A Public Relations Disaster


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VOLUNTARY AID [image, unknown] Emergency politics

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A public relations disaster
Disaster relief is a delicate business. Aid agencies have to worry about their relations with the public and
with the Third World governments - as well as struggling to meet the emergency. Tony Vaux explains.

[image, unknown]
Photo: Camera Press

Out of the darkness beyond the trader’s tent looms the head of a camel, munching his bared yellow teeth on a husk of sorghum.

The Ethiopian strikes his hand against the sack that hangs from the camel’s back, testing the quality by the rasped sound of grain. The deal is concluded by the silent negotiation of the ritual handshake, pressure of fingers beneath a strip of silk. Not a word is spoken.

Finally the camel stoops and the grain-sack falls to the ground next to a pile of others, each one marked ‘GIFT OF THE EEC - NOT TO BE SOLD OR EXCHANGED. A mound of sprawling sacks like heaped-up tombstones.

A few days later the telephone rings ‘I saw it on the News, grain being sold off, I think it was OXFAM’S.  I sent you ten pounds before Christmas - you won’t get any more from me!’

The staff member waits to put in a word but first the tide of indignation has to run its course, the donor getting his own back for what he always suspected of being a trick. Why did he give only ten pounds when people were dying? He could spend that on a single meal, If he really cared he would give more, but that would be ridiculous, out of proportion. Better to give a little and see how they use it. There are so many rumours and now a godsend, the excuse not to give more. He slams down the phone without waiting for the reply.

‘Not ours. . . probably a bag that had been re-sold after it was emptied . . . they never throw anything away. . . poor country. . . we have every confidence in our staff.., need more funds

The thoughts trail away against the harsh apathy of the dialling tone, The staff member puts down the phone and goes for lunch in the canteen, pondering a sense of injustice. He watches the mist rise above the city spires.

His feelings soften from anger to sadness and then a sense of guilt: guilt because the argument was in any case all wrong, all based on the wrong questions

We must educate the public. . . but what if the truth is not simple and hopeful but sad and depressing? What if grain is now clogging the Ethiopian ports but does not reach those who need it - not because a few tons are sold off by unscrupulous officials but because the Government directs the grain elsewhere? What if Eritrea and Tigray, the northern areas largely controlled by guerillas, receive nothing even though the people die by the thousand’? The government refuses to distribute food there - a political decision. What do we say to the public?

The question is very delicate. We are not political’. It is not our role to comment on political matters ... anyway there is the safety of our own staff to consider, the office in Addis Ababa - they would be put at risk by any statement.

Then there is the resettlement programme. Over a million people are to be moved from the densely-populated highland areas to less densely-populated areas in the South and West. In effect only those families who agree to be resettled get the relief food

The guerilla organisations claim this is a deliberate attempt to depopulate the areas of their support. They say the whole resettlement programme is political, like the decision not to send food into rebel-held areas. Foreign organisations who supply food to the Ethiopian Government are supporting its political aim; the guerillas say.

But we at Oxfam of course, are not political. We cannot take part in the debate but only respond according to need.

The sun is blotched out by a cloud. Quickly the sky becomes dark and a few drops of rain scatter against the windows of the canteen. The staff hurry back to their desks, cogs in a machine that throws out a helping hand to the poor.

The notice-board announces a petition to Government. More aid for Ethiopia. . . long-term aid . . . aid from the EEC. If more is done the problem will be solved. More money means more lives saved. A refugee family can be fed for just ten pence a day.

The coffee is getting cold. Perhaps it comes from Ethiopia. Coffee is the country’s biggest source of foreign exchange. But the farmers who grow it get very little advantage. If you travel in Ethiopia you are likely to be searched for smuggled coffee. In Addis Ababa it sells at four times the price that the producer receives, but he has to keep on producing. He is given a quota. It is illegal to cut down coffee trees, even though they make a loss.

It is not much different with grain. Farmers are forced to sell grain to the Government at prices that are sometimes less than the cost of production. As a result few farmers try to produce a surplus. The land is better left empty, and there is no point spending a lot of time on caring for it. pesticizing it, irrigating it. It might be reallocated to another owner. Anyway it is hard work and there are few men to do it. Most have been conscripted into the army, the largest in Africa.

What caused the famine? Drought? Lack of aid because of Ethiopia’s pro-Russian Government?

Some answers are more convenient than others.

The coffee cup is empty. The canteen is empty. Downstairs the phones will be ringing. ‘I saw it on television - the grain being sold.’ But that is not the issue. The problem is the grain only goes to those prepared to be resettled. Food is being used to force people to move. There may be some justification for resettlement but not enough has been done to develop farming where people already are. Security for landholders, higher crops prices - policies like that could really change the face of the highland areas. In any case the resettlement programme is going ahead far too quickly; there is bound to be a lot of suffering and stress,

‘Well, what are you doing about it?’

‘We are making representations through the international agencies.

‘And on Eritrea and Tigray’?’

‘The same.

‘Why do you not say more in public about it?’

‘We are afraid that most donors would simply take a negative attitude. They would simply stop giving.’

‘And your programmes would suffer? But are they that important?’

‘Most agencies are involved in the distribution of supplementary rations intended to give children an extra amount of food on top of the basic rations being distributed by government. If the basic ration is not distributed, obviously our activity is of less value.’

‘Then surely it would be better to concentrate on why basic rations are only provided in some areas?’

‘Yes, but that draws us into delicate political questions

‘Which you would rather avoid.’

‘We must remember what we are.

The spectre of Kampuchea, A country that was closed to the outside world until genocide had run its course. Then the agencies working with the new government found their grain being used to feed its officials, while on the other side United Nations wheat went into the army camps of the ousted Pol Pot regime. Neither could protest for fear that they would not be allowed to operate at all.

Or Somalia. The UN continued to provide inflated quantities of relief grain because it was afraid to upset its relationship with the Somali Government by questioning the figures for the number of refugees.

The rain drips down across the window. They could do with some of our rain in Africa ... but then even if it came there is still war and exploitation, man’s inhumanity to man.

Back in the office there is good news.

‘You know that story of the wheat being sold off? Someone checked it out. It was all false, the names, the places. . . we can tell the public not to worry. . . ‘

Good. It was all false, a dream, even the camel, and those steadily-munching jaws.

Tony Vaux is Disasters Officer for Ethiopia with Oxfam, UK.

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