A former ‘frustrated senior aid official’ talks-and the Daily Mail is happy to spin a story of waste and lying bureaucrats

As part of my engagement with popular and public (re)presentation of development issues, I have commented throughout the years on how mainstream media, e.g. CNN, NYT, BBC, the SUN, Oprah Magazine or Globe & Mail report aid-related topics and what we can learn from these shortcomings for development communication.
Kilian Kleinschmidt, a self-confessed ‘frustrated senior aid official’ recently spoke to the Daily Mail and the result is an interesting case study and teachable moment for those interested in communication for and about development:
UN refugee camp chief: We wasted millions. Why? Because - reveals whistleblower in a stunning admission - we were obsessed by photos of stars in our T-shirts
The headline is probably algorithmically enhanced and not meant to win a Pulitzer prize, but it creates a nice causal chain around the issues at hand; it seems to be about the ‘UN’, ‘waste’ and ‘stars’ in T-shirts, stuff conservative news media’s anti-development dreams are made of.

Telling the story with 5 or so trigger words

The first paragraphs already have a nice assemblage of trigger words and phrases: ‘waste’, ‘paralysing’, ‘exposed’, ‘British taxpayer’, ‘infighting’, ‘obsession’ and ‘senior aid bureaucrat lied’ are intended to give you the full picture right away.
Didn’t we always know that this is EXACTLY what those UN guys do all the time, those lying, infighting, celebrity-obsessed sons-of-guns?!

Even though the article mentions and includes photos and videos of Prince Charles, David Beckham and Martin Sheen the ‘celebrity obsession’ accusations will not be substantiated. Let’s just say that UN celebrity ambassadors have visited a large camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan.

How
waste on a massive scale’ is addressed in complex humanitarian emergencies 
But surely enough there is waste on a massive scale going on, right? Well, there is the story of energy cost and missed opportunities for solar panels, those solar panels ‘the German government has now agreed to pay for’. Let’s just say, in the context of a complex humanitarian emergency and a rapidly growing refugee camp some less-than-optimal decisions have been made, partly because of donor constraints and these are now addressed.

But that does not solve the massive waste around clean water and wastewater, does it? Kleinschmidt claims that everybody from international NGOs down to a local Jordanian contractor pocketed 50% of the money allocated to the water system by insisting on deliveries by trucks, rather than installing a piping system. That does sound like a realistic scenario, but I would like to learn more about the details, procurement rules, involvement of local businesses and partnerships with INGOs before I make my mind up.

They are lying about children!!

Senior bureaucrats lied about caring for more children than they actually did
Finally, the children of Syria have found an advocat for their rights and well-being!
Well, according to the article nobody lied about caring for children per se. There may have been discrepancies between the numbers of children enrolled in schools (about 15k) and those actually attending (about 3-4k), but that’s certainly only one aspect of ‘care’. It would be good to get some comparative numbers on how school attendance in refugee camps usually works out.


Legitimate critique buried in the final paragraphs
We are now down to the final part of the article and a lot of the accusations and tall tales promised in the teaser text have not be confirmed – that’s digital tabloid journalism for you, of course.

But obviously many aid critics (the article has been shared 4.2k times and has received more than 270 comments) have read enough by now as the article confirmed everything they always knew was rotten about UN bureaucracy.

Which is a shame, because Kleinschmidt shares some reasonable, albeit not exactly new, reflections on agencies competing for resources, the need for a changing attitude from seeing people as ‘victims’ and the risks of dependency in refugee camps as well as cynicism of the aid community.

But the question is whether talking to an outlet like the Daily Mail and becoming part of their tabloid spin is worth the exposure of relevant criticism.
If you want a quite conversation about the limits of the humanitarian system, maybe entering the echo- and shouting-chamber of Mail Online is not the best avenue…


Update 25 April
Kilian Kleinschmidt publicly distances himself from the Daily Mail spin:

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