Ten million people in the Horn of Africa have been affected by the worst drought the region has faced in 60 years. The U.N. estimates that 640,000 children are acutely malnourished. In the last three months 29,000 children under five have died due to the drought and famine.
Six-hundred and forty thousand.
Numbers likes these– gigantic, overwhelming do not just creep up on you. At least, they aren’t supposed to. While the food crisis in the Horn of Africa has undeniably been propagated by ongoing conflict, politics and limited resources, it has also been afflicted by widespread indifference on the part of mainstream and social media networks.
The international community largely ignored early warning signs of the crisis until the United Nations formally declared a “famine” in the region on July 20, 2011. Following this date, the already dire drought affecting Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia trickled into newsrooms gaining slow momentum.
An August 1, 2011 New York Times article, “Off Media Radar – Famine Garners Few Donations” written by Stephanie Strom, links limited media coverage of the drought crisis to record low fundraising, despite strong efforts on the part of relief organizations. Examining the causes for low donation rates the article states:
“Relief organizations say the discrepancies underscore the pivotal role the media plays in spurring fund raising after disasters. The famine in Africa has had to compete with the wrangling over the debt ceiling, the mobile phone hacking scandals in Britain, the killings in Norway and, in Africa itself, the birth of a new country, the Republic of South Sudan.”
A report on PBS by Talea Miller, “Donations for East Africa Famine Victims Falling Short” notes that “$23.8 million has been donated to 20 of the top U.S. humanitarian groups working on the crisis to date.” In comparison, $228 million was collected for Haiti in the first five days after the 2010 earthquake, and $100 million in donations was collected seven days after the March 2011 Japan tsunami, despite the fact that the Japanese government did not request donations.
Similarly, social media networks including Twitter and Facebook recently played pivotal roles as forums (particularly among young people) for support and social activism during the 2009 Iran elections, and in the aftermaths of both the Haiti earthquake, and the Japan tsunami. Unfortunately, these pervasive social media influencers have not been used with the same fervor in generating support for the many millions struggling to fight famine in the Horn of Africa.
Google Trends, which allows users to compare trending topics on the web, reveals a large discrepancy between internet traffic related to the famine when compared with the Haiti earthquake and Japan tsunami. Likewise, BuzzStudy, which analyzes and monitors trends in web chatter, reports that from July 20 to August 16 the Horn of Africa famine received 47,961 “social universe mentions” —by comparison the U.K. riots which began on August 6 peaked at 1,407,402 mentions. While the site does note that social media discussions surrounding the famine have risen in recent weeks, attention to the crisis amongst cyber networking circles is still relatively meager, especially considering its magnitude.
Several theories have been pushed forward by journalists concerned with the limited media coverage  devoted to the famine– desensitization to a region plagued by conflict, negative political perceptions regarding Somalia, economic woes, a failure to recognize the urgency of the crisis.
Whatever the reason – this disaster is being perpetuated by inaction. While relief organizations and aid workers struggle to save millions from starvation it is up to the larger global community and particularly young people, who have positioned social media as a beacon for change, to lend their voices to this immense fight for life.
What do think? How can we help bolster attention to the famine? What part, if any, should media and social media play in situations of humanitarian crises? Is the role of youth as advocates important? Why or why not?
Anusha Alikhan is a communications professional with over five years of experience working in external and internal communications in a variety of areas including international development, women's rights, health, technology, law, and media. Anusha specializes in creating innovative online and print publications and developing integrated marketing campaigns designed for diverse audiences. She has a law degree and a Master's in Journalism.