, Justin Long, Rob Lowe, Ewan McGregor, Evan Rachel Wood, and Kristin Davis -- all make appearances in the campaign's famine relief video appeal, The F Word - Famine is the Real Obscenity.

According to Sam Worthington, president of InterAction, a coalition of 190 international development NGOs, aid groups have raised some $60 million in private contributions from U.S. donors. "This is sharply lower than the $1.29 billion that...InterAction members raised for Haiti," he told NPR, adding that Americans tend to be especially generous after singularly dramatic events like a major earthquake or tsunami, but that it is harder to generate that kind of response for a slow-motion disaster like a famine, in which solutions to the problem tend to be elusive.

Aiming to send the message that there is a solution to the famine in East Africa, the One Campaign tells us:

Now we know how to stop this. Early Warning Systems. Food Reserves. Better Seeds and Irrigation. More Peace and Security. Drought is an Act of Nature. Famine is Man-Made. Go to One.org. Let's put a *bleep*ing end to famine....

That is strong messaging, for sure, but it's also somewhat misleading. Food reserves, agricultural development, and early warning systems have done an excellent job of staving off disaster in neighboring Ethiopia, which suffered its own devastating famine in the mid-1980s. But in Somalia,

  • the weak central government can barely maintain control over Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, let alone the entire country;
  • Al-Shabaab, an Islamist militant group, controls large swaths of the country’s southern region and is unpredictable and loosely organized; its central leadership doesn't even control the actions of regional commanders. And even in neighboring countries, the situation for foreign aid workers remains dangerous;
  • complex clan-based divisions complicate the situation further, as do secessionist groups that operate in and control semi-autonomous regions (see map).

Indeed, last month the president of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF),
Dr. Unni Karunakara, caused a stir when he criticized other aid groups for ignoring the reality of the situation in order to solicit donations. "We may have to live with the reality that we may never be able to reach the communities most in need of help," said Karunakara.

MSF has been working in Somalia for twenty years, and we know that if we are struggling, then others will not be able to work at all. The reality on the ground is that there are serious difficulties that affect our abilities to respond to need. There is a con, there is an unrealistic expectation being peddled that you give your £50 and suddenly those people are going to have food to eat. Well, no. We need that £50, yes; we will spend it with integrity. But people need to understand the reality of the challenges in delivering that aid. We don't have the right to hide it from people; we have a responsibility to engage the public with the truth....

Regardless of the level of resources commited, the sad fact is that no one -- not even Bono -- can guarantee that you and I acting together can "put an end to famine" in Somalia. This is never going to be a case of "sufficient resources + the correct plan = problem solved." That said, we can do more -- a lot more -- to support the excellent relief work being done in the region.

What do you think? Does it matter that the One Campaign's famine-relief messaging is overly simplistic and somewhat misleading if it manages to catalyze action and raise awareness of the situation? Does the campaign have a responsibility to engage the public with the truth of the situation on the ground, or is it more important to secure the donations and support that is so vital to saving lives in the region? Is effective but misleading messaging okay when the stakes are so high?

-- Nick Scott

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