LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – It is almost 30 years since a single TV news report alerted the world to a massive humanitarian emergency unfolding in Ethiopia.
"Dawn, and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plain outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine, now, in the 20th century. This place, say workers here, is the closest thing to hell on earth," the piece began.
Accompanied by shots of thousands of starving people arriving at feeding stations in northern Ethiopia, the report by the BBC's Michael Buerk triggered an outpouring of donations and one of the biggest humanitarian efforts the world had ever seen.
It spawned Live Aid, the concert organised by pop star Bob Geldof, and heralded an era of celebrity do good-ism, which is now practically inescapable. It also led to the unprecedented growth of foreign relief organisations, changed the face of NGO fundraising and helped cement Africa's image as a continent of plagues, pestilence and suffering that continues until today.
In the minds of many, the reporting of the famine and the subsequent humanitarian effort were a huge success. Yet, a new book by former BBC journalist-turned-academic Suzanne Franks shows the opposite to be true.
"Reporting disasters: Famine, aid, politics and the media" takes a comprehensive look at the iconic news event. Mining BBC and government archives, it concludes that media coverage of the crisis was misleading and inaccurate, and that the aid effort ultimately did more harm than good.
"What made it really interesting ... is that many people have wonderful intentions but ... despite these good intentions, there are terrible outcomes," Franks told Thomson Reuters Foundation. "That is very difficult to understand."
Although few would deny the power of Buerk's report and the profound impact it had, Franks' research dispels any notion that media coverage of the famine had any lasting effect on British policy towards Ethiopia, considered by London and Washington to be a "distasteful regime" and a client of the Soviet Union.
In reality, hardly any new money was provided by then prime minister Margaret Thatcher's government largely because, as Franks points out, Thatcher's attitude to aid was said to mirror on a global scale her suspicion of the welfare state at home.
Besides analysing the response to the famine, Franks also tells the story behind the story, explaining why it became such a hit. Buerk's fortuitous lift on a World Vision plane to Korem, a strike by a rival TV station, a quiet news period and record European grain surpluses at the time all ensured the story was told, and told to maximum effect.
From the outset, the famine was characterised as a sudden event caused by drought. But the warning signs were known by the British government long before Buerk's report was broadcast, reinforcing what we now know about hunger crises – that they are a long time in the making.
Media reporting also ignored the obvious role politics played in creating the conditions for famine – how starvation had become a useful weapon of war in dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam's battle against insurgents in the north, and the extent to which the fighting was causing problems with food supply.
Not only was food aid diverted by both government and rebel forces but so too were many of the trucks used to distribute relief supplies. That, and the foreign currency brought in by aid agencies, inadvertently helped the conflict to continue.
In hindsight, it's easy to see why within a few years of Buerk's report being aired on Oct 23, 1984, there were yet more appeals for funds to fight hunger in Ethiopia, despite millions of dollars already raised.
Even worse, donations helped aid agencies set up feeding centres that were used by government officials to round up unsuspecting Ethiopians for resettlement hundreds of miles away from rebel areas.
The impulse to tell a simple story, unmuddied by complexity and doubt, is shared by the media and aid industry alike, Franks says.
"We all want the narrative of the goodie versus the baddie in a nice clear-cut story," she said. "But if you try and tell the real story, which is probably three different baddies all fighting each other and nobody coming out of this very well, how sympathetic is your hearing going to be? And how much are you really going to be able to raise money and get sympathetic attention based on that?"
This aversion to telling the whole story leads Franks to the sad conclusion that "despite all the noise, there was ultimately little wider understanding of the fundamental long-term causes and the real nature of the famine".
Little has changed in the media reporting of famines in the years since the Ethiopian crisis, Franks said. Citing Somalia's famine in 2011, she said there were a few but not many journalists willing to tell the "horrible and complicated story" of why people were starving in the Horn of Africa country which was, at the time, mainly controlled by al Shabab militants.
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