It began in Africa: a brief history of NGOs, the media and emergency aid

By Kevin O’Sullivan

To most of us in the developed world, disaster, emergency relief and development aid are integral to our understanding of the global South. Mention Africa and we think of Ethiopia, Live Aid, Bob Geldof and a tactless Wembley stadium belting out ‘We are the champions of the world’. We remember Somalia, Rwanda, bulging Trócaire boxes, Concern fasts in the parish community centre, Oxfam shops, missionary collections, the Far East and the GOAL Christmas Day run. In the evening we put up with ads for World Vision and a gentle voice imploring you to ‘sponsor’ a child named Ndugu disturbing the break between instalments of football, Friends and Sex and the City.

Timeless though it seems, this system is a relatively new construct. It began just over forty years ago in West Africa, on 12 June 1968, when ITV broadcast a series of heart-breaking scenes from civil war-torn eastern Nigeria, renamed Biafra by the secessionists. Among the over-crowded masses of refugees it showed starving children close to death, lying on rickety hospital beds, with little or no access to food and medicine. To today’s viewer the images are sadly familiar; but in the history of aid and emergency relief, Biafra and the massive media coverage it spawned mark an important turning point.

The images radically altered the connection between ordinary citizens in the First and Third Worlds. In the short-term they opened the doors on a world that the media had until then decided to keep closed, bringing a flood of money and goods to assist the refugees. In the longer term Biafra broke down traditional relationships, creating a direct link between living rooms in the industrialised world and the poor and destitute of the developing world in the form of international NGOs. Médecins Sans Frontières, so prominent in the current relief effort in the Caribbean, was formed in 1970 by a group of French doctors just returned from Biafra. In Ireland, the crisis inspired a group of interested individuals to form an organisation called Concern. Many of the fund-raising, distribution and bargaining tactics adopted by aid groups in Biafra were repeated in successive crises in Bangladesh and the Sahel region in the 1970s, Ethiopia and Sudan in the 1980s, Somalia and Rwanda in the 1990s, and the sophisticated global response to the 2004 Asian tsunami.

Which brings us to today, with the news of the aftershock in Haiti, and the question of how and why the media responds to crises like the one that has devastated that country. Where Biafra went in bringing suffering into middle class sitting rooms, Michael Buerk’s famous BBC report from Ethiopia followed in 1984, ‘the closest thing to hell on Earth’. The relationship it created between the media, NGOs, governments and disaster – natural and man-made – is more difficult to disentangle. In his Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, for example, former journalist Richard Dowden describes the slow response of newspaper editors in the West to the unfolding disaster in Rwanda, and how it remained off the front pages until it was far too late. ‘Aid fatigue’, a phrase commonly used by practitioners in the 1990s, spread quickly to our television screens.

Every so often, however, a crisis like that unfolding in Port-au-Prince arrives to shake us out of our stupor and re-focus our attention on why, almost forty-two years after Biafra, things remain largely unchanged. The message from Alanna Shaikh over on Aid Watch is simple: ‘Nobody wants your old shoes … Don’t donate goods … give money … Don’t go to Haiti … Don’t ignore rebuilding…’ The question for everyone else (unless you’re Rush Limbaugh) is who can we give money to? How will it be used? And, for the extra inquisitive, why has this happened again? Maybe we should be questioning motives, the dominance of the American media in highlighting a story on their doorstep when others around the world are ignored, or the propensity – highlighted in Cormac Ó Gráda’s excellent Famine: A Short History – of NGOs and aid organisations to exaggerate crises to draw in higher levels of funding. Or perhaps we should leave those questions aside for now, shut up and listen, and give carefully to those who can help.

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12 Responses to “It began in Africa: a brief history of NGOs, the media and emergency aid”

  1. Frank Says:

    Perhaps we also need to look at the profileration of aid agencies in Africa and elsewhere. One commentator on the Haitian situation expressed the view that it was unhelpful in logistical terms for so many aid agencies to be involved in the relief work as it made it harder to effectively organise them in a coordinated effort.

  2. puesoccurrences Says:

    I agree Frank. A proliferation of organisations can often do more harm than good, particularly in a logistically difficult situation like Haiti. In that case the best response is to provide assistance to organisations like Médecins sans Frontieres, Concern and others who have a long track record in Haiti, or to give to international bodies like the UN or the International Red Cross where money will assist in a massive, co-ordinated effort. Sometimes even the best intentions are not enough and people can, unintentionally, end up getting in the way rather than helping. The best response in the long-term, of course, is to tackle the factors that make a natural disaster like this have such a widespread and devastating effect. The Aid Watch site has some perceptive things to say on this, by the way, for those who want to read more:


  3. Juliana Says:

    My sister, who works for an education and development NGO herself, put me on to a few sites that rate charities for their efficiency and effectiveness in the US. They are mostly US based and US targeted charities. I wonder if there is something similar for foreign aid ones that anyone knows of?

    The sites are:

    Also, there’s an interesting article on whether these ratings mean much:

    Thanks for the thoughtful piece, Kevin


    • puesoccurrences Says:

      Many thanks for these links Juliana. It’s sparked me on to a trail to find a comparable European version, which must exist somewhere on the interweb.


  4. remaunsell Says:

    can anyone give enlightenment on the proliferation of aid agencies in Ireland?
    Its like the trotskyist left!
    trocaire ( cathloic bishops)
    concern ( from biafra)
    Goal ????????????????
    Oxfam Ireland???????

    space for some synergy?

  5. puesoccurrences Says:


    It’s complicated I’ll grant you (and one that’s the subject of my current research – a history of Irish foreign aid), but each constituent part of the Irish NGO system has its own niche. Concern, for example, has volunteers on the ground working in teams on specific projects and development programmes, while Trocaire favours support for projects through other organisations and, in the countries where its volunteers are active, support education and social development projects. Goal’s aim is to target the poor directly, by-passing bureaucratic and administrative structures by spending most of its money on the aid itself, while Gorta works in the area of agricultural development, as it was set up originally under the auspices of the FAO. Oxfam and others may have developed later, but the others were the originals of the species (Gorta is the oldest).

    Whether the entire aid system is open to synergies is a very good question, and one that has haunted practitioners and theorists almost since the concept of NGOs and development aid began, but one that looks no closer to being answered. It’s a difficult one, since there are compelling arguments both for combining forces but also for allowing each constituent to do what it’s good at and avoiding everything being concentrated in one structure, with the potential for bureaucratic inertia that would bring.

    Not an easy one to answer by any stretch.


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