07.27.11

Africa’s Silent Starvation Crisis

The food crisis in Africa is the world’s “most severe humanitarian emergency,” writes the CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. And yet, she says, it has garnered little attention.

How well we recall the jarring broadcasts and heart-rending scenes of orphans in Haiti, whose families and homes were wiped out by the devastating earthquake. These images are deeply etched in our memories, thanks to intensive and sustained world media coverage. As a result, they helped generate an outpouring of support from the public.

Now shift to the Horn of Africa, where more than 2 million children’s lives are in danger as a result of an enormous food crisis, brought on by drought and regional conflict. There is comparatively little media attention. This catastrophe is not on the public agenda. It urgently needs to be.

What is happening in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti is nothing short of a calamity. As a result of the worst drought in 60 years—exacerbated by civil conflict and soaring food and fuel prices—tens of thousands have died, and millions more are malnourished and at risk of death. It is the most severe humanitarian emergency in the world. A massive human dislocation is taking place, with thousands of families trekking across the region to refugee camps in Kenya. Some children are so weakened by malnutrition that they are dying en route to the camps.

But, this time, the world is not watching. Unlike an earthquake, tsunami, or severe storm, this is not the kind of emergency that happened overnight. Those types of disasters, which spring upon us suddenly, have resulted in large-scale media attention, which, quite understandably, can jolt public awareness and response.

Nor is this the type of disaster that can be easily covered. The Horn of Africa is far away from where the cameras are, from where most newspapers and magazines post correspondents or maintain staff. Cutbacks in foreign media coverage over recent years have contributed to a news vacuum in these remote parts of the globe and, in turn, to the public’s unawareness of the scope of human tragedy.

There have not been many images of the nearly 400,000 people in a crowded refugee camp in northern Kenya. And they are the “lucky” ones. Sustained by food, therapeutic nutritional supplies, and clean water provided by UNICEF and other international humanitarian agencies, their chances of survival are far greater than the millions outside the camps who are fighting for their lives every day.

With the support of governments and donors, we can save the lives of children and other victims of this drought. Americans are a generous and compassionate people. The response to the earthquake in Haiti was tremendous. And the media played a huge part.

There have not been many images of the nearly 400,000 people in a crowded refugee camp in northern Kenya.

Now, we need the media to bring home the appalling story of a mother having to make the “Sophie’s choice” of which child to feed—a sickly baby or a still-mobile pre-teen. But despite the misery, there is hope as well to encourage people to take action. There are babies being nursed back to health with a high-protein peanut butter paste provided at UNICEF-supported feeding centers. But let us be clear, those feeding centers and that peanut paste are there due to the generosity of educated donors. Donors who read, listen, and watch the news. Social media can, of course, also provide considerable attention. But those sites, too, have been largely silent as Africa’s worst food crisis in 20 years escalates.

The news media is an indispensable force in marshaling public attention and support for our success as aid organizations in coping with humanitarian crises—but so is everyone who consumes the media. All of our voices need to be heard. The responsibility for action lies not only with media. We all have the power to call attention to this colossal tragedy and try to stop it. And the sooner that happens, the more lives can be saved. A disaster of this magnitude should not have to be sudden, spectacular, or nearby to rise to the top of the world’s agenda.