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Media and NGOs: 12 leading reporters on aid and development

Journalist with the Nuba Reports team conducts a video interview. (Nuba Reports)

This is the third part in a series on the relationship between NGOs and the media.

The international aid and development sector is sprawling and somewhat difficult to define. It means that the journalists covering it report on many different stories. Despite some of the tension between media and NGOs, there are some reporters who are doing great work. Here are 12 who, I think, deserve your attention. The list is by no means comprehensive. For the sake of brevity, I kept the group short. At the end I am adding more that I think warrant notice.

Note: The order of this list is random, and not meant as a ranking. Those included in the first 12 deserve attention, as do all the others listed at the end. Please add your suggestions for people missed and I will continue to update the list. Write them in the comments or send me a tweet @viewfromthecave.

Jina Moore

Few reporters for major news outlets were in West Africa to cover the Ebola outbreak before Moore. And even fewer can say they broke as many important stories as she did while reporting from Liberia. But that is just being a good journalist. What makes Moore a must read are the stories she tells and her direct writing. Her no-BS style provides clear information to the reader and allows them connect with the people she profiled (who often times are not Western saviors).

At work: Ebola Is Killing Women In Far Greater Numbers Than Men  BuzzFeed

Dr. Samuel Brisbane, Liberia’s top doctor, wouldn’t have wanted to look like a plastic stranger, either. He was the chief medical officer at the country’s teaching and referral hospital, the man in charge of the place where students learned and patients ended up if things went really, really bad. He was a man of prominence and authority, things that are respected here with more reverence than, say, the States, where Brisbane’s wife and children live.

But Brisbane wasn’t just a man of stature. He was a man who’d stayed through the civil war, a man who could handle crises, who could do things — and sometimes the only man who could do many things the hospital needed.

“He was the most senior, the most experienced,” said Dr. Wvannie Scott-McDonald, the general administrator and CEO at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Monrovia, where Brisbane worked. “This is the one person who did intubation, who did CPR, who did shocks [defibrillation]. He was there — with all that contact. He was the hero in that area.”

He was, simply, the best. When Dr. Brisbane was alive, no one could touch him. And when Dr. Brisbane died, no one could touch him.

Chika Oduah

Another masterful storyteller. Oduah writes stories for a host of outlets, from The Atlantic to the Guardian, that tell vivid stories. Two years before attacks on albinos in Tanzania garnered headlines, Oduah reported on the challenges they face. The stories showed off why she is such a good reporter. Rather than simply look at the aspect of violence, she went deeper to see how albino women are finding love and trying to form families in the face of prejudice.

At work: The lost children of Nigeria: Boko Haram orphans thousands — Al Jazeera

Jummai Joshua, a petite and curious 8-year-old, is one of them. She’s at the camp with her grandmother. Jummai’s mother died in childbirth years ago. Her father was killed by Boko Haram fighters weeks earlier when they invaded their town.

Jummai and her grandmother hid in the fields for days. In the mornings, Jummai played with seeds falling from the trees and blades of dried grasses. One morning, her grandmother sneaked back to the village for food and saw Jummai’s father’s body on a path to his farmland.

“My father — I just cried,” Jummai says. She looks down. Her grandmother looks away.

Sarika Bansal

The person who convinced me that solutions journalism is actually a good idea, Bansal goes beyond identifying problems and pushes further to see what answers might emerge. The hard-nosed line of reporting makes for rigorous and well-research stories.

At work: Controversial São Paulo project offers jobs to crack addicts in Cracolândia — The Guardian

Flavia Castro do Britto, a 39-year-old addict, first visited Cracolândia with her drug dealer. She was working as a hairdresser in downtown São Paulo, where she lived with her husband and two children. In 2011, her husband began to drink heavily and beat her. He also introduced her to crack.

After fleeing the domestic abuse, Britto found an illegal occupation and started using crack more regularly. She eventually moved to Cracolândia. “It’s a huge life change,” she says. “One day you are in your house, and then you have nothing, just two bags with clothes.”

Cracolândia has caused increasing concern. “It is almost a matter of honour to recover the heart of the city,” says Fernando Haddad, São Paulo’s mayor. “We want to prove that these people are recoverable, even after years of negligence and after the crime took over this part of the downtown area.”

Sam Loewenberg

It is no mistake that Loewenberg has one of the longest global health beats in the game. He is that good. There is no nonsense to his reporting, no excessive writing. The problems he uncovers are laid bare and the people accountable are named. He was among the first reporters to cover the dangerous levels of arsenic on the Bangladeshi-Indian border. He continued looking at the issue in the ensuing years by investigating at the innovative ways that an exceptional consortium of interdisciplinary groups of scientists were trying to tackle the complex problem.

At work: Escaping from Somalia’s Famine into a Perilous Refuge — TIME

We have been driving around the world’s largest refugee complex, late for an appointment with an NGO, as we are lost amid seemingly endless rows of ramshackle huts built of sticks and discarded packaging from aid organizations. The driver is making me nervous as he steers recklessly through women in hijabs, children with bare feet and men with donkey carts, moving through the narrow roads of desert sand. The hired guard, a moonlighting soldier, seems at ease, chatting loudly on his mobile phone as he cradles his machine gun in the other hand.

Realizing that we are lost, we park near a dried-out tree on the edge of the Hagadera refugee camp, one of the three in the Dadaab complex in eastern Kenya, when a man runs toward me shouting, urgently asking for help. What happens next seems to be a metaphor for the crisis that has overtaken this portion of the country, now the safe haven for the tens of thousands of people fleeing the world’s worst hunger crisis, a famine that has gripped war-torn Somalia, the result of the worst drought in the region in 60 years.

Tolu Ogunlesi

Ogunlesi is much more than a journalist. Recently, he has emerged as a strong commentator on politics in his home country of Nigeria. His nuanced arguments that are often critical of the current government are grounded in his experiences as a journalist. Covering topics such as security and governance makes him a must-read for Africa’s largest democracy.

At work: Nigerian democracy dances on the brink — Financial Times

Conspiracy theories that began flowering even before the postponement are blossoming now. Some suspect that this postponement is merely the first phase in an elaborate attempt to prevent General Buhari from becoming President — that Nigeria’s military elite is terrified of a government run by Buhari, a man defined as much by his clampdown on corruption while he was head of state 30 years ago as for his unassailable integrity in the time since.

The economy, already struggling, will be further damaged by the additional delay to business decisions pending the outcome of the election. And that’s assuming the worst-case scenario – yet another postponement, and a possible constitutional crisis – doesn’t come to pass. Local newspapers have been reporting the temporary relocation abroad of some of Nigeria’s elite and their families. I recently asked one expatriate investment banker to rate, on a scale of one to ten, the nervousness of his clients regarding Nigeria. “Eight,” he said. This is not solely on account of the elections — a devaluing currency and falling oil prices are sources of concern as well.

Michael Igoe

There might not be anyone better than Igoe when it comes to the international development beat in Washington, D.C. He is often the first to stories when it comes to the U.S. government and its foreign aid actions. His look into the legacy of USAID administrator Raj Shah’s legacy is one of the most comprehensive pieces on Shah published. It shows just how much Igoe knows about the sector and why he is a must-read.

At work: Rajiv Shah’s USAID legacy — Devex

During his five years in office, Shah has faced, as the former senior official put it, “a public perception and an internal reality that is inconsistent.” George Ingram, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, described the administrator’s role as analogous to “a juggler who’s on a tightrope” and concluded the demands of the job are “simply untenable.”

“Most of us have one, maybe three bosses,” Ingram told Devex. Shah’s “bosses” and stakeholders include the president of the United States, the secretary of state, the USAID bureaucracy, 535 members of Congress, “all who think they know foreign policy and development better than he does,” nearly 100 partner countries and USAID’s various implementing organizations.

Shah found himself also, at least initially, caught up in the residual turf battles between Obama supporters and Clinton loyalists, both of which filled administration posts as political appointees.

Nuba Reports

While not a single person, the team of mostly Sudanese journalists who make up Nuba Reports are doing some of the bravest reporting in the world. The small news agency delivers reports that document the fighting between the Sudanese government and rebels in the Nuba Mountains. Each bomb dropped in the region is documented, reported and Tweeted soon after an attack happens. Their stories help hold the government of Sudan accountable for its consistent attacks.

At work: Summer offensive sweeps across Sudan

Allyn Gaestel and Allison Shelley

Gaestel and Shelley are fantastic journalists alone. But their work complements each other so well, that I’d be remiss not to bring to attention the pairing of Gaestel’s words and Shelley’s images. The work that stands out to me from the pair is when they focus on maternal health. Whether it is in Asia or Africa, the two bring readers into the lives of the women they profile. It is an exceptional talent that should not be missed.

At work: What Pregnancy Is Like in Nepal — The Atlantic

In the slanted golden light of late afternoon, Lalu Nepali beat rice with a long wooden mallet. The wood extended a foot above her head, and she dropped it onto her pile of grains, separating rice from the hulls with a rhythmic thud, thud, thud. A white scarf was wrapped tightly around her midsection as if to hold in her nearly bursting belly. She grunted at the exertion with each strike. Thud, grunt, thud, grunt. Nine months pregnant, she was due any day.

Nepal is viewed as one of the success stories in the global effort to improve women’s chances in pregnancy and delivery. The United Nations created the Millennium Development Goals to measure improvements in various aspects of life in developing countries, and the fifth goal is to reduce by 75 percent the rate of women dying around pregnancy and delivery by 2015. Almost nowhere has this been accomplished, as changing birth outcomes has proven more challenging than anticipated.

Lalu Nepali, 30, nine months pregnant, gathers kindling for fire near her home in Rima, Achham, in the far western region of Nepal, December 17, 2012 (Allison Shelley)

Lalu Nepali, 30, nine months pregnant, gathers kindling for fire near her home in Rima, Achham, in the far western region of Nepal, December 17, 2012 (Allison Shelley)

James Wan

At work: Get Rich or Die Trying: The Chinese Herbal Medicine “Death Sentence” in Uganda — Think Africa Press

Wasswa Zziwa Edrisa − or “Doctor Wasswa” as he is known here − stands in the centre wearing a fresh, chequered shirt on his back and an unwavering grin on his face. With the easy charm of a seasoned salesman and the swaggering self-assurance of Uganda’s national bird and symbol, the crested crane, Wasswa welcomes me in.

“I will show you how we help so many people,” he says, beaming. “Let me show you the machines.”

“This is one of the scanners,” he explains, pointing to a piece of kit that looks a bit like a 1970s radio. “It shows everything. We can see if you have diabetes, kidney deficiencies, liver problems, eye problems. Everything.”

Wasswa explains that the test works using a traditional Chinese understanding of the body whereby different points of the hand relate to different internal organs. We watch as an attendant prods a patient’s left palm with a metal tip, making a little meter light up. When the light goes green, he explains, it means that part of the body is fine, but if it goes orange it indicates a problem.

Lauren Bohn

When she is not busy interrupting the male-dominated foreign policy landscape, Bohn is submitting a diverse set of stories from the Middle East. While it is easy to get reports on the latest fighting and politicking in the region, human rights and individual stories are her focus. She worked with Oduah by looking at youth underemployment in Nigeria and will continue since she is the inaugural Middle East correspondent for the GroundTruth project. There, she will focus on telling more stories from the region that put the larger headlines in context.

At work: For Egypt’s trapped and teeming, revolution has barely begun — CNN

From a cracked window, Khaled Gamal looks across a smoggy skyline of drab tenements and hanging laundry. But on this day, something is different.

He watches a voting line form on his street in Manshiyat Nasr, one of Cairo’s poorest neighborhoods. After more than 30 years of life under former President Hosni Mubarak’s ironclad autocratic rule, it’s a sight many didn’t think they’d ever see: Egyptians voting — from among 13 candidates, no less — in the freest presidential election in its history.

Rhythmic street music rises into the two-room flat he shares with his mother, grandmother and three siblings. His fatigued mother, Umm Ahmed, has hung sepia-toned portraits of relatives and pictures of Islam’s holiest city, Mecca.

Gamal, 18 years old, looks down at his freshly purple-inked finger.

He just voted for the first time.

Hamza Mohamed

Mohamed covers many issues in sub-Saharan Africa, but his reporting on and from Somalia is important. His stories from Al Jazeera cover the Islamist militant group al-Shabab, clamp down on media in Somalia, challenges to the government and much more.

At work: The plight of Ethiopian migrants in Somalia — Al Jazeera

Every evening the streets of this part of Bossaso are filled with mainly young men from Ethiopia – Africa’s second most populous country – gathering around tea stalls. The evening ocean breeze blowing in from the sea is filled with the aroma of spicy Ethiopian food and music.

Less than a kilometre from the farm where Kalon works, a dirt road snakes through a large refugee camp.

Ahmed Abdi Muse sits in the passenger seat of a beaten-up car. He has been living in Bossaso for more than a decade and is fluent in Somali. He speaks the local dialect, making everyone second-guess his nationality. For the past five years, he has been working as a driving instructor.

“There are not that many choices for us but to stay here and do our best to provide for those close to us. Ethiopia is not an option for me, and going to Arab countries is very risky. We come here and work hard. We don’t harm anyone. We are here only to support our families,” Muse said.

The migrants are trying their best to be part of the wider community and have formed community organisations.

Bonus Update: Everyday Africa

Everyday AfricaThis is an oversight that deserves to be corrected. The team of photographers who make up the Everyday Africa project are like an All Star team of journalists. Started by Peter DiCampo and Austin Merrill, Everyday Africa started out as a project to share the mundane and everyday things the two saw while photographing across the continent. They brought in other talented photographers and then saw the brand expand to the rest of the world. Go follow them on Instagram, now.


A member of the presidential guard helps his younger sister with her shoe just before her wedding at a hair salon where multiple wedding parties were preparing in Conakry, Guinea on Sunday, January 18, 2015. Photo by Jane Hahn @janehahn

A member of the presidential guard helps his younger sister with her shoe just before her wedding at a hair salon where multiple wedding parties were preparing in Conakry, Guinea on Sunday, January 18, 2015. Photo by Jane Hahn @janehahn (Instagram)

Pay attention to these journalists too (running list)


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]