Friday, 25 April 2008

Somalia - why doesn't anyone write to me?

Was reading an article in the Guardian about Somalia this morning - a few days old, I always get round to reading the comment pages a few days late - and a thought occurred to me. I have, generally speaking, a very politically aware bunch of constituents in Bristol East. They often write to me about international issues - Darfur, Palestine, DRC, Burma, Tibet, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Iran - and know quite a bit about what's going on in those countries.

But apart from the Somali community, only one person has written to me about what's happening in Somalia during my three years as MP. (Plus a few letters from an organised Amnesty International campaign about the imprisonment last year of several journalists in Somaliland). And yet there are maybe as many as 20,000 Somalis living in Bristol, so presumably some Bristolians get to hear far more about Somalia than any other African country.
And the situation in Somalia is at least as bad, if not worse, as that in many of the other countries I've mentioned.

In January this year, for example, a UN official said that "The situation is very severe. It is the most pressing humanitarian emergency in the world today - even worse than Darfur." (See http://www.alertnet.org/db/an_art/1564/2008/00/30-152422-1.htm). I actually met this official at a meeting in Parliament a few months ago, and the picture he painted of what was happening in Somalia was pretty grim. So why isn't it registering on more people's radar? Is it because it seems such a hopeless situation, and people have given up believing that things could ever change? Is it because of lack of media coverage (although there's been quite a bit recently)? Or is it because none of the NGOs are, as far as I know, campaigning on it at the moment?

By the way, there's a DFID consultation on Somalia at the moment - see the News section on my website for details.

8 comments:

Simon Mace said...

Kerry,

Thanks for asking the crucial questions. I find it refreshing but at the same time a bit naive.
I am an old hand when it comes to Africa as I lived in the horn of Africa for considerable time.

I can tell you, your party and mine has a big part to play on creating this misery on Somalia and for that matter in the whole of horn of Africa.

On the misguided notion of fighting terror in the Horn of Africa,that is being waged by the Bush Administration, and the previous and current labour governments, we have selected an ally in Ethiopia, that has worse track record than the alleged terrorists .

Here is an example from yesterday Reuters news.
http://africa.reuters.com/wire/news/usnL23812754.html

or few months back from Independent
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/ethiopias-own-darfur-as-villagers-flee-governmentbacked-violence-394904.html

UK, after the United states is the biggest donor to Ethiopia. About $340 million/yr (£170 M) no questions asked, and a big chunk of it goes direct to support their budget.
Interestingly enough, Washington seems to encourage Ethiopia to break its own UN imposed sanctions and buy armaments with the aid money,of all places from North Korea.
http://africa.reuters.com/top/news/usnBAN934545.html

Not to mention, propping a ghastly regime who stole the election in 2005 by killing few hundred people
http://www.ethiomedia.com/fastpress/over_100_killed_in_addis.html

and the simmering conflict between Ethiopia/Eritrea that killed more that 100,000 people and is threatening to explode again because our government via UN security council chose to manipulate things to favour Ethiopia when clearly it is illegally refusing to give back a land that belongs to Eritrea.
http://www.slate.com/id/2178793/
http://africa.reuters.com/top/news/usnBAN934545.html

It just astonishes me when I see see the selective outrage of Gordon brown and others when they talk about situations in Zimbabwe.

Our disastrous current foreign policy has a lot to answer for, and the Africans know it, but as you rightly pointed out there seems to be little interest in the UK public. The reason for it is the media seems to distort things and not show the connection of the cause and effect.

I hope this will not discourage you from raising the right question, I am just trying to show you a perspective of a global nomad like me, and tell it how it is. I hope you find the information useful.

Simon

Kerry said...

Yes, I'm aware of these issues. I visited Ethiopia last September (en route to Somaliland) and met various people in Addis (DFID staff; the British Ambassador and about a dozen of his counterparts from EU embassies and the US; the African Union, etc). I've also met the Ethiopian Ambassador to the UK, and discussed this issue with the Minister for Africa, as well as many people within the Somali community and politicans in Somaliland. And various people in Uganda too.

I could get into a long conversation about why I don't quite agree with your analysis of the British stance, (e.g. we're been pushing for Amison troops to replace Ethiopian forces; we don't give direct budget support to the Ethiopian government because of concerns about democracy and accountability, but do it through the Protection of Basic Services programme instead, so you're wrong to say "no questions asked" - see http://www.dfid.gov.uk/countries/africa/ethiopia-dfid-prog.asp; we're right to be concerned about the implications for global security of what's happening in Somalia) but it's getting late and I've got a speech to write for tomorrow....

The point I was trying to make in my blog wasn't that the British media/ politicians/ Government aren't interested, as I don't think that's really true. I was asking why people in Bristol are motivated to write to me about so many other countries, but don't seem to make the connection between the thousands of Somalis living in Bristol and the situation in Somalia. I would have thought that the presence of a large Somali community in Bristol would have inspired them to take more of an interest, but it doesn't seem to be the case.

thebristolblogger said...

The media usually gets the blame in these situations. But the fact is it's almost impossible for journalists to operate in Somalia.

A better reason why you don't get letters about Somalia is because of the hopeless state of foreign policy analysis these days.

On the right you'll probably still find the traditional belief that if it isn't affecting our national interest then it doesn't matter. Although I must admit I don't really know what Conservative foreign policy actually is.

The last foreign policy speech I heard Cameron read out was written out more-or-less word-for-word for him by his expensive advisors from Francis Fukuyama's 'After the Neo-Cons' I seem to recall.

Meanwhile on the left - still theoretically internationalist in outlook - you now find the majority of opinion on foreign affairs is devised entirely from simplistic moralising and knee-jerk anti-Americanism.

I'll bet you get loads of post about the fashionable anti-American causes - Palestine, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan - where your correspondents can easily point the finger and place all the blame on "imperialism" and the US/Israel/Zionists/The Jooz/neo-Cons etc.

But if there's any international situation where the US can't be blamed, then there's no longer any explanation for it. It's either brushed to one side as unimportant and ignored or blamed on propaganda or biased reporting. Think Burma, Darfur, Tibet, Somalia etc.

Hence China, one of the most illiberal regimes in the world, can apparently do no wrong in foreign policy according to most of the western left and the increasing Chinese influence in Africa, for example, is happening without even being acknowledged as a potential problem.

Kerry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kerry said...

Your analysis is interesting - and I agree with a fair bit of it, but maybe not all. You're right about me getting lots of letters on what you call "the fashionable anti-American causes" - but when the US mounted air strikes on Somalia in January 2007 there still wasn't any interest from the non-Somali community in Bristol. Probably because it wasn't possible to bash the UK government by association at the same time?

International issues tend to fall into three categories - those where it is easy to point the finger, as you say; those which are of interest to campaigners on democracy e.g. Amnesty International members (Tibet, Burma, China - and I do get quite a lot of letters about those too); and those which are seen as humanitarian crises (Darfur, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc).

The situation in Somalia is more complicated. Transitional Federal Government -v- the Union of Islamic Courts? One clan, or alliance of clans, against another? Doesn't really work as a struggle of good- v- evil. And without the TV pictures, the humanitarian crisis doesn't really hit home.

I was going to follow up with a few comments about two events I went to on Saturday - but will blog about that separately.

30 April 2008 00:14

thebristolblogger said...

There's a report in today's Sunday Times from someone in Mogadishu (but not for very long by the sound of it).

Kerry said...

Did you see Nick Cohen's piece in today's Observer? He was echoing some of the points you were making about why the left is interested in some issues and not others. Talking about Bernard Kouchet, who is now French Foreign Minister.

"The most politically successful of the French 1968 militants, whose 40th birthday we are celebrating at such length, developed a revolutionary doctrine by ignoring the revolutionaries around him.

Bernard Kouchner fitted the classic profile of a soixante-huitard. He came from a left-wing family and marched in the May demonstrations, but while his comrades blindly followed the causes of Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh, Kouchner went off in an unexpected direction. He joined the Red Cross and worked as a doctor in the bitter ethnic fighting in Nigeria.

The Biafran conflict meant little to the European left of his day. No struggle between capitalism and socialism was at stake. Biafra was just a terrible civil war and the only political response Kouchner offered was a demand to ease the suffering. He developed the doctrine of 'the humanism of bad news,' which ignored the old utopian dreams of creating the best possible society and concentrated on the basic task of mitigating the cruelty of the worst.

Kouchner carried on organising doctors to go to the conflict zones of the world until, in 1979, he caused a sensation in France by hiring a ship to rescue the Vietnamese boat people. Ho Chi Minh's communists had triumphed and masses of Vietnamese were taking to the sea to save themselves. The world had a 'responsibility to protect' them, Kouchner declared, which overrode all other considerations.

In Washington, the Carter administration began to think that it should shoulder the responsibility as well and leftists everywhere were outraged. The overwhelmingly majority saw French and American imperialism as the sole causes of suffering in Vietnam and did not want to look at the crimes of the anti-imperialist 'liberators'."

And then it goes on to talk about Burma...

The rest of the article is here:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/may/11/cyclonenargis.burma

Kerry said...

P.S. Thanks for the link to the article. How do you do that? I mean how do you do it so that it just says 'Sunday Times' but takes you straight to the article?