This explosive NGO growth means increasing competition for funds. And according to the head of a large US-based NGO in Nairobi, “When you’re fundraising you have to prove there is a need. Children starving, mothers dying. If you’re not negative enough, you won’t get funding.” So fierce is the competition that many NGOs don’t want to hear good news. An official of an organization that provides data on Somalia’s food situation says that after reporting a bumper harvest last year, “I was told by several NGOs and UN agencies that the report was too positive.”
Rasna Warah, a Kenyan who worked for UN-Habitat before leaving to pursue a writing career, says that exaggerations of need were not uncommon among aid officials she encountered. “They wanted journalists to say ‘Wow.’ They want them to quote your report,” she says. “That means more money for the next report. It’s really as cynical as that.”
Western journalists, for their part, tend to be far too trusting of aid officials, according to veteran Dutch correspondent Linda Polman. In her book The Crisis Caravan, she cites as one example the willingness of journalists to be guided around NGO-run refugee camps without asking tough questions about possible corruption or the need for such facilities. She writes, “Aid organizations are businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa, but that’s not how reporters see them.”
Pushed and pulled by slashed budgets and increased demands, journalists are growing increasingly reliant on aid groups. Sometimes that involves not just information or a seat on a supply plane, but deep involvement in the entire journalistic process.
In an online essay written in 2009, Kimberly Abbott of the International Crisis Group discussed a 2005 Nightline program on Uganda that her NGO helped to produce and fund. It was hosted by actor Don Cheadle, the star of Hotel Rwanda. Nightline’s Ted Koppel explained in his introduction, as retold by Abbott: “Cheadle wanted his wife and daughters to get a sense of the kind of suffering that is so widespread in Africa. The International Crisis Group wanted publicity for what is happening in Uganda. And we, to put it bluntly, get to bring you a riveting story at a greatly reduced expense.” According to Abbott, “versions of such partnerships are happening now in print and broadcast newsrooms across the country, though many are reluctant to discuss them too openly.”
Daniel Dickinson, a former BBC reporter who is now a communications officer for the European Union in Nairobi, has seen the impact of technology and economics on reporting on Africa first-hand. “The big difference in the past five to ten years is the expansion of the Internet,” he says. “Journalists have got to feed these animals. Add to that the financial crash, and more and more internationals are taking the content we offer them.”
Ben Parker, co-founder and head of IRIN, a news agency that is part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, admires Dickinson’s success. “He does stories and they’re picked up whole,” Parker says. IRIN itself can point to many similar successes in finding takers for its stories on aid projects. “The Western media won’t reprint us verbatim,” he says. “But some plagiarize.”
Lauren Gelfand, a correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly who is based in Nairobi, says most reporters she knows string for three or four news organizations to make ends meet, and can’t afford to do time-consuming stories. She saw the effect when she took a year off from journalism to work for Oxfam. “If reporters were going to cover a development story it had to be easy,” remembers Gelfand, noting that the simplest sell was a celebrity visit to an aid project.
Gelfand says that her Oxfam experience helped her to understand just how much attention ngos put on getting their story told. “All the talking points are carefully worked out . It’s a huge bureaucracy and there are as many levels of control as in any government,” she says of Oxfam, adding that many NGOs are reluctant to cooperate with media unless they know they’ll be shown in a positive light.