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Thursday, August 25th, 2011 - 4 comments

Are mainstream and social media ignoring famine in the Horn of Africa?

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.

Ten million.

Six-hundred and forty thousand.

Twenty-nine 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 [1] 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?




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The views expressed in this blog-post are solely those of the author.

Comments (4)

Marie-Anne McKee
Thursday 25th August, 2011, 7:28pm

This is very true, the famine in Africa has not been as present in the media as similar events in the past. Reading your article made me think of 'bystander apathy' (a psychological theory relating to understanding why people don't help others in distress). If we were to apply this theory we could suggest that the timing of this was unfortunate as it coincided with other global and maybe more personal or 'closer' issues. Due to this it took an initial back seat in the media, the media ignored it, we then ignored it which made the media ignore it more and so it spiraled. It made me wonder if people have almost been over exposed to the plight of Africans, especially when they are being presented in a helpless manner. Particularly whilst they themselves maybe feeling helpless during this global recession. Looking at helplessness is very difficult especially when you yourself feel helpless. I also wonder if pervious attempts in the past have seemed to fail and the situation in Africa doesn't seem to improve perhaps this makes people less likely to put the same effort in again. I really don't know. We live in a village and we do a yearly fund raising event. I suggested, last year, that we raised the money for an African charity, it was ruled out under the argument that the group wanted to help people in our own country before helping others.....are there more problems at home now or are we more aware of them? I don't know, but it is unthinkable and desperately worrying that so little is being done.

Sara Malkan
Friday 9th September, 2011, 10:25pm

Great insight. Unfortunately famine is not the only misery in this part of the world. The Horn of Africa has been devastated by wars and destruction for years and it has taken place right in front of our eyes. This constant state of war and destruction of lands has only exacerbated the problem of famine in an area already deprived of simple natural resources such as water. Their problems are our problems and will ultimately hurt us in one way or the other. Our societies pride themselves on the ability to coordinate preventive measures in order to contain potential future damage. Why not in this case? Are we just shortsighted?

Frank Humphreys
Tuesday 27th September, 2011, 9:33pm

Thanks for putting your article together. We reference and link to it in this story on

angela Kabiru
Thursday 19th April, 2012, 9:44am

There is a persistent misconception in the minds of many people that many problems in Africa are more often than not brought about by conflict. Actually this is partly true, but conflicts occur simply because there is too little for people to share. We should not forget that the Horn of Africa is very dry and most times rainfall is inadequate to grow enough grass or other plants that are required for the large herds of animals that these people rely on. It is this kind of africa-apathy that people have- that there are endless problems in Africa brought on by Africans themselves-that makes potential donors to withhold their money.
We cannot do anything about the fact that the pastoralists live here or the fact that they keep animals that eat all the grass and plants. What we need is a way to minimise the impacts on the land (this is the tricky bit) such as a reduction on the number of animals kept. But how do you explain this to a man who has no other means of of economic production, and whose wealth is measured by the animals he has, or whose main diet comes from the cows or camels, in a place where dowry is measured by how many cows....?
Urging these people to change their way of life to something more sustainable is one option, but we should give them time to adapt. After all, the Agricultural revolution did not happen in 10 years.

What the social media is not doing is correcting people's misconceptions about Africa, giving the right information pertaining to particular situations. There is too much negative publicity about Somalia and Al Shabaab, fighting in Eritrea and Ethiopia, etc. etc.What about Kenya where there is no fighting?. Some people cannot differentiate between different countries within the Horn of Africa,and so places and problems are lumped together in unsuitable unions.
What we need is more positive information about Africa in general; let the world treat Africans as people who understand their world and make an effort to solve their own problems rather than people waiting for never ending aid. After all, how have we survived on the continent ever since we first made an appearance in the world?

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Guest Editor

Anusha Alikhan

Communications Consultant, United Nations


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.

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