How a 20-million-person crisis goes unseen

Shining a spotlight on far-away problems is always a challenge for aid groups – even amid drought and famine in Africa, which is being called the worst humanitarian crisis in decades. But when they succeed, public awareness often translates into action. Part 5 of our series on famine resilience.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Rova, a chronically malnourished 5-year-old girl, plays with Matthew Conway, UNICEF's communications officer, at a local health clinic in Antsirabe, Madagascar.

Battered by drought and civil wars, more than 20 million people from Yemen to Tanzania are at risk of starvation in what aid workers call the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. But over the past two decades, nations that once produced searing images of famine's toll have moved to thwart it by strengthening community resilience. Our reporters traveled to Madagascar, Ethiopia, and Somaliland to investigate the daunting challenges as well as the long-term efforts that are saving lives. 

The world is facing its worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, with 20 million people on the brink of famine, and hardly anybody knows about it.

Out of the media spotlight, the droughts and civil conflicts that are pushing the Horn of Africa, Yemen, and Nigeria into starvation are going unnoticed. And the humanitarian agencies trying to help are struggling to collect the money they need to help.

“We’ve found it very difficult to raise funding for this set of emergencies,” says Carolyn Miles, head of the US branch of Save the Children, “just because we have had such a hard time breaking through in the media.”

The effects are clear: only 15 percent of Americans are aware of the current hunger crisis, according to a poll released July 12 by the International Rescue Committee, an independent humanitarian agency. But once they are informed of the depth of the problem, 73 percent say it is one of their top global concerns, just behind North Korea’s ballistic missile capability.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Muhammed, a driver for Save the Children, puts their flag on the antenna of their SUV before heading out in the countryside in Adadle District, Somali Region, Ethiopia. After three failed spring rain seasons, this region in the southeast of the country is experiencing extreme drought.

Global humanitarian agencies such as Save the Children and Oxfam get most of their money from governments and foundations – sometimes, in response to public pressure. But public appeals can raise millions of dollars, too, and the fact that it is not happening this time has pushed eight big US charities to join forces.

They have launched a common fund-raising campaign (July 17-28) to raise awareness of the situation. “Given our inability to get people to pay attention, we are getting together to try in a group,” explains Ms. Miles. (At press time, the campaign had raised $3.3 million.)

But any campaign’s success with the general public depends on humanitarian organizations’ ability to first get media coverage.

“People will only donate if they know there’s a problem,” says Ian Bray, humanitarian press officer for Oxfam.

Getting outlets’ attention

Victims of sudden natural disasters, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or the Nepal earthquake in 2015, attract public donations easily. But starvation is a long, slow process, “and it’s difficult for the media to deal with that if there are no events” to hang a story on, says Mr. Bray.

Publishers hesitate to spend resources on a story they fear won’t feel fresh to far-away readers. Essentially, editors are asking, “‘How much deader are the camels going to be than the last time we covered this story?’ ” Bray adds.

Programs designed to build up long-term resilience against famine, from waterholes to nutrition education, also face an uphill battle for airtime. And on-the-ground reporting is costly. 

And in the United States, aid agencies face a particular problem: Donald Trump’s presidency has absorbed an unusual amount of media bandwidth. 

“Getting through to people in the media has been harder,” Miles laments. She says she had difficulty rustling up media interest even among the Nairobi-based press corps in a trip she made to northern Kenya, where drought is ravaging the land.

Agencies are more than willing to help journalists who want to see their programs in action. The Christian Science Monitor correspondents who visited Ethiopia, Somaliland, and Madagascar to report this series were given logistical assistance by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Save the Children and Concern Worldwide, an Irish NGO.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Paramedic Nandrianina Sage-Femme (l.) holds a malnourished baby while she speaks with Etienne Ramandimbisoa of UNICEF during a mobile clinic visit for severe acute malnourished children in Amboro, Madagascar.

When the message gets through

The reporting almost always bears fruit. Sometimes it is small: A Monitor article about a young Ethiopian couple who could not marry because drought had killed the would-be groom’s camels, which he needed for the bride-price, prompted two readers to offer to purchase the needed livestock. Another Monitor story about a mother and her children in Madagascar prompted a similar offer of help.

Sometimes it is bigger: When Save the Children persuaded ABC television to send a reporter to Somalia, his coverage sparked donations worth $3 million in two weeks.

Similarly, a group of UK aid agencies launched two recent campaigns soon after the airing of BBC television reports by star correspondents from starvation-hit countries. They raised a total of £84 million ($108 million.)

When Oxfam is deciding where to focus a campaign, “it’s a question of balancing where we think we will get the best response from the public ... and where the biggest funding gap is,” says Dave Hillyard, director of philanthropy and partnerships at Oxfam. “If we can’t generate support from the main (TV) broadcasters an appeal is unlikely to be viable.”

Television is the most important medium. But thanks to social media, TV images can reach a far bigger audience than network news-viewers. The ABC footage can be found on YouTube, and Facebook, Google, and Twitter are all supporting the Global Emergency Response Coalition campaign in the United States.

A frustrating view of 'news value'

The agencies’ critical need for media coverage of the crises they are battling makes them especially frustrated by journalists’ difficulty getting into Yemen, where 7 million people are on the verge of famine. The Saudi government, angered by past reports of wide-scale civilian deaths at the hands of the Yemeni government it is supporting, has prevented the UN from bringing journalists on its flights. The UN is the only organization operating flights into the capital, Sanaa.

But even absent such political pressure, “it is a constant, constant challenge” to generate interest when “rich, powerful people have high news value, and poor powerless people thousands of miles away have low news value,” rues Bray.

That is especially true when it comes to the sort of projects that many international aid organizations run that are designed to strengthen communities’ defenses against famine. Such resilience-building initiatives include water projects, cash handouts, and help for women launching micro-businesses.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Lalah Rameloarison drives for UNICEF in Amboro, Madagascar.

Though governments and institutional aid donors know that “building resilience makes sense” economically, since it is cheaper than the emergency aid it is designed to forestall, “we have not found a way to be successful with that messaging” with the general public, Miles says.

Though “people are getting better at understanding that you can make things better if you respond early,” she adds, “generally you need something that is further along [the path to catastrophe] to generate interest.” 

Pushing past the pipeline

But it’s not only the media and agencies who can generate that interest. Aid groups call on the public for more than cash; they also encourage supporters to raise their neighbors' awareness of crises and to badger their political representatives.

Save the Children, for example, has a network of 160,000 grassroots advocates who can spread the word on social media and get involved in the political process when needed.

Earlier this year, as US government aid for the four current crises seemed to get stuck in the pipeline, the agency asked its supporters to get in touch with their local representatives and send a message that they cared about that aid.

“With other organizations, we did a lot to get approval for this funding,” says Miles, and the campaign “was very successful.” Earlier this month the US State Department announced it was releasing $639 million to stave off famine in Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Somalia, bringing its total aid this year to $1.8 billion. 

“When you can get the American public to stop a minute they do get enthusiastic about helping,” says Miles.

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