Friday, October 23, 2009

25 years after Ethiopian famine, donors still reliant on reactive food aid

Twenty-five years ago today, BBC correspondent Michael Buerk filed this report on Ethiopia's now infamous famine. I watched it again today, and I had forgotten how harrowing it was. For me the worst image wasn't the skeletal corpses of young children. It was hundreds of desperate people tottering across the plain on stick-thin legs, using up what little energy they had left in a shaky sprint prompted by the rumour of a food delivery.

Buerk's dispatch prompted Band Aid's "Do They Know Its Christmas?" single and the subsequent Live Aid concerts, raising millions of pounds. But over a million people still died.

So, 25 years later, have we learned anything from the Ethiopian famine? Not according to Oxfam. Its report, Band Aids and Beyond, says donors are still focusing on "knee-jerk" emergency food deliveries rather than trying to prepare communities for drought and developing local capacity.

Ethiopia proved Oxfam's point on Thursday, appealing for emergency food aid to feed 6.2 million people. Across the East and Horn of Africa 23 million people are facing hunger and need assistance. Should we be surprised by this? Drought has long been a problem in the region, and is just going to get worse as climate change hits home. Yet hardly any money is flowing into programmes designed to help communities cope by doing simple things like collecting rain water.

Late last year, I travelled around the border region of Kenya and Ethiopia, visiting communities hit by the long-term drought. Not one of the village I visited were doing anything to help themselves, other than to buy guns to steal cattle and pasture from other tribes.

So why are these communities so passive? Because they are used to receiving massive dumps of food aid or having water trucked in by Western donors. They are happy to sit and wait for aid workers to come and do for them simple things they could do themselves - like putting up guttering and storage tanks to collect water when it does rain. Even that task has been farmed out to donors, who are doing too little of that kind of work.

The guy I was travelling with - who worked for a donor agency doing some small-scale work in drought preparedness - has worked in the region for over two decades and witnessed the growing dependency on aid. At a village meeting under an acacia tree, he went as far as telling the community they had "turned into a bunch of beggars".

He was right, except it isn't really their fault. We have turned them into a bunch of beggars.

Commercial and political interests lie behind the focus on food aid, and the US is simultaneously the biggest donor and culprit as Nicholas Martlew, the author of the Oxfam report, told me.

"There have been attempts to de-link aid from narrow commercial interests, but the US farm lobby has blocked progress," he said. "There are also political reasons (for food aid): it looks good to have sacks of food sent by the US people arriving in disasters-hit regions."

You only have to look at the makeshift shelters thrown up by refugees to see how much food the US dumps on communities - empty cans, boxes and sacks bearing prominent US logos are a popular and readily available building material, as evidence in the photograph, taken at Dadaab refugee camp.

Sending food aid is expensive for the US taxpayer, according to Oxfam costing up to 2 dollars to pack and ship each dollar of food. But the powerful farm lobby is not keen to see US dollars being given directly to people in developing countries to buy food locally, as many economists and charities are now recommending as a way of developing local markets.

The new US administration says it wants to change its focus to help local farmers produce more. This year, the US committed 3.5 billion over three years to help increase global food security. By contrast, in 2008, Food for Peace – the US’s main food aid programme – spent 2.6 billion dollars delivering food produced in the US to 49 countries. So there is still some way to go. But at least it appears to be a move in the right direction.

It is clear that food aid cannot be just cut off. But until donors start shifting funding toward pre-emptive measures, they and the countries they are trying to help will be caught in a reactive and expensive cycle of aid dependency. And that is not good for anyone.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

When not to cheat in your exams

I know that the cops in Kenya are trigger happy, but this image from today's Standard shows things might have gotten a bit out of hand.

Teacher: "Johnson, is that writing on your arm? Cheating, eh? Officer!"


(Johnson sprawls dead to the ground, blood mixing with ink on his scrawny 15-year-old arm).

Teacher: "Let that be a lesson to the rest of you."

(Silence and the sound of scribbling. Whispering at the back of class)

Teacher: "Njoroge, are you passing a note? Officer!"


Njoroge turns into a bloody rag.

(More silence. Then the sound of scraping)

Teacher: "Hey Odinga. Are you writing answers on the floor with Njoroge's blood? Officer!"


And so on.

Could this be a solution to the breakdown in discipline in UK and US schools? I find teenagers really annoying, so I'm all for it.

In fact, maybe we can send some Kenyan police to Geneva to wipe out all those tectonic kids with their spazzy dancing and daft haircuts (please note kids: the mullet looked appalling the first time around, inserting euro- or fashion- before the phrase does not actually affect the sheer awfulness of this style)*

Officer: "Hey, are you dancing like you have a family of large and energetic spiders living in your pants, spraying teenage hormones over passers by and generally just blocking the street with your desperate, pathetic attempts to find someone who is actually foolish enough to shag you?"


We have to be sure they are dead.

*Disclaimer: I am not really advocating the mindless and brutal slaughter of teenagers who are simply finding ways of expressing themselves, as I too have had many stupid haircuts and wore things like leopardskin fringe jackets. If a psychotic killer armed with grenades, knives and automatic weapons should head down to Lake Geneva, just down from the Jet d'Eau, near the bridge and just across from the Old Town on any Saturday afternoon and let fly, I am not responsible.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

KPLC, you are my Mr. Miyagi

Dear Kenya Power and Lighting Company,

I am writing to express my gratitude to you for teaching me a valuable life lesson. As Mister Miyagi mentored the Karate Kid, so have you mentored me. Only one year ago I was an uptight Mzungu, full of trivial earthly desires, such as having lights to stop me falling down the stairs at night and power for mere trifles like hot water and cooking.

Today, thanks to your regularly administered power outages and trance-inducing delays in fixing said outages, I am a humbled, patient man.

Only one year ago, I believed that power companies would try to plan for contingencies. I thought, for example, that you would have considered that Kenya is prone to periods of drought, that it has several rainy seasons each year and that rapid urban expansion is demanding more power.

Can you believe I actually thought that you, KPLC - and your masters the Kenyan government – would be grappling with these issues and trying to find ways to solve them?

Yes, I was that fool. But you, KPLC, wisest of all power companies, have taught me the error of my ways.

You understand that to attempt to battle Mother Nature is like trying to grasp mist. It is better to simply allow the hydroelectric dams to run dry, then raise your hands to the sky and cry : “Mother Nature has decreed there will be no power!” Then double the price of electricity.

When the rains come, when the power lines across Nairobi spit out blue fire in praise of the Electricity Gods and homes are plunged into darkness, it is best for the lady in your call centre to tell your customer, who is calling you for the fifth time in two days: “It is the rain.” Then hang up.

But your repairmen, truly they are masters of zen.

A few months ago, I would hop with anger and yell, my face going bright red like so many of those others silly white people who are always complaining about something or other. I would wonder why on earth these repairmen had to keep coming back – more than a dozen times in six weeks - to “fix” the same problem

Then today I met your team, who turned up a mere 48 hours after I first reported my power was down. These men, five perfect proponents of Zen, were parked outside my neighbour's gate in a tiny van, waiting for the guard to let them in. After waiting for ten minutes, during which period not one of them got out of the van to find out what was going on – what patience! - I came back from the office and led them to the right compound.

These men are astonishing. They live in the moment like no other human being. They proudly announced to me that the problem was solved because they had “changed a fuse.” Lo, was my electricity restored!

What mastery of the time/space continuum! What a complete lack of memory of previous visits! Even my attempts to explain to them how electrical systems actually work and that a blown fuse is usually a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself - particularly when it blows repeatedly - could not penetrate their Zen armor. These men will return tomorrow to change the same fuse, completely unaware of what went before. Amazing!

It was at this point I finally realized the error of my ways. As I watched them climb back into their van and drive away, content at a job well done, I knew I must follow your example.

From now on, no problem in my life will go resolved. If anything goes wrong, I will simply blame a series of entirely predictable and preventable factors instead of facing up to the problem. I will refuse to learn from any experience. I will forget what went before and concentrate on maintaining a perfect state of reactive vacancy.

And, most importantly, the next time the power fails, I will not call you. I will simply wait patiently, my hands folded, and contemplate the majesty of life while the milk goes off in the fridge and my infant child cries in the dark for its mother, who has fallen done the stairs and broken her neck in the darkness.

This gift you have given me.

Michael Logan.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Aggravated Homosexuality punishable by death

"Aggravated homosexuality" may sound like what happens when a gay man comes home grumpy following a shitty day at work and decides that a quick worship at the Church of Man Love will calm him down, only to find that his bad temper lingers and he is too spanky for his partner's taste.

But alas it is far more sinister than that.

"Aggravated homosexuality" is in fact a proposed offence in Uganda's new Anti-Homosexuality bill and covers people who have gay sex with under 18s or disabled people, or who have gay sex while HIV positive. If the bill is passed, this offence will be punishable by death. That's right. Death. I don't know if they would kill somebody three times for having sex with a disabled person under 18 while HIV positive, but given Uganda's tough on gays, tough on the causes of gays policy, it wouldn't surprise me.

The Gambia's insane President Yahya Jammeh periodically threatens to cut the heads of gay people, but he never does it. However, Uganda may actually be hanging gay men in the next few years. Now, being gay and Ugandan has never been a happy combination - is is already illegal and gay and lesbian people are subject to arbitrary arrest and assualt - particularly given the virulent Christianity popular there, but this takes the biscuit.

Even if this particular paragraph is not passed or is never put into practice, the rest of the bill is just as harsh. Seven years imprisonment is the punishment for "promoting homosexuality", which rights groups say will hamper their work and also threaten the battle against HIV/AIDS. Straight people can be prosecuted for failing to report suspected homosexuals.

Unfortunately, anyone who lives in East Africa will not be surprised that a bill like this could be passed. I have asked many people here about their attitudes to gay and lesbian people and unfortunately there is a strong belief that they deserved to be punished for their crimes against God.

If I were gay and Ugandan, I would be packing up right now and heading for Mombasa to hitch a lift on a gay cruise ship, where I could happily play shuffleboard and have massive amounts of consenual gay sex with whoever I want, even if they do have a limp (please note only one of these pursuits is perverted).

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Lazy writer

After a massive spurt (Carry On fans, feel free to titter), I have not written a single word on the book for the last week. This is partly because we were down at Steve and Sue's villa on the Indian Ocean, oh posh us, and I went on a reading frenzy while lying on the terrace listening to the waves slapping against the coral cliffs below us.

On the way down we had a tyre blow out at 100kph, which probably should have been more terrifying than it was. The car did not flip over and roll, or skid into the path of an oncoming truck. It just wobbled a bit, like my bowels, and was harder to control as I braked to a halt.

Anyhoo, tonight I am going to get back onto the horse and continue with the 2nd draft. I hope to have a decent version finished by mid-December, so if anybody wants to volunteer as a reader (other than those who have already been nominated/nominated themselves), please let me know.

Be warned, however: just because I have a big baldy forehead this does not mean the book is highbrow. It isn't, as the title - Apocalypse Cow - will probably hint at. Normally I attempt to write serious, thoughtful stories, but this piece of nonsense is just splurging out of me and needs dealt with before I can move on to ghost-writing the biography of my good friends and ethical folk-pop-rockers Quentin and Crisp, a project I am very excited about.

I am looking for people who are happy to give an honest opinion that is more in-depth than: it's shit/I fell asleep after three pages/I guess it's alright if you like that sort of thing. I am likely to be sick of the sight of the thing by then, so will need fresh eyes to point out the huge plot holes an overweight hippo could meander through without touching the sides.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

If Monty Python had known any aid workers...

Four recently retired aid workers sitting together in Gypsy bar in Nairobi. "Do me" by P-Square being played in the background while they drink Tusker beer.

MSF worker (Francoise): Ahh. Very passable, this, very passable.

UNHCR worker (Lesley): Nothing like a good glass of Tusker, eh Jeff?

Oxfam worker (Jeff): You're right there, Lesley.

WFP worker (Maria): Who'd of thought we'd one day all be sitting here drinking Tusker?

Francoise: Yeah. Back in Somalia, we were grateful just to have a cup of water.

Lesley: A cup of dirty water.

Maria: Scooped out of a toilet.

Francoise: In a filthy, cracked cup.

Jeff: Full of cholera.

Maria: We never used to have a cup. We used to have to drink out of old socks.

Francoise: The best WE could manage was to jam a straw made out of goat bones into a camel’s hump and suck really hard.

Jeff: But you know, we were happy, even though life was so hard.

Francoise: Aye. Because we were saving lives. My old Dad used to say to me: "Saving lives is more important than having a sit-down toilet.”

Maria: He’s right. I was happier in Darfur even though we used to live in tiny little concrete house with holes in the roof.

Lesley: House? You were lucky to have a HOUSE! In Goma, we used to live in one room, all hundred and twenty-six of us, no furniture. Half the floor was missing; we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of FALLING!

Jeff: You were lucky to have a ROOM! In Liberia, we used to have to live in a corridor!

Francoise: Ohhhh we used to DREAM of living in a corridor! It would’ve been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank in Mogadishu. We got woken up every morning by having goat innards thrown over us! House!? Hmph.

Maria: Well, when I say "house" it was only a hole in the ground covered by a piece of tarpaulin, but it was a house to US.

Lesley: The rebels evicted us from our hole in the ground; we had to go and live in Lake Kivu!

Jeff: You were lucky to have a LAKE! There were a hundred and sixty of us living in a small shoebox in the middle of the road.

Francoise: Cardboard box?

Jeff: Yes

Francoise: You were lucky. We lived for three months in a brown paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six o'clock in the morning, clean the bag, eat some stale rice, go work in the hospital saving lives for fourteen hours a day week in-week out. When we got home, al-Shabaab would give us forty lashes and makes us say thank you!

Lesley: Luxury. We used to have to get out of the lake at three o'clock in the morning, eat a handful of cold beans, go to work at the refugee camp every day for only 5,000 euros a month tax free, come home, and the CNDP would beat us around the head and neck with broken bottles and then rape us.

Jeff: Well we had it tough. We used to have to get up out of the shoebox at twelve o'clock at night, and LICK the wounded clean with our tongues. We had half a handful of uncooked maize, worked twenty-four hours a day at the food distribution point for only 4,000 euros a month tax free. When we got home, the rebels would kidnap us, tie us blindfolded to radiators then cut our hands off.

Maria: Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o'clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold sand soaked in camel piss, work twenty-nine hours a day in the camp, and when we got home, the Janjaweed would kill us and dance about on our graves singing. And we only got paid 3,000 euros a month tax free.

Francoise: Only 3,000 euros a month? Now that is hardship.

ALL: Yup, yup

Shamelessly stolen from Monty Python and then monkeyed with. Click here for the original sketch