Friday, July 22, 2011


The UN has officially declared that famine exists in Somalia. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
This famine hasn't happened overnight, but it has been reduced to a footnote in the media's eyes by more sensational events
The problem when a child is dying from starvation is that they can't wait. They can't put their hunger on pause until the glare of the media decides to turn its spotlight on them and help spread the word that children are dying. Instead, they will slowly starve to death.
This is exactly what is happening to nearly 2 million children in Somalia right now. Nearly half of these children are already on the critical list, inching further away from life as every hour slips by. By the time you read this, it may already be too late for some.
In today's newspapers – from front to back – I was hoping to see the media use their power and influence to tell this story. I hoped to see headlines shouting that millions of women and children in Somalia, and across the entire Horn of Africa, are struggling for survival and need the British public to help.
But I didn't. Instead, my eyes were blurred with articles of shaving foam and hacking scandals, as talk about the dire need for nutritional supplies for children who need their lives saved slipped into the footnotes.
And now, the situation has reached crisis point. This morning the UN officially declared that famine exists in Somalia and that the lives of nearly half of the Somali population – 3.7 million people – are now in crisis.
At Unicef, which is the UN's children's agency, they don't use the word famine lightly. They are guided by strict criteria that means it can only be declared when at least three of eight prerequisites are reached. These are acute malnutrition rates among children must exceed 30%; more than two people per 10,000 die daily; and food access falls far below 2,100 kilocalories of food every day.
In those most severely affected regions of Somalia – Bakool and Lower Shabelle – acute malnutrition due to poor diets or inadequate food is now exceeding 50% and Unicef is recording at least six per 10,000 children dying daily. When one does the maths, this could translate into more than 12 children dying every hour should the situation worsen. Three other regions in the south will have a famine in next one to two months they warn.
I've been to Ethiopia with Unicef last year into some of the same regions that are today the focus of the wider Horn of Africa appeal. The famine, the first in 20 years, is due to a number of factors such as poverty, inadequate rainfall and conflict.
This famine didn't happen suddenly. It has been slowly evolving but under reported. Unicef, along with the UN, has been warning since January of a pending crisis and statements have been issued. 2011 has been a year filled with natural disasters and social upheaval in north Africa that have all been competing for news attention. Since drought is a slow-onset disaster, it is often very difficult to get the type of attention and response that is needed to raise the funds to prevent that disaster. In addition, issues of access and conflict have made the situation even more complicated.
The media also have a major role in the response to disasters. As former BBC producer Suzanne Franks pointedly wrote in the British Journalism Review: "Disasters – natural or man-made – exist only when they are covered by the media. Plenty of terrible things happen that remain unreported. Most disasters are known about only by those directly affected. And the crises that do get media attention are not necessarily those that kill or harm the most victims."
Being a child in Somalia is already tough and dangerous. If you survive to one, you may not survive beyond five; if you live beyond five, you most probably won't go to school and you most probably won't have many choices other than being recruited into an armed faction.
Now with the famine, life is even worse. That is why Unicef – which has been working in Somalia since 1972 – rightly calls this a "children's famine".

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