I had travelled to East Africa as a journalist working for Islamic Relief, along with another journalist, Darrell Williams, we were responsible for collecting media material for the different Islamic Relief offices and for any news organisations to use. This is my account of what I witnessed during my time with Islamic Relief.
During the devastating famine that struck Somalia last year, the Director of Islamic Relief UK, Jehangir Malik, attempted to delay emergency food distribution to starving Somalis.
Jehangir Malik had traveled to East Africa with an ITN cameraman. His plan was to get coverage of Islamic Relief’s aid work in Somalia broadcast on UK television, to show potential donors that the organisation was doing good work, and to encourage them to give money so that many more Somalis could be saved.
What was essential, as far as Jehangir was concerned, was for him to be present at a pre-planned distribution of food aid. This was so he could be filmed not only to show that Islamic Relief was doing vital work, but so he could also carry the authority of someone who had been to the country and seen the horror first hand. It would be easier to get money from donors if they knew the person asking for their money really knew what they were talking about – or so the thinking went.
But Jehangir faced a dilemma when it was time to leave Nairobi airport in Kenya; the plane had been overbooked, and only one seat remained. The small group of Islamic relief employees stood at the check in, trying to agree who would take the last seat, and who would have to wait and catch the next flight in two days time.
The problem for Jehangir was that the food aid distribution he so desperately wanted to get to was scheduled to take place that very day, whilst he stood, helplessly at the airport. At first, he suggested that out of all of us, he should be the one to take the last seat. We all knew that the head of Islamic Relief’s aid mission in Somalia, Dr Ifikhar Ahmed, should be the one to fly out first – he ran the aid effort after all, whilst Jehangir was merely a fundraiser. It was decided that Dr Iftikhar should be the one to take the final seat.
That is when Jehangir turned to Dr Iftikhar and asked if we could delay the emergency food distribution until he got there. Dr Iftikhar went quiet as he considered Jehangir’s question. Jehangir repeated it, but this time said “delay the food distribution until I get there.” I was shocked by his initial question and stood there in disbelief, watching what was taking place before my very eyes. Dr Iftikhar was clearly under a lot of pressure. He needed money for Islamic Relief’s aid effort in Somalia and Jehangir was the man with his hands on the purse strings – he potentially had access to millions of pounds in fundraising revenue. As the silence lingered, and with Dr Iftikhar contemplating what to do, I had to speak up. My job was to collect media material of the work the organisation was doing in Somalia – but I was not prepared to have vital food aid delayed just to get media material. I told Dr Iftikhar to carry on with the food aid distribution and ignore Jehangir’s outrageous demand. Darrell Williams spoke out too and also added that we would just have to settle for whatever media material we could get. We were not prepared to put lives at risk for the sake of some pictures and video footage of Jehangir, even if it was for his fundraising campaign. After all, there was a famine taking place, and helping people was the primary goal here, not public relations.
To this day, I cannot say with certainty whether the food distribution was delayed or not.
We were shocked by Jehangir’s words, but he seemed unrepentant in his quest for PR. Once we eventually got a flight to Somalia – two days after the Nairobi airport incident – his mission to be seen as the saviour of the Somali people continued.
At the first IDP camp we visited in Mogadishu – which was full of people that had left their homes in the famine effected region – Jehangir set about looking for a malnourished child. It was the kind of image he needed to ram home the message to people in the UK just how bad the famine was. Once he had found an appropriate candidate he sat down, turned to the camera that the ITN cameraman was wielding, and began a monologue about the child’s plight. This first piece of media material was never used.
After walking around the camp we soon came across Abdullahi, a severely malnourished child. Jahangir asked to be filmed and again began another monologue. Abdullahi was in a clearly critical condition. I asked Jehangir and Dr Iftikhar what they were going to do for this child? They had no answer. Saving anyone wasn’t part of the plan. This “trip” was just so we could look around and bear witness to the suffering all around us, and there sure was plenty of suffering for us to see. There were people living in make shift tents and poorly erected huts, no sanitation, no clean water, and very little food.
Later on that day Jehangir would tell the worlds’ media that he saved this child’s life by ‘immediately’ taking him to hospital. But the truth is very different.
Jehangir left Abdullahi in the camp. He still wanted his picture taken at a food aid distribution, and there was another one scheduled to take place that very day, and he wasn’t about to miss it. Abdullahi wasn’t taken to the hospital ‘immediately’ because we were unable to take him. He wasn’t taken because, like I said, we hadn’t come to save anybody.
But on our way to the food aid distribution we were told that the security situation had deteriorated at the location where it was to take place, and that the distribution had been cancelled. Fights had broken out. The sheer desperation of people wanting to feed their families had resulted in violence. That’s when Jehangir said “let’s go back (to the camp) and you can film me saving the child.”
Our team headed back to the camp. When we got there, Abdullahi was not taken to the hospital ‘immediately’. This was Jehangir’s exclusive. For the first time he had managed to get UK news on board for his PR agenda to promote Islamic Relief. But at what cost?
Abdullahi’s mother was taken from her tent with her severely malnourished son in her arms, but instead of taking them straight to our vehicle that was parked in the camp with the doors open, and the engine still running, Abdullahi’s mother was made to sit down in the baking sun as other residents took shelter under the shade.
Jehangir’s ITN cameraman wanted her and Abdullahi to pose for the camera so he could capture the image of their complete and utter desperation. I asked Darrell to start filming this because I found it incredibly unethical and wanted to have a record of it. In our video, you can clearly hear Darrell say “Let’s get her in the car, what have we got her standing there for?!”
You can hear the engines of our vehicles running in the background, waiting, as Jehangir got the vital shots that would allow him to get his exclusive. At the end of our video you can see a member of Islamic Relief’s Board of Trustees, Dr Alfy, a few metres away from this despicable incident. He watched all of this unfold before his very own eyes. Later, he denied all knowledge of the incident. I expected more from a trustee of the organisation, someone who has the responsibility of overseeing and ensuring that it is run properly. But as I was learning very quickly that PR took precedence over everything else. Abdullahi was eventually taken to hospital but not before all the media material had been obtained.
I raised these issues with Jehangir in Somalia and in Kenya. He didn’t seem to care about his actions. He responded dismissively, and instead, preferred to question my role in the organisation.
In Somalia we saw immeasurable suffering. Dead children and others on the brink of death; parents who had sometimes lost all of their children; starving families cramped together in makeshift shelters right next to urine and faeces. As I became acquainted with the Islamic Relief aid workers on the ground in Somalia – the ones who were actually involved in saving lives, as opposed to raising funds – they began to share their thoughts with me. They told me that the constant visitors they were receiving in Somalia from Islamic Relief’s fundraising offices around the world were slowing down the emergency relief effort. Their vital time, which should have been spent doing life saving work, was being wasted taking visitors around, just to take a look at the effects of the famine – a phenomena better known as “disaster tourism”.
I raised all these issues with my boss at the time, the Director of Communications at Islamic Relief Worldwide, when I returned to the UK. Darrell and I also wrote a report detailing what we had seen in Somalia. We sent our report to the then CEO of Islamic Relief Worldwide, Saleh Saeed, who is now set to become CEO of the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC) in September.
Our report was ignored. Saleh read through it, but did not say anything. The issue was clear; Jehangir, as head of Islamic Relief UK, brought in millions of pounds of fundraising money that helped the organisation to operate. These ethical concerns were nothing in the face of all that cash and Jehangir’s OBE.
In our report we highlighted the suggestion of delaying emergency food aid, the effects of disaster tourism on the aid effort in Somalia and, more importantly, the effect on the very people that the organisation was meant to be helping.
At one point, I asked the head of Islamic Relief Worldwide’s aid response in Africa how many visitors had gone to Somalia since the start of the crisis there. His response? “Definitely over a hundred”. A conservative estimate of how much it cost to send one person to Somalia at the time is £2000. Overall, that comes to £200,000 of donors money, spent on people whose only job was to witness the effects of the famine, and sometimes, to report back what they had seen to others in an attempt to raise more funds for the aid effort. It’s absurd. I’m not sure donors know this, especially when they congratulate themselves on raising £50,000 in one evening, oblivious that they are funding a sort of deranged holiday for disaster tourists.
This however was not the only incident that took place that made me realise how unethical the drive to raise funds could be. After my trip to Libya to collect media material I flagged up another issue. Again I co-authored a report with Darrell which was sent to the CEO Saleh Saeed.
We pointed out that a prominent fundraiser from Islamic Relief UK had tweeted that Islamic Relief had been distributing medical aid and water in Tripoli even though he knew full well that this was not the case. He had been with us in Tripoli and knew that Islamic Relief, at the time, was not distributing any aid in the capital. He lied just to give the impression that Islamic Relief was doing something when in reality it wasn’t. During the conflict in Libya Islamic Relief UK had a large number of Libyans from Tripoli living in Britain who were pressuring them to do something for the people in the city they came from. This pressure must have been too much to bear for someone who had already asked these Libyans for money, and received their donations. Thankfully, staff at Islamic Relief Worldwide complained and had the tweets removed, along with pictures I had taken of the National Transitional Council (NTC) giving out water in Tripoli.
None of the issues I raised were ever addressed. Instead, when Jehangir took over as Director of Communications at Islamic Relief Worldwide ( which effectively made him my boss), he refused to renew mine and Darrell’s contracts, which put an end to our time at Islamic Relief.
After exhausting all the internal channels of raising this issue, before and after the termination of my employment, I was left with no other choice but to go public after the new CEO, Dr Ashmawey, failed to address my ethical concerns.
For some people, the story I have just told may not be shocking; for others, they may not see anything wrong with the actions of Jehangir and his organisation at all, but I did find these actions unethical, and deeply distressing. The media and aid agencies in general have a mutually dependent relationship when it comes to humanitarian disasters: the agencies grant them access to areas and stories, whilst journalists promote the agencies and their work. All the while, journalists turn a blind eye, not only to their own unethical practices, but to the unethical practices of the aid agencies too. One journalist I spoke to remarked that “I am guilty of attending food distributions that felt like a media circus.”
That is why so many in the media will see what I have said as nothing new. People in the media and the humanitarian sector know full well that these kinds of practices are common and widespread. The only thing I can do is share what I have experienced and let people make up their own minds about whether these actions are acceptable or not.
Islamic Relief: PR before saving lives