The three pictures presented in this blog post were all taken in February or March this year in Niger, one of the countries that forms west Africa’s Sahel region. They’ve each been published recently on Flickr by different aid agencies working in the region, as reports and media coverage of yet another looming food crisis as a result of drought, instability and conflict increase. Last year it was Somalia and the Horn in east Africa, some 4000 miles away. Same continent, different countries, same story. We’ve been here before, right? Sadly, yes, we have.
In an excellent piece in the Guardian this week, Save the Children’s Media Manager for Emergencies, Andrew Wander, argues that “pictures of starving children give donors an instant justification to release significant amounts of money. Predictions of starvation, however accurate, do not”. He does point out that much has been done already to prevent the situation in the Sahel being even worse than it already is, and that some lessons have been learnt from the international humanitarian response to last year’s crisis in the Horn of Africa. But he also says that “the humanitarian system is like an ambulance – it is focused on disaster response, not prevention. It is geared up to react to demonstrable need.”
So, to a certain extent, we still rely on visual images to illustrate that demonstrable need. And those visuals can still elicit action, from both international and individual donors. Of course they can still also elicit criticism; why is this happening again? Why do we need to help if it isn’t as bad as Somalia last year? The answers to those questions aren’t easy or simple. Failed rains, conflict, rising food prices are all part of the picture. Lots of people are working flat out to prevent these situations from arising in the first place and to mitigate their impact on vulnerable people when they do. Wander acknowledges that “we’re on the ground earlier, more funding has been made available by donors, and journalists have been covering the story of the growing crisis in west Africa since January. In comparison, previous seasonal hunger crises in the Sahel have never attracted attention before the summer – there’s no doubt that more is happening earlier this time round.”
What’s the big deal then? More is being done, and being done earlier. It’s always going to be difficult in this part of the world; extremely harsh, remote environments, unpredictable rains and political instability are always going to present challenges. In the Sahel this year, the early warning system has worked, kind of – hasn’t it? Well it kind of has, but the need is still far greater than the response so far, it would seem. The trigger point for a large-scale response to the warnings almost always still seems to be the emergence of enough traumatic images of suffering and pain. And the terrible irony of this is that, even if this happens sooner rather than later, it’s by definition already too late for many, many people.
Pictures of starving children are far from being the only factor in triggering a response. They don’t mean that the early warning systems and the humanitarian or international community have failed. But they’re necessary to make sure that it doesn’t. Uncomfortable a truth as this may be, and as uncomfortable as they may be to look at, sadly we still need images like this to compel us into action.