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18 Feb 2020 10:36
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  •   Home > News > International

    Africa has the world's most under-reported humanitarian crises — but why are we turning a blind eye?

    Day-to-day life for those living in drought-stricken Madagascar and other parts of Africa consist of hoping to get enough food and water to survive. So why are extreme poverty and climate change issues in Africa given less media coverage than others?

    Water is something that many of us in developed countries take for granted, but for some in parts of Africa, it could mean the difference between eating or not, and, ultimately — life or death.

    Thirty-five-year-old Julienne collapsed from hunger after going three days without eating anything — a day-to-day reality for her and her three-year-old daughter Telodoza, who she lives with in drought-stricken Madagascar.

    "We eat only cassava leaves, if I can find them, if not, we eat nothing. Yesterday someone gave me a cup of rice, today we haven't eaten anything," she said.

    In Madagascar, three-quarters of the country's population is living on less than $3 per day, and many rely almost entirely on agriculture to provide food and income.

    Recent drought has meant people have resorted to eating cassava leaves and the fruits from cactuses that grow locally. Single women, without families to support them often suffer the most like Julienne, who survives through casual labour on other people's land.

    But as the crops have dried up, so has the work.

    Her story is one of many shared in the Suffering in Silence report released on Tuesday by aid agency CARE. It found the severe drought in Madagascar was the least-reported major humanitarian crisis of 2019, with the United Nations estimating a global humanitarian funding gap of $28.8 billion.

    The report found nine of the 10 most under-reported humanitarian crises are located in Africa, many of which have been caused or worsened by climate change.

    North Korea's hidden hunger crises — the only country on the list that was not Africa — was ranked sixth-least reported.

    Meanwhile, the brutal conflict in the heart of Africa, in the Central African Republic is the second-least reported crises on the list, followed by climate change issues causing drought in Zambia.

    So, why haven't media outlets given these crises much coverage? Has the world turned it's back on the issues Africa is facing? Well, the issue is more complex than we might think.

    Media coverage of Africa lacks 'nuance and depth'

    In 2019, the media mainly focused on raging bushfires in Australia, worldwide protests and nuclear fears between the US and Iran.

    While media reporting on these major events has been thorough, humanitarian crises in Africa seem to be neglected in the process.

    Nairobian writer and award-winning political cartoonist Patrick Gathara believes the under-reporting of Africa in Western media in general is an important but complex issue.

    Paying attention to crises in Africa can often be about charity rather than justice, Gathara believes, which he said also raises issues with the media's portrayal of the region.

    "There is little money to be made in reminding Western audiences that their privileged lifestyles are underwritten by the suffering in other parts of the world," he told the ABC.

    "[Western media] have been preoccupied by events closer to home e.g. the migrant crisis, the rise of right-wing populism and, of course, Brexit and Donald Trump. In any case, the under-reporting echoes two points; that Africa is not singled out for negative reporting and that most reporting lacks nuance and depth," he said.

    In complex situations, such as global humanitarian crises, he believes reporting by correspondents who are not locals rarely helps audiences understand the root cause of the problem, but instead focuses on them "when they blow up".

    The situations were usually more complex and defied simplistic description, Gathara said.

    "Many Western outlets still use the anachronistic institution of the foreign correspondent when local reporters can do the job much more effectively and comprehensively. So that even when crises are covered, they are almost always actually under-reported," he said.

    Correcting misconceptions on 'neglected' crises

    CARE paired with a media monitoring group and selected the 40 crises that affected at least 1 million people, and included recommendations for media, governments and aid agencies to bring greater attention to little-known humanitarian emergencies.

    Rachel Routley from CARE Australia's Emergency Response Unit said sometimes there were simplified misconceptions that Africa was poor and at war, which is not always the case.

    She said the problem was that when hunger or conflict did occur, they reinforced stereotypes and thus made it seem like nothing new or interesting was happening.

    "That's why it's important to tell positive stories too, because it humanises people. Understandably, people are keen to learn more about issues closer to their hearts and homes — it's the responsibility of aid agencies and the media to make sure that we tell the stories of those in need," she said.

    The report is compiled to shine a light on the crises and to illustrate that the amount of coverage on crises not only affects public awareness but has direct impacts on the lives of crisis-affected people.

    Crises in Madagascar, Burundi, North Korea, Lake Chad Basin, Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic have all been reoccurring more than once over the last four years of CARE's reports.

    "This is further evidence of the fact that it is often the chronic crises which struggle to receive the attention they deserve, with people struggling to survive and recover in silence," she said.

    For the report, more than 2.4 million online media hits were captured between January and mid-November 2019, with CARE selecting the 40 crises that affected at least 1 million people and then ranking them by the number of news articles mentioning each country and respective crisis.

    When compared to UN figures on humanitarian funding needs, the report showed a correlation between those crises that do not receive media attention and those that were chronically under-funded.

    Ms Routley said we do not need to choose between crises but rather care for them all equally.

    In a world increasingly affected by climate change, we need to understand that we are all in this together, and support each other to recover from climate shocks, reduced access to natural resources, and increasingly severe weather events."


    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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