How to Help with Somalia’s Famine? Try Less Hypocrisy and Intra-UN Fundraising

A map showing Somalia's internal division as of November 2016. Map: BBC

Criticizing humanitarian organizations is an unrewarding business because the very epithet “humanitarian” has positive connotations.

Not to mention that the world has plenty of evil dictators, corrupt democratic politicians, soulless corporations, greedy oligarchs, and media propaganda machines to pick on.

Yet, “humanitarian” international organizations should not be immune from criticism exactly the same way they don’t seem to be immune from hypocrisy.

Looming Famine Crises and the UN

In late February, UN Secretary General António Guterres and top officials of the top UN humanitarian agencies called on the international community (that well-known euphemism for “The West + some of the Rest”) to provide financial aid to help avoid all-out famine crises in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen.

The UN needed at least USD 4.4 billion by the end of March to avert a famine catastrophe in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen, Guterres warned, adding that only USD 90 million of the pledged funds had been received, i.e. “around two cents for every dollar needed.”

Then in early March, Guterres went to Somalia (well, to the safer part) to meet its authorities and visit communities facing famine “emergency.”

Just as Somalia is facing its third major famine crisis since its former regime collapsed in 1991 turning it into the stereotypical failed state, Guterres became the third UN Secretary-General to visit the country in that period.

Guterres’ efforts to raise international awareness about the plight of the people of Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen is commendable, of course. The UN and its agencies often rescue huge numbers of human lives; often they are the only ones that would go into the world’s most wretched places.

Nonetheless, taking into account enormous humanitarian crises such as those looming today in Somalia and elsewhere, one can’t help but think that the UN, its agencies, and their employees are full of hypocrisy.

Why is that? Because for the most part, UN employees enjoy handsome earnings (not to mention a wide range of civil service status benefits, pensions, etc.) regardless of where around the globe they might be based.

Therefore, when their so called organization is unable to raise enough money to save actual humans from starving to death, the UN employees themselves do have the necessary means to make plenty of personal financial contributions to their institutions’ relief efforts.

After all, that is what their lofty cause, titles, and status presupposes, doesn’t it?

The reality in most cases, however, is that UN employees make a good living, enjoy numerous benefits, and usually feel pretty good about themselves, while being unwilling to share what their status offers them with the wretched of the earth.

This probably refers even to many UN workers who do work on the ground in the poorest and most dangerous places—not the least because whatever they might make in a monthly salary and additional fees is usually unimaginably more than any amount of money the people that they are looking after have seen in their entire lives.

That’s not even talking about the huge bureaucracy all over the UN agencies, with all of their facility managers and officers, operations managers and officers, communication managers and officers, fundraising managers and officers, etc., etc., who are sitting pretty in their air-conditioned offices in global capitals.

(Gotta love the fundraising managers in particular—they at least should be aware the money they raise technically goes to cover their handsome salaries and benefits first, and then whatever is left can be used to help the poor, underprivileged, conflict victims, or whomever it is their lofty job is technically connected with.)

Here’s at Least a One-Time Fix

Take the above-described situation with Somalia and the other famine-stricken countries that UN Secretary-General Guterres has sought to raise alarm about.

It may or may not seem likely that the UN is going to raise the USD 4.4 billion needed on time to help those people in crisis.

Let’s assume that it doesn’t. What happens then?

Millions die of starvation, and the good people of the UN agencies say, “Well, we did what we could!,” and they go on about living their decent, happy, and just sliiiiightly complacent and hypocritical lives.

What is the alternative? The problem with the lack of money to stave off the presently looming famine crisis has a relatively easy fix: all UN employees could fundraise among themselves and really save lives.

Why should they do that?

First, because their work presumes they are dedicated to non-material causes and at least a certain degree of idealism! Exclamation mark! Period.

Second, because they certainly can afford it. Period.

Third, because by giving such an example they can motivate others to contribute.

I didn’t want to delve too much into figures because my first-, second-, and third-hand impression is that the UN and its agencies are one huge hellish bureaucracy.

It is really shocking and weird that humanitarian organizations can be so shockingly and weirdly bureaucratic!

So I found different figures about the number of UN employees, each of which was at least a few tens of thousands.

For the sake of brevity, let’s assume the UN has 50,000 employees. They mostly make decent salaries even by Western standards (it seems like UN salaries all over the globe are based on making a comfortable living in New York City where the “world organization” is headquartered).

So what if every UN employee was all of a sudden appalled at the thought of the famines in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen, and donated USD 1,000 from their monthly salary to help feed those people?

That wouldn’t be that much—USD 50 million—but I bet it would save a lot of people from starving to death.
What about higher-ranking UN employees who make a lot more money than the lower-level guys? They could probably afford to contribute more, instead of buying an SUV or luxury purse? But let’s just leave them all at USD 1,000.

OK, but what if the UN employees decided to donate USD 1,000 from each of their monthly salaries for the duration of one year? Even that should not be a problem for the vast majority of them.

(Then, again, many of them could do more—Mr. Guterres, for example, can easily spare USD 100,000 from his USD 220,000 annual salary, you know, for all those nice photo ops with wretched people he shakes hands with around the world.)

That would make USD 600 million—still not the billions needed, but a sum of money that would go a very long way.

What about all the retirees receiving UN pensions—no idea how many of those there are, but they, too, are out there, and, theoretically should still be dedicated to the UN causes, and also could contribute.

In a nutshell, any such an intra-UN fundraising campaign would certainly catch global attention.

(Of course, I am not even going to discuss possibilities such as reforming the UN—and not even on the political level where it is mostly useless, but with respect to cutting that also useless pile of red tape, and redirecting money from the bureaucratic mooches that certainly exist in that and any other organization to those who really need them. You know, for food, and survival, and stuff.)

More on Combating Hypocrisy

Think my suggestion about an intra-UN fundraiser is a crazy populist plot against the good people of the UN?

Not really. First of all, it is not unfeasible, and, second, it is a good way of calling attention to the hypocrisy of a whole bunch of UN staff, including humanitarian workers, enjoying a good standard of living and feeling really good about themselves, while the “subjects” of their work around the world may be starving to death.

The UN administration is Western-dominated, with Western ways of doings things (well, American ways, really), and so is the pay.

But while UN salaries might not seem that huge if you live in New York City, the same salary in Eastern Europe, Africa, or Latin America buys you a Jeep or other luxury goods that can otherwise only be afforded by local gangsters.

Somebody might argue that there are famine crises every other year—UN employees can’t afford to fundraise among themselves for that all the time. Well, they might even be able to—but that’s beside the point. They should do it at least just once, and check out the results.

Somebody else might criticize my point, arguing that the decent money those quality people working for the UN make might go to the private sector. Well, if a world of 8 billion people can’t find a few thousand who are at least partly idealistic to get some humanitarian business done for a somewhat lower pay, then the world is in real trouble. (And it is, it really and truly is!)

Still others might argue that decent UN salaries help prevent financial abuses at the organization—fair enough, except nobody is supposed to go for financial abuses in the first place, right, especially if joining a humanitarian organization.

It is hard for me to imagine how UN Secretary General Guterres went back from Somalia to his UN office in New York City. I just can’t fathom how you cope with the discrepancy in what you experience.

If you are confronted with an emergency like the looming famine in Somalia, and elsewhere, and don’t have enough money coming in, what do you do? Do you just complain about others not giving you the money?

It’s a great job, the UN, pays well, and then you can delude yourself that you are making a difference (unless you really are, there are people like that, no denying it). But if you are in it mostly for those two reasons, then the average corporate stooge is better than you—at least they are honest about their motives.

This is why UN employees themselves should have an intra-UN fundraiser—perhaps just one time. They will be able to afford it, and its effect will be tangible on so many levels.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not arguing against the current level of UN salaries, God forbid. I am arguing against hypocrisy, and also suggesting that there are ways to do a lot more, especially if you are into that kind of business—humanitarian affairs, world peace, dignity, development, and what not. Not to mention that regular social workers all over the globe certainly do their jobs while they are paid way less.

Sure everyone should have a decent quality of life. But when those around you and especially those you get paid to help do not, you must seek out ways to do something other than feeling good about yourself because of your theoretically lofty job.

But that’s just how I see it. And I’ve always been a bit more idealistic than I should.

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