"The Famine Scam"

9 September 2009

In 2005 a BBC reporter made television reports about a famine in Niger. The international humanitarian organizations reacted quickly with aid. It later came to light that there had never been any famine. How did this situation arise?

It was purely by chance that Per Christian Magnus and his colleague Robert Reinlund came to Niger in February 2007. They were, in fact, following the Norwegian Red Cross’s White Truck Project, and the last stop on the trip was Niger. A journalist is always a journalist, so they started to ask people about how they had survived the awful famine of 2005. To their astonishment, people looked at them curiously and said: “What famine?” Magnus and Reinlund were more specific: “Well, the big crisis in 2005 where more than 3.6 million people were faced with starvation.” The television had shown first-hand accounts of this terrible event and Norwegian humanitarian organizations had collected huge amount of aid. It was therefore strange that nobody knew about it … We asked Magnus and Reinlund to explain.

Q: Could you tell us how your project started?

When visiting Niger for the first time in February 2007, we realized it might be good journalism to investigate what that country had experienced in the summer and autumn of 2005. We carried out several interviews during this first visit. That was the start. Upon returning to Norway we teamed up with an excellent researcher, Anne Marie Groth, who had considerable experience of research on humanitarian crises in Africa. We realized after a while that media coverage of the 2005 crisis raised several interesting questions about how the international media functioned in Africa, as well as how collaboration between NGOs and the media works. We went back to Niger in September 2007, travelling for several weeks in the regions that supposedly had been stricken by the "famine", and talked to more than fifty farmers and "ordinary" people, in addition to representatives of NGOs and Niger politicians.

Q: How long did it take to make your documentary?

Between our first visit to Niger in February 2007 and the time the film was broadcast in Norway (March 2008) twelve months had elapsed. Even though we worked on another project in between, it took us this amount of time to complete the documentary.

Q: How did you feel when nobody could tell you anything about the famine?

First of all, there is no doubt that the summer of 2005 was a hard time for farmers and the great majority of the people living in poverty in Niger. However, what we question in the film is the use of the term "famine". The media and the large NGOs — in addition to the UN — used this term for a whole year. "Famine" calls for a certain reaction from the international community, e.g. the delivery of large amounts of free food. According to the statistics, the hard time in the summer of 2005 was little worse than average — every year being a hard year in Niger. Given the huge international operation that was set in motion because the word "famine" had been used to describe the situation, it really was astonishing to meet so many local people whose perception of the situation was totally different.

Q: You met the local population and even a Norwegian family living in the supposedly most famine-stricken area. What did they tell you about the famine?

We met farmers and people working in the fields in the region that the UN and the BBC had claimed to be hardest stricken by the famine. They told us that they had heard of no-one dying of hunger. This contradicted BBC reports which stated that "thousands have died here during the last weeks and months". The BBC report was made in a village where people told us that no-one had died — except for those who had been crushed in the queues to receive free food!

Q: How do you explain what we were hearing about the “famine”?

When the rainy season starts (normally in early summer) the malaria epidemic increases dramatically in Niger (mostly due to the increase of mosquitoes in the damp climate). Thus, more than a dramatic lack of food, the problem confronting the people of Niger was malaria, which particularly affects small children. The statistics on child deaths in Niger are terrible: every year, one in every four or five children dies before reaching the age of 5. And malaria is the big killer. However, when free food is the "medicine" prescribed by the international community, the NGOs and the UN, it really does not have any impact the real problem. On the contrary, free food harms local economic structures: farmers give up their work on the fields to receive food donations; local markets are wiped out, etc.

Q: The Niger authorities have blocked access by M?decins sans Fronti?res France to the country. Do you have any explanation?

I do not know the specific reason for the Niger Government’s decision to block MSF France, but it might have something to do with the situation in 2005. MSF was in the forefront of the international media’s coverage of the situation in the country. The President and the then Prime Minister were labelled as "typical corrupt African leaders" who did nothing about the suffering of their people. The Government was irritated about the way their country was portrayed by the media during the summer of 2005. Niger is a relatively peaceful country with an elected President and an elected Government.

Q: You have won international prizes for this documentary film. Why is it not possible to see it on other TV channels outside Norway?

A major part of the film consists of BBC archive material, which we had purchased from the BBC ahead of the actual production. Normally, we produce films only for the Norwegian market. Thus, we only acquired the rights to show this archive material in Norway. Immediately after the documentary was broadcast in Norway, we received requests from many countries to buy the film. Unfortunately, we had to direct these inquiries to the BBC so that they could clear the rights to broadcast the archived material in each country. However, the BBC ignored these inquiries and thereby blocked all distribution of the film. This conflict has been written about in The Guardian, as well as in several Norwegian newspapers. Swedish Television (SVT) made a report on this conflict with the BBC in November 2008 (Korrespondentarna).

Q: The film raises a lot of questions about the media as such, but also about humanitarian aid organizations. What is your view of them after this experience?

In my opinion, the media has always had a different approach to humanitarian aid organizations than to other subjects that they cover. The story about Niger in 2005 is only one case among many others illustrating the need of journalists to use fair approaches and raise critical questions about the humanitarian industry, as about any other industry.