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This article was first published by Julie Cowdroy on ABC's The Drum here.
"The ironic thing about the coverage of the News of the World, is that now we are not actually getting any news of the world," read the witty tweet in response to UNICEF's question of whether the famine in the Horn of Africa was getting enough coverage.
While we may need more reports of the crisis to draw our attention to the plight of the most disenfranchised people on the planet, we also need better quality media coverage. Therefore, it may be worthwhile to present a few new ways to think about what has been dubbed the 'worst humanitarian crisis' in the world today.
1. Africa is not a country
It is vital that we control our assessment of the crisis to the affected individual countries within the north-east region of the continent of Africa. Context is everything. The nature of the political, economic, cultural, historical and security situations within Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, Eritrea, Uganda and the newly formed South Sudan are quite different. While regional stability in the continent's north-eastern states, or lack of, is a factor in this crisis, painting all of Africa with the same broad brushstrokes is getting kind of old and we really should move on from doing so.
2. While the images we see on our screens capture very real suffering, they don't capture the immense dignity of those who are affected
We are confronted with heartbreaking imagery of children who are dying in their mother's arms. Other disturbing visuals are emerging, such as mothers using rope to bind their stomachs to deaden hunger pangs so they can give what little food they have to their starving children. Upon speaking with humanitarian workers in the Dadaab camp in Kenya, such images line up with reality. Some areas have been dubbed 'hell on earth', and rightly so.
However, one Reuters reporter has given a harrowing account of a television producer who was visiting Dadaab, who asked, "How many skinny babies can you show me?" This is absolutely disgraceful and the lowest form of reporting on this crisis, but sadly not uncommon as the media juggernaut rolls into the neighbourhood.
These beautiful people have incredible dignity and are the types of wonderful human beings who would offer you their last cup of tea. This is the way they carry themselves. One aid worker in Dadaab reported that as he handed out a package of food to one woman, he said, "I'm sorry it's small, but there are lots of people to feed." The woman then offered half of her allocated food back. Surely, such decorum demands nothing but the utmost respect.
3. Thoughtful emergency relief will ease the suffering
Obviously, we must give humanitarian assistance to deal with the immediate need, and do so urgently, but also thoughtfully.
In events like these, all manner of newly formed charities and organisations quickly appear out of nowhere to 'help', and suddenly the circus is in town.
However, only local and international organisations that champion the rights of those who are suffering, and who understand the power those who are affected already have, must be central to the operation in order to bring long-lasting change. There are communities in certain pockets of Ethiopia, for instance, that have proven to be resistant to this crisis thanks to the ongoing work of local and international rights-based organisations.
4. The drought didn't cause this famine. It only compounded existing systemic problems
This crisis is regarded as a "slow onset" disaster. As Raj Patel says in his book Stuffed and Starved:
When flies buzz around the eyes of starving Africans on screens in the Global North, it is when they have officially been declared to be in a state of emergency … What is rarely reported when the tragic pictures are beamed is that getting to the tipping point takes time.
Author and academic Edward Carr recently posted an article on his blog highlighting that this famine should not be simply attributed to the weather. Carr argues that collapsing local and global markets, and a dysfunctional government in the state of Somalia are the main reasons for the crisis, and he is right.
First, the desperate state of affairs in the Horn of Africa demands that the international community address the global food system which increasingly disadvantages small-scale pastoralists who have been jeopardised by large-scale farming, despite the fact that the former – mainly women – produce a large proportion of the world's food. Reforming the system to champion women-led agriculture instead of export-focused agriculture could prove one way to safeguard against future food shortages.
Secondly, a very weak government and an extremely volatile security situation in Somalia is the primary reason this crisis has reached a fatal tipping point, but it is not for lack of notice. Protracted crises and complex chronic problems in places like Somalia take decades to be created, and therefore solved. Not weeks.
As the world scrambles to offer life-saving relief, we must also bear in mind that systems need to be established that will prevent such atrocities from happening again, and, more importantly, systems that mean they could, must be abolished.
Julie Cowdroy is an Australian singer/songwriter who also writes about international policy, poverty and power struggles.
My name is Yvonne Ekpe and I'm African, Black African and Nigerian to be precise. I woke up one morning and decided I want to build a career within the charity sector in International Development. To start my journey, I'm presently working as a Communications Intern at the Global Poverty Project, learning the ropes.
One of the first tasks I was assigned was to research and write this blog; exploring the use of images in charity advertising. As someone who is just venturing into the development world and lived most of my life in Nigeria, the staff at the Global Poverty Project said they wanted me to give a developing world view on the matter.
In this blog and two others, I'm going to share what I learnt, especially about negative images, which I saw lots of.
In my research I came across the terms "Poverty Porn", "Development Porn" and "Famine Porn". They all refer to images of people from developing countries, especially those of Black African origin, which are negative and undignified and focus on just their problems/conditions; portraying a subjective and one sided view in an attempt to raise awareness, acquire support and/or donations.
I'd never heard the term before, but I'd seen the images, and in my research I came to learn some of the techniques for it:
Images, particularly of crying and/or sickly looking children, staring wide eyed up into the camera, often with the stereotypical use of flies buzzing around their faces.
A voice-over describing what's happening in the picture or video and slow, sad music playing in the background.
Misleading/inappropriate captions or texts giving context to the image(s). For example, 'If you have brown eyes, you are more likely to die young' -from a charity that does incredible work on behalf of children [The publication was later banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).]
I saw all sorts of images in my research, and below I've shared three that show just how differently you can show babies:
Source 1 - Save the Children
Source 2 - Merlin
Source 3. Concern Worldwide
It's obvious why charities use these images and I understand the importance of their causes. I know it's a real challenge to get people to care enough to give and/or support especially in these times of recession; and I commend charity fundraisers working tirelessly to ensure funds and support are available for varying development projects.
These sorts of images do have the desired effect on me as a human, as I'm sure they do on you, because they depict human suffering and injustice. But as an African, rather than evoking just empathy and pity, some of these images evoke other feelings in me such as disgust and anger. And I dare say this is not the intention of any well-meaning fundraiser.
Having lived most of my life in Nigeria and knowing first-hand the development challenges faced by Nigeria and Africa, I feel the portrayal of people of African descent and others in the Global South exploited in this way is a bit skewed; one-sided like the single story Chimamanda Adichie spoke about in her TEDtalk.
We've got issues in Africa, probably more so than any other continent, but in spite of these people are hopeful and work hard; they don't just sit around listlessly waiting to be rescued!
Too many adverts portray the people in them as victims concentrating just on their suffering, disease and despondency rather than showing them as everyday people who need the right type of support to overcome the challenges they face.
And I'm by no means saying that charities don't impact on the communities they work in because they do - but at what cost?
The adverts invoke my pity and desire to help, but greater still is the anger I feel. According to one charity worker I spoke to, "If we are looking to build long term relationships with our donors we want those relationships to be founded on hope rather than guilt and on inspiration instead of despair." Wouldn't you agree?
Would it not be more productive in the long term to have advertisements that tell the whole story? That give the public a realistic and true picture of communities and people depicted in these advertisements. Wouldn't this make it easier for people to make informed decisions about supporting charities, particularly in the long term?
Over the next few weeks, I will delve deeper into the matter and talk about the motivation behind the use of seemingly negative images, based on conversations I had with around a dozen charity fundraising staff.
It seems Africa can’t catch a break! Recurring humanitarian crises in the continent, whether man-made or natural, have over the decades severely overshadowed its development achievements. The most recent is the food crisis in East Africa. Over 10 million people in the horn of Africa are facing untold hardships from lack of food and increasing food prices as a result of the worst drought in the region since 1951.
According to Oxfam’s Humanitarian Director,“This is the worst food crisis of the 21st Century and we are seriously concerned that large numbers of lives could soon be lost.”
During a major disaster, the DEC launches an appeal and a ‘joint period of action’ lasting a fortnight begins. Its members then jointly fundraise using the DEC’s main appeal; and all funds raised go to the DEC unless otherwise specified by the donor. These are then shared amongst those members who prior to an appeal launch had indicated an interest and are divided based on charity size and ability to utilize resources on the ground.
The number of NGOs working to provide humanitarian aid has grown considerably, increasing competition for funds, media space and beneficiaries. And it seems it’s no different within the DEC. Why launch individual appeals knowing the DEC was going to be launching one? Wouldn’t this duplicate efforts? And aren’t these organisations spending money on un-necessary advertising and administrative costs?
Secondly, why are the images used in disaster response so negative?
The answer is clear - negative images of need work. Images of disasters are never pretty, and NGOs seem to strategically use them in their fundraising activities because they feel it works best. That's understandable - especially when the reality is so dire.
But, the effects of this are concerning. Negative images elicit guilt, however unintentionally, and portray the people in these crises and hopeless victims. The DEC’s Code of Conduct recognises that beneficiaries of aid are ‘dignified humans, not hopeless objects’ – but they too have employed this tactic:
Source 4: WORLD VISION
It is important to recognise that these kinds of images are fundamental to the mass response of disaster appeals - and have a big impact on securing much needed funds. At the same time, it is important to remember that these pictures only show a small part of the story, but are not representative of people that live in poor countries- who we have previously described as hardworking, intelligent and capable.
The average person has been overtly exposed to images of poverty and disaster like those above. However, I refuse to believe the only reason we will donate money for a good cause is by watching on, almost on a daily basis, as a fellow ‘human’ is being stripped of his dignity.
Let's be generous and give to this appeal - and to any appeal where there is real need. But, at the same time, let's do what we can to overcome the fiction that the public will only respond to the most confronting of images.
What comes to your mind when asked whether the UK public cares about politics and/or foreign affairs? New research conducted by Dr Rob Jones and Dr Graeme Davies, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, sheds some interesting light on this topic.
So what does the public think about politics and foreign affairs?
The main results of Jones and Davies’ survey were as follows:
• Only 13% of the British public are not interested in politics in general, and (perhaps surprisingly) this figure decreases when talking about foreign affairs: 9% are disinterested, while 77% are “quite” to “extremely” interested;
• When talking about Britain’s role in the world, there is often a 50:50 split between taking an isolationist and interventionist position;
• The level of education (18+ as opposed to 16+) makes a marked, positive difference on opinion;
• Identifying oneself as “not British” (i.e. English, Welsh or Scottish) and reading the tabloids are the top two reasons for favouring a more isolationist worldview;
• Only supporters of UKIP and the BNP are overwhelmingly in favour of isolationism. All other party supporters are in favour of getting involved abroad, with Labour, the Lib Dems and the Green party leading the way;
• There is a 57:43 split between those who think we spend “enough” or “too little” on International Development, to those who think we spend “too much”. This is roughly the same when asked whether aid should be needs- or interests-based.
Finally, if we take a look at the research carried out on the reasons underpinning people’s opinions, which focused on their perceptions of threats, International terrorism and Islamic extremism, followed by immigration, came at the top of the UK public’s list of ‘critical threats’, with people across a very broad spectrum agreeing. The level of fear increases, however, amongst tabloid readers and supporters of UKIP/the BNP. The latter were particularly fearful of being personally caught up in an attack.
When asked what the public believes to be ‘under threat’ from these elements, ‘Jobs’, ‘way of life’, ‘democracy’ and ‘Christianity’ (4 out of 6 responses) can all be linked to these top 3 perceived critical threats. Political parties have clearly encouraged national fear, and the press – especially the tabloids – have encouraged personal fear. What is evident is that this fear matters: it makes us more compliant.
Concluding remarks: the legacy of fear
This research unmistakably demonstrates that the media and political parties play a major role in shaping the way the UK public thinks and, even more importantly, acts. Indeed, if more people are interested in foreign affairs than are interested in politics in general, we could ask whether it is possible, or simply too simplistic, to draw a direct correlation between the additional percentage to those who support isolationist politics, i.e. (far) right political supporters and tabloid readers.
Coupled with the need for greater education, what the international development community may now want to focus on is countering the ‘triple threat’ of lack of education engagement with global issues, negative political discourse and media manipulation of fear - and how this ties in with the public’s views on aid. (This video by ONE further demonstrates the chasm between what people think is spent on overseas development aid and the actual figure).
Contrary to popular belief, then, this research shows beyond doubt that most people are interested in politics in general – and even more so in foreign affairs. Strategies to counter this ‘triple threat’ must therefore stem from policies that do not simply aim to engage the public in those arenas, but that engage with specific issues within them- especially where political and media coverage is not providing a just or rational view of global issues.
Food and development expert Raj Patel recently asked ‘Can the World Feed 10 Billion People?’. He argues that food production in the developing world must increase substantially to meet the demands of a growing world in which 1 billion people are already living without food.
As the food crisis in the Horn of Africa continues and global food prices rise, we look at the pressures of living in a world that is so rapidly expanding and ask another question- Do the numbers matter?
The world population is expected to hit 7 billion people in October of this year. If we took just one step for every person on the planet, that would be enough to walk around the entire circumference of the earth 168 times. If you took a step for every one of us, it would be enough to go to the moon and back five times – but what could it mean for global poverty?
Developing regions are growing faster than the rest of the world – and the vast majority of the global population currently lives in Asia and in Africa where population density is higher than elsewhere. Africa is also the fastest growing continent, whose population alone is expected to triple in the next 90 years.
For the world’s poorest people, population pressure dramatically affects access to food and resources. It increases vulnerability to shocks such as inflation and climate change. The world’s most marginalised communities also overwhelmingly live on the world’s most marginalised land. In Bangladesh it is possible to see these pressures first hand as low lying farmland literally falls into the sea or is washed away in annual floods- leaving large numbers of the people homeless and without food. Bangladesh has the highest population density in the world and is home to 2.3% of the world’s people.
There is not enough food… or space
Common arguments suggest that the world is not producing enough food to feed everyone. This is not true.
If we took current food stores, every person could eat up to 2,700 calories a day for the near future. What’s more, the entire population of the world could fit into a space no bigger than the city of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, food stores in the developed world are often repurposed, used for feeding animals or industry, or plain thrown away - while food production for the world’s poor hangs in the balance.
The World Bank suggests as much as 75% of the rise in food prices from 2002-2008 was due to the ever growing demand for biofuels made from maize and wheat, which are heavily subsidised in the US and Europe. Maize and wheat are also widely grown in the developing world – but these subsidies make it impossible for farms to compete in the global market. At the same time, prices for these products as food are often too expensive for the world’s poorest – adding to a cycle of poverty that can cause famine and food riots.
Space is not a problem, but poverty is
Failure to reduce poverty means that an increasing number of the population are born in countries where access to education, food, healthcare and human rights is low. What seems clear is that neither food nor space are the problem… but poverty is.
At the Global Poverty Project we believe that we can help end poverty within a generation- and our 1.4 Billion Reasons presentation proves it can be done.
In October the world population is expected to hit 7 billion people. That’s 7 billion people who can fight poverty and improve the world. That’s 7 billion reasons to look forward to our future.