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The past year – my first as Executive Director of the World Food Programme – has vanished in a blur. The unfolding crisis in Syria and neighbouring countries has kept all of us in the humanitarian community busy, but for me, it is the continuing crisis in the Sahel region of West Africa that has provided a constant backbeat to my first twelve months in this job.
I chose Niger as the first country I visited as Executive Director in April last year. At the time, the country was at the epicentre of a drought that had affected the whole Sahel region, pushing millions into the protective arms of the humanitarian community. Hunger gnawed at the very soul of people caught in the unforgiving lean season that precedes the arrival of crops from the new harvest.
Twelve months later, when I visited Burkina Faso and Mali, millions were still facing the prospect of the next hunger season. But this time they were better equipped to cope, even though the simmering conflict in Mali had complicated matters by forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
In 2012, humanitarian agencies and national governments worked together to avert a potential catastrophe. In 2013 we are helping those same communities continue on the road to recovery as they adapt to shifts in weather patterns that have made droughts more frequent and more severe.
This is all good news. Lives have been saved and money has been invested in building resilience, ensuring the people of the Sahel are better equipped to cope with future droughts. But does good news get the attention it deserves?
Blink and you would have missed any news coverage of the successful early intervention that prevented disaster in the Sahel in 2012. This year, the Sahel has barely registered on the news media radar. I may have missed it, but I don’t recall seeing any coverage of the healthy babies I saw in Mopti, Mali when I visited a few weeks ago.
Good humanitarian stories, it seems, are not worthy subject matter for newspaper headlines or top billing on television news channels, even when the lives of millions are at stake and tax-payers’ money is being used efficiently to provide vital assistance.
It’s not so long ago that a television report featuring harrowing images of a starving child would open the floodgates of support, compelling governments and the public to respond, donating the cash that humanitarian agencies need to stop more children going hungry. It is a formula that has worked again and again since the first televised famine in Ethiopia in 1984, and it has been difficult for humanitarian organisations to resist.
At some point or other, we have all been complicit in identifying a “poster child” to tug on the heartstrings of the public and encourage them to reach for their wallets. But while this may have worked in the past, it is becoming increasingly obvious that people have seen and read enough about food shortages and famine to acquire a more questioning approach to the causes of hunger and the potential solutions.
Today, potential supporters are more likely to ask why after so much work has been done, are children still starving? And what has been achieved after all the millions of dollars have been spent, when so many people are still vulnerable to hunger? As humanitarian agencies we must answer these questions ourselves, but we also depend on media organisations to help us deliver the message explaining the rationale behind our response as well as to highlight success when it is deserved.
Of course we don’t work for each other, but media organisations and humanitarian agencies do depend heavily on each other’s goodwill. We support each other as we strive to fulfil our different missions, finding ourselves accidental partners at the scene of every disaster.
The Sahel in 2012 was no Biafra, nor was it Ethiopia in 1984, or Somalia in 2011. But human suffering – that image of a severely malnourished child - should not be the measure of whether a story merits news coverage. Our role in the humanitarian sector must be to inspire journalists to move beyond reporting that is driven primarily by images that exemplify our collective failure. If it takes television footage of a starving child to move a donor into action then we are acting too late.
The media landscape is no longer dominated by a single international news channel, and what used to be called the “CNN effect” has been replaced by a rolling sea of information coming from social as well as traditional media sources. Technology has reversed the flow of information, allowing it to travel from the bottom up with the content from billions of mobile phones in the hands of the public – and even those who are receiving humanitarian aid - now dominating the narrative of breaking news.
It takes patience and wisdom to sift through the competing voices and provide balanced reporting, but it is this deeper understanding that will help us to move beyond clichés and formulaic reporting. Our challenge is to break through the clutter and work with media organisations to help the public understand how their support has a human impact in terms of saving lives in emergencies.
This year we will continue our work in the Sahel, where up to 9 million people will again struggle to get the food they need for a healthy daily diet. The shocking statistic that one child in five will die before their fifth birthday even in what is called a “good year,” will continue to haunt the region. It is inevitable that the region will have another bad drought year in the not too distant future. But I am confident that we are better prepared to face the next crisis.
As partners – humanitarians and journalists – we can and must help each other to bring this story to a bigger audience. It is a story of how we can link relief to recovery, it is a story of the triumph of the human spirit, and it is a story that desperately needs to be told.