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.