|Media consumers become interested in events in the Third World when they are provided context by journalists who examine issues like climate change, foreign intervention and economic trends [AFP]
Reports of famine vary wildly in their impact. Sometimes images of emaciated children in relief camps provoke an outpouring of charitable giving. The music and entertainment industry rally round as concerts are organised and television specials are aired. But usually the response is more muted. Other stories push famine off the agenda. The fact of avoidable death on a vast scale fades into the background, where it becomes part of a more general anxiety felt by citizens of rich countries. We can see the need for action but, apart from making a charitable donation, we don’t know what to do. In our more shameful moments we tell ourselves that famine is natural, something that happens over there, an immemorial misfortune. There are too many people, the food is bound to run out sometimes. It is nature. If it is somebody’s fault, it is the fault of the people there, of feckless peasants or corrupt elites.
And so we veer between humanitarian zeal and uneasy or callous indifference. Journalists in the midst of a catastrophe know they are competing with domestic stories, not to mention the attention grabbing wiles of the celebrity industry. They do all they can to bring home the scale of human suffering. The result is often a kind of terrible sublime. Individuals are presented as being caught in events beyond human comprehension and outside history. In his 1984 broadcast from Korem in Ethiopia, Michael Buerk talked of "a biblical famine, now, in the twentieth century". Then, famously, his reporting helped inspire Band Aid. All too often, similar journalism fails to connect with an audience that has become used to famine as a collection of heart-rending images and phrases. Faced with something so awful we are tempted to turn away.
There are ways of talking about famine that don't rely so heavily on emotional appeals and that instead relate the immediacy of human suffering to political and economic structures. News professionals are apt to insist that they have to focus on the emotive and the dramatic if they are to stand any chance of engaging their audiences. But, as Tom Mills of the New Left Project notes, there are grounds for thinking that the professionals have this one wrong. In 2002 Greg Philo summarised three major studies by the Glasgow Media Group that explored UK media coverage and public understanding of the developing world.
Philo noted "a widespread belief in broadcasting that audiences are not interested in factual programming about the developing world". But though this view was widespread, there was little to support it. The Glasgow Media Group's studies showed that audiences became much more engaged in stories about conflict in the Third World once they were able to situate what was happening in a broader explanatory context. As long as foreign news stories were presented as a series of disasters far away that had no connection with events at home, people's interest was weak. Not only that, Philo's interviewees would often say that the problems were down to the failure of people in poor countries to manage their affairs competently. Once it was pointed out that Western diamond and oil companies were helping to drive conflict in Angola, for example, people became much more engaged. The problems of ordinary people far away became more, not less, interesting as viewers were offered a structural account. Conflict is inexplicable without reference to resources and to the unaccountable financial infrastructure used to hide the spoils. Without an explanation that makes sense audiences will, not unreasonably, look elsewhere.
Like conflicts, famines are not inevitable and they do not happen in isolation from the rest of the world. A drought is a natural event. Mass starvation is not. It is political, insofar as it is the consequence of human decision-making. Under British rule millions of Indians starved to death as a result of food shortages. These famines, the British were sure, could not be avoided. They insisted they were the fault of the lazy and too numerous natives. Since independence the country has prevented famine from returning. Political will, not food, was the crucial thing missing in British India.
The BBC’s Andrew Harding reports that the current famine in Somalia is taking place in the midst of a longstanding conflict. Al-Shabab, a collection of Islamist groups, rules much of the country while the official government controls only part of the capital city. Though much of the region has experienced drought, the impact on human life has been far greater in Somalia. And the confrontation between various armed groups in Somalia is itself part of a struggle for resources and control throughout the Horn of Africa, in which America and other powers are deeply involved. Adequate coverage of the famine in Somalia, and the pattern of action and inaction that made it possible, must take into account the dynamics of this foreign intervention. And that in turn requires that journalists look steadily at the crackpot logic of the War on Terror.
Climate change and economics
There are other frames of reference, rarely noted in reporting on famines. Climate change is bringing more, and more intense, droughts to East Africa. Climate change is something for which the rich world is largely responsible. Images of suffering do nothing to help us make the connections between our lifestyles and a deepening environmental crisis. Indeed, they leave us free to blame the victims of our own appetite for cheap energy. Coverage that adequately explained famine abroad would prompt a debate about economic reform at home.
Furthermore, both acute food scarcity and chronic poor nutrition are both intimately linked to the structure of the global food market. The global institutions, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund in particular, have encouraged developing countries to remove subsidies and tariffs on food. In countries like Korea, subsidies encouraged economic growth by increasing the buying power of farmers. Protected by tariffs, urban industries sold to this rural market and were able to grow until they were ready to compete internationally. By contrast, in much of Africa and Latin America cheap imports have driven farmers off the land and into the cities. People who could be growing food are instead living in slums, with little hope of finding well-paid work. The world’s poorest countries are then forced to buy food in global markets at prices that fluctuate wildly.
The current famine is not something happening far away. It is an event in our shared history. The course of events in East Africa will be determined in part by decisions made thousands of miles away in the ministries of the rich world and the agencies of the global institutions. These decisions in turn will reflect the knowledge and determination of citizens to see the present crisis addressed and its sequels prevented. But public indifference will only be dispelled when the media begin to explain, carefully and accurately, how and why famine and conflict break out.
Though broadcasters and journalists may feel more comfortable offering emotionally accessible stories about individual suffering, the evidence suggests that clear structural explanations are more likely to engage audiences. Those of us who work in the media have a duty to act on this evidence and to trace a structure of economic and political power that is also a structure of moral responsibility.
To put it another way, the struggle against starvation, violence and disease is also the struggle to understand and describe the world.
Follow him on Twitter: @danhind
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.