Debating Africa Is an Uncaring Media Causing Africans to Starve?

While the world was watching the devastating tsunami in South Asia, locusts were busy eating their way through African crops. Now, millions are facing starvation and the World Food Program is struggling to address the crisis. But a lack of media attention has meant that donations have been sparse.

By Alexander Schwabe

A mother carries her child into a feeding station in Niger earlier this month.

A mother carries her child into a feeding station in Niger earlier this month.

Simon Pluess, spokesman for the World Food Program in Geneva, is a brutally honest man. "When a humanitarian crisis gets big play in the media," he says, "donations flow in. Otherwise, there is no reaction." And that is exactly the problem currently facing West Africa. In large parts of Niger, in Mali and in Burkina Faso, many have already died from hunger and a total of 3.6 million are threatened with starvation. But the region found itself ignored by the media. "It is extremely clear that the CNN effect was absent," he says.

Why? At the same time signs of a brewing humanitarian disaster in the Sahel region were noticed, the world's cameras focused unswervingly on the results of the massive tsunami calamity in South Asia. Public opinion was horrified by a disaster of biblical proportions -- just as another such disaster got underway in Africa. Millions of locusts descended on West Africa and gobbled up almost the entire crop scheduled for harvest this April and May. Hardly a plant remained in some areas.

The World Food Program sounded the alarm. According to United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland, UN experts were already warning of the miserable situation in Niger as far back as November 2004. In March of this year, the UN requested $16 million for the country -- but only $1 million trickled in. Two months later, the situation was worse, and at the end of May, the UN requested a further $30 million. So far, only $3.8 million of a promised $10 million has been sent.

Horrendous drought and no seeds to sow

Now, with the failure of the harvest, the situation for the rural population south of the Sahara Desert is even worse. The region is in the grips of a horrendous drought and many have now reached the end of their food reserves. Now, the cycle of death looks set to begin. With everything having been consumed, there won't be enough seed to plant for the next harvest -- which normally would be reaped in October.

In addition, many people are selling everything they can in order to have enough money to move from the countryside into the cities. Cattle were sold to at least bring in a little profit before they, with no grass left to eat, starved to death. And tools were hawked to buy food. Over the long term, however, the people of the Sahel are left with no foundation for eking out a living.

"These are typical results if the world community doesn't intervene soon enough," Pluess says. "We have been ringing the alarm bells for months, but the donor countries have not been reacting." Had they responded sooner, the locust plague could have been beaten off with pesticides before an entire year's worth of crops were destroyed.

Now, aid workers are faced with an emergency operation of immense proportions. "We are currently caring for 12,000 children in five stationary locations and 27 mobile nutrition stations," says Petra Meyer of Doctors Without Borders. "Soon we will be caring for 20,000." That, however, is only a small portion of those affected. UNICEF said on Thursday that some 800,000 children need immediate relief.

The media has ignored the crisis

Meyer also complains of a lack of media interest in recent months, and says that the only reason reports are now making it into the headlines is because of the summer slowdown in political stories. But Doctors Without Borders wrote press releases about the suffering already in April of this year. "Absolutely nobody wanted to hear it," Meyer says. Even a large press conference in Paris at the beginning of July, complete with dramatic film footage, failed to have any impact.

A young Nigerian child suffering from severe malnutrition is treated on July 7.

A young Nigerian child suffering from severe malnutrition is treated on July 7.

But you can't blame the lack of media interest alone for the worsening situation in Niger. The Nigerian authorities -- in cooperation with the World Food Program, the UN and the World Bank -- have designed a system for delivering emergency rations that is, according to Doctors Without Borders, inadequate to deal with the acute shortages being experienced. To keep the markets stable, the system calls for food deliveries only in exchange for monetary payment. "This system is in serious need of modification," Meyer says.

In any case, the markets are no longer functioning normally. Because of the enormous demand, prices for food have rocketed upwards. At the same time, however, farmers were unable to get decent prices for their cattle because everyone was selling at the same time and they saturated the market.

In short, without international help, the situation cannot be alleviated and the World Food Program is planning on tripling its aid to the region. "Our goal is to provide for 1.2 million people," Pluess says. But organizing help at this late date is much more difficult than it would have been many months ago -- the earlier the aid is provided, the more effective it is. Six months ago, a child could have been fed for just $1 per day -- each school meal costs, according to Pluess, just 20 cents. Now, however, because many of the children are in pitiful condition, the daily nutrition and medical care needed costs roughly $80 per child per day.

Only 32 percent of necessary funds have been delivered

The World Food Program says it need dramatically more aid to meet the starvation crisis in West Africa.

The World Food Program says it need dramatically more aid to meet the starvation crisis in West Africa.

Pluess's organization does have food reserves in the Sahel, but they aren't nearly enough. And there is hardly anything available for emergency workers to purchase in the neighboring countries. That means that food will have to be purchased from far away and delivered to harbors near the crisis area by ship. "In the worst case, the material will first arrive in three months," says Pluess. And there is still a shortage of money. So far, says Pluess, only 32 percent of the necessary funds have been delivered.

In June, the German government promised €500,000. That has now been increased by €1 million, according to an announcement on Thursday by the German Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul. "We cannot allow people in Niger to starve," she said. "Children especially need our help urgently." Wieczorek-Zeul did not say why the German government didn't react earlier. Perhaps she was waiting for CNN.


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