This story appeared on the ABC yesterday, with the leader “Australian Aid Going to Terrorist-Funded Camp“. When you manage to squeeze by the alarmist headline, you read that international NGO Save the Children- which receives Australian government and private funding- is operating in the same camp as the charitable wing of a group which is on an international terrorism watchlist. The World Food Program- also a recipient of Australian support- is also in the camp.
Gasp! You mean that there’s a group of internally displaced people in a relief camp who’ve been left destitute by one of the biggest natural disasters the world has seen since Noah’s time, and Save the Children and WFP are trying to help them, and a charity funded by an Islamic Extremist group is also coincidentally working in the same camp?
[Pause here for underwhelmed silence]
Aaand… we’re back.
Let’s take a look at the reality of what this story is about.
FIF, the charity in question, receives funding from an organization called Jamaat-ad-Dawa, which is considered a parent organization of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a high-profile group which has been accused of being behind the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. I’m not a big fan, and I’ll say that straight up.
Many Islamic extremist groups do fund charity work. It’s hard to know motivations. It’s quite possible that they use the opportunity to win ‘hearts-and-minds’ and find new recruits. It’s also possible that they are simply carrying out charitable actions. Alms-giving (Zakat) is, after all, a pillar of the Islamic faith, and charitable giving (Sadaqah) is also an important principle of faith (not that I particularly want to draw a strong correlation between such groups, and stand-up examples of what Islaam should look like as a faith in practice).
Admittedly, given the parent company, I certainly wouldn’t choose to work alongside FIF.
I will say, however, that there will be dozens and dozens of examples of organizations working in relief camps in Pakistan which receive money from groups that either carry out or promote action around Islamic Extremism- and they will be working in the same camps as established NGOs that come from countries (like Australia) that battle Islamic Extremism.
The fact that Save, WFP, and FIF are all working in the same camp is utterly meaningless. The FIF is not training terrorists. A worst case scenario is that FIF is quietly trying to subvert a few disenfranchised young men into joining their cause- although Sukkur is not the hotbed of fundamentalist resistance that a place like Peshawar is. Even then, Save and WFP are not giving their money to FIF. They’re not giving their money to terrorists. Their money is not supporting terrorists in any shape or form. Even if, through some chain of events, some of the young men in the camp do eventually decide to join insurgents and take part in terror-style attacks in the future, this has nothing whatsoever to do with Save, or the UN, or any other donor.
In fact, under International Humanitarian Law, the people in these camps- assuming they are not in uniform or toting weapons- are civilians in need of assistance. Even if it so happens that Save and WFP have some overlap in the individuals they offer support to as FIF, they continue to operate under the principle of the Humanitarian Imperative, and are ethically and legally in the right.
This is not to excuse the international community from taking seriously their responsibility to Do No Harm, and to avoid contributing to or supporting a conflict. Questions need to be asked. We learned this the hard way after the Rwanda Genocide.
But for the love: Can we please do so in an intelligent fashion?
Save the Children, WFP, and many other NGOs have extensive experience working in complex emergencies where there are multiple warring factions. They analyse their partners, and they invest in understanding the context to avoid as much as possible causing harm or exacerbating existing tensions. Sometimes, they make mistakes.
In this instance, a cogent analysis of this inflammatory headline indicates that the agencies in question are doing nothing wrong, that there’s no solid evidence to indicate that funding by anyone (including, at this stage, the FIF) is being used to further a cause contrary to that of the Australian government (not that the UN or Save have any need or responsibility to worry about this; quite the opposite), and that in fact right now, the most important thing is that people in need are being supported.
The article has taken a non-event, and spun it in the most unhelpful way it could. It has thrown an uncessary political lens over two reputable humanitarian agencies, implied (via the headline) that their activities are risky (or at very least uninformed), and has run the risk of undermining Australian government and private support to humanitarian agencies in Pakistan.
Truth is more than just relaying facts; the relaying of facts in a way that implies a reality that is a distortion is, in my opinion, sacrificing that truth.
The facts of this article may be true (especially when you read through the whole piece); but the article has taken what is merely a confluence of events, and has spun them in such a way to create intrigue for the sake of garnering readership. The attention-grabbing headline implies that the camp is ‘funded by’ terrorists, while the reality is that an aid group which receives its funds from an organization which also carries out terrorist attacks happens to be carrying out operations in the camp; it plays on ignorant fears in the Australian public that terror in Pakistan is somehow an imminent threat to Australian public safety; it subversively calls into question the reliability of two proven and experienced aid agencies; and it stokes the fear that if you give money to the Pakistan emergency, you may end up inadvertantly funding terror activities.
I won’t say that there’s no chance that funds given to the Pakistan emergency will make it into the hands of extremist organizations. Flows of money and the relationships between communities and community-based organizations like LeT and Tahrik-e Taliban are highly complex and utterly impossible to map in any conventional way. Organizations make mistakes. (Though for my own opinions on terrorism, insurgency and aid agencies, see a couple of my earlier posts). I will say that if you’re giving to established agencies, signatory to the Red Cross Code of Conduct and with demonstrated historical experience of operating in complex contexts and conflicts, the chances of your funds being mis-spent in this way are extremely low- and any links would be highly tenuous at best.
While this headline spinning is a commercially understandable (and expectable) practice to create click-throughs, in a situation like Pakistan’s it verges on the exploitative. Especially when you consider the potential risk to donor support for the emergency response should people (in their ignorance) read the headline and believe that they are supporting car-bombings in Islamabad and Bali.
I expect news agencies like the Herald Sun or Fox News to run with uninformed, sensationalist reportage of this sort. But from a reputable source like the ABC I would have expected far more.
We understand when readers don’t necessarily engage with reported facts with a great deal of critical analysis, but is it really too much to ask our journalists to at least help us in that process?
Both taken from The Australian website, source links via photos
1. “Fears of Disease in Flood-Hit Pakistan, as Nearly a Million Lose their Homes”
2. “Pakistan Declares Emergency as 900 Die in Floods”