Invisible People

Howard French once noted that,  “as a matter of convention, we constantly say and write things about Africa that would be unimaginable with any other continent.”

Just imagine the scale of the international media storm that would’ve ensued if the UN Refugee Agency had put out a press release warning that:

…funding difficulties, compounded by security and logistical problems, have forced cuts in food rations for nearly 800,000 refugees in Europe, threatening to worsen unacceptable levels of acute malnutrition, stunting and anaemia, particularly in children.

But, of course, this UNHCR/WFP Urgent Appeal wasn’t for refugees in Europe.

It was for Africa.

And so newspaper editors near and far felt perfectly at ease passing over the story or picking out 65 words of it to run in World Briefs section on page B17.

The story barely made a ripple.

We’re not dealing with anonymous people starving out in the bush. We’re dealing with people whose names have been registered by the United Nations, people living in camps donors set up and run. Camps we set up and run.

I guess people who’ve been around the Humanitarian enterprise longer than me will roll their eyes at my surprise. But I’ve been genuinely shocked at the total news void that the UNHCR’s July 1st Urgent Appeal fell into.

I tended to just assume that there were structures in place to prevent large numbers of people already under UN protection from just slowly starving. I had a vague sense that large, professional bureaucracies were in charge of these matters and someone somewhere would do something before you got to the stage of cutting off additional food deliveries to pregnant women and breastfeeding moms. I just took it for granted that the right alarm bells would go off in the right switchboard and find the right official response.

Obviously, I’m pretty green on these issues.

Still, the monstrous conundrum remains: how can something like this happen?

William Vollmann writes beautifully about “invisibility” as one of the defining features of poverty. Poor people can go missing or die without anyone noticing. That’s part of what it means to be poor.

Combine that with French’s insight up top and you start to grasp why an almost complete cloak of invisibility has fallen over African refugees.

It doesn’t seem to matter at all that we’re talking about people living under “international protection”. It doesn’t shift the needle that the refugee camps where they live were designed by bureaucrats in Geneva and paid for by donor countries. None of that seems to help.

And I suppose that’s the part that’s really shaken me about this story.

I can just about understand how a story about a famine in Africa gets tuned out of first world opinion. Famines are usually set off by wars together with droughts, they affect people who are widely dispersed, hard to reach, anonymous, remote. I’m not happy that so many people see famine as “one of those things that can’t be helped”, but I can understand it: the entire question is remote and vexing and depressing and it’s not entirely obvious how worrying about it would make anything better.

But what’s happening in Central Africa right now isn’t nothing like that.

We’re not dealing with anonymous people starving out in the bush. We’re dealing with people whose names have been registered by the United Nations, people living in camps donors set up and run. Camps we set up and run.

We’re dealing with enormous suffering generated not by war or drought but by Donor Fatigue, that ghastly euphemism for the international community’s inability to find relatively small sums of money to make good on its clear obligation to protect victims of conflict.

In Central Africa, the world is facing something I’ve never even heard of before: a kind of slow-burn famine inside U.N. facilities.

And nobody cares.

Listen, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that development questions are hard. The processes involved are complicated and slow and subject to reversals and there’s a decent argument to be made that outsiders can’t understand how they happen and end up hindering them as often as they help.

Some humanitarian questions, on the other hand, are easy. And this is one of them. There isn’t any great conceptual difficulty here. There’s just a question of willingness and moral clarity and determination. You can’t allow 450,000 people under your care to starve in camps you built for them. It’s really pretty simple.

Darfur Chart 2.005Anyway, I don’t feel able to just ignore this issue. It feels indecent to do one post and move on. There’s a time for analysis, and there’s a time for advocacy. This is a time for advocacy. 

9 thoughts on “Invisible People”

  1. Brilliant post. It’s shocking, indeed. I was reading just yesterday a Joe Sacco’s comic reportage about the camps that Russians aid agencies and Russian army built in 2001 or 2002 to retain tchechenians, and how Putin decided then to erase those camps -by almost any mean- to make its point that Tchechnya war was over and he had won it.
    But your piece also reminds me what happen in Peru when the Nation Truth and Reconciliation Comission tried -exactly in those years, after Fujimori- to establish the number of casualties in the war between the Peruvian army and police, Sendero Luminoso and MRTA. And it was impossible, because thousands and thousand of victims were never recognized as citizens and had no record at all to the State: indigenous people that lived in the Andes or the Amazonía until the guerrillas or the army killed them. They were invisible except for themselves and the violence.

    1. That’s right. Though I guess what really grabbed me about this story is the way UNHCR are not like the victim’s of Peru’s wars.

      Out of all the people in acute need in Africa, none have been more exhaustively catalogued, recorded and bureaucratized than those living in UNHCR camps. All of their names are sitting right now in record books in Geneva, Rafa. And yet…

  2. A large part of the problem is though that in many camps in Africa people are just “parked” for years totally dependant on outside agency aid (even decades in northern Uganda). It’s a totally bad solution and I can perfectly understand that people are tired of paying for that non-sense. But as with many such occasions, collateral damage to actual short term camps (at least so far as in CAR or SS) is what it really causing a lot of damage.

    1. The policy question is complicated. It’s clear that no one in their right mind is willing to even countenance the kind of military engagement it would take to get a less aggressively nasty regime in Khartoum, and nobody has any clue how to build viable states in CAR or South Sudan.

      Those are hard questions.

      Here’s what’s not hard: when you have people already living under your protection you cannot let them starve.

      For. Fuck’s. Sake.

  3. I am not only talking about the larger policy issue, but also the very practical question of what can be done better in regards to refugees?

    Take Dadaab in Kenya, that camp is massive and has existed since decades; And as far as I know the main reason it exists is that the Kenyan government wants to concentrate (which gives a horrible mental picture of other concentration camps in history…) Somali refugees there. Reasons given are: wanting to leave a window open to get rid of them again, avoiding infiltration of “terrorists” and preventing conflict with Kenyan society at large, which does not want a lot of Somali immigrants.
    However they would have never be able to actually build and sustain such a massive camp in the middle of the desert without all the food (and other) aid pouring in.
    Most likely they would have been forced to somehow integrate the somali refugees in their society, which would have been the much better overall solution. 300.000 people is a lot in a camp, but not that much when distributed amongst millions all over the country.

    As business as usual has continued for a long time, I think such a catastrophic shortage of funds might the the only thing that lets people at the UN etc. headquarters rethink their camp strategy.

  4. Thanks so much for this post. I also find this infuriating, and completely unacceptable. However, I do still wonder what the risks are for increased humanitarian funding/food aid to fall into the wrong hands and prolong conflict (a la Are refugee camps typically far enough removed from conflict areas that the risk is small? Either way, my guess would be that the aid is still worth it (it’s hard to imagine anything that would justify allowing 800,000 people to slowly starve to death), but I’d like to see more information on the complexities and risks of this kind of aid if you have.

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