20 million people are dying from starvation, and you can help them with clicktivism

Est Reading Time: 5 min

[CN: Famine, existential futility, genocide, Trump]

Map with Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen highlighted

It’s a cliche that when something bad happens to black/brown people, western mass media’s level of coverage is crap. The first time I remember being shocked by this is in 1997, when the newspaper was plastered with coverage of Princess Diana’s death/funeral. The Rais massacre of 400 people in Algeria that happened at the same time made page 1 of the world news section which due to the funeral coverage got pretty trashed that edition. I remember thinking: weren’t they embarrassed about being so blatant about it? But news publishers often know their audience pretty well. A case in point because one of my friends [at the time] said the massacre was a good thing because something something terrorists. Anyway my jaw dropped but he was not complaining about lack of coverage.

Now that Godwin’s rule is dead [citation], I think it’s worth linking this phenomenon to coverage of the Holocaust. Or lack thereof — until the Allies liberated the death camps. Here is Daily Telegraph’s quaint little article, buried on page 5 of a 6 page edition:

Yes the relationship between Jews and whiteness/colour is its own can of worms but amongst other reasons, racial perception of Jews at the time contributed to a lack of coverage and ultimately action.

Today, we have the worst humanitarian crisis in the entire history of the UN. 20 million people are on track to starve to death in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. Famine has “only” been declared in South Sudan, but this is because of the official criteria for declaring a famine: 2 deaths/10,000 people per day, 20% of households facing extreme food shortages and 30% acute malnutrition rates. But the category below “famine” is “emergency”, which is not much better.

I’ll be brief about the details. These two posts by UN Dispatch go into more of the background into the famines.

Anecdotally, I’ve been religiously following the photojournalism of Fati Abubakar, who for a few years has been chronicling everyday life in Northeast Nigeria to go beyond the simplistic narratives of Boko Haram in her series Bits of Borno (Facebook, Instagram). In the last 2 months the slices of everyday life have been replaced with coverage of malnutrition treatment centres as this is what daily life has become.

The four famines are the result of a perfect storm due to:

  • Climate change and the continuing, worsening droughts it is causing worldwide, but especially in Somalia.
  • Conflict in all 4 countries, which is very closely linked to climate change (same as the Syria conflict really – for more see this comic).
  • Extremist ideology – which in the 4 countries is “nicely” spread between the various types available as rich pundit fodder: Islamism, tribal conflict, sectarian conflict and the more standard geopolitical strategic conflict.
  • Trump and the era of Trump, with all the attention this has diverted from other places. If your news feed is mostly focussed on the shit-show there, the world’s other shit-shows haven’t gone away.
  • Climate change.
  • Lack of access to remote regions, and aid workers being specifically targeted and killed in all 4 countries.
  • Dictatorial control around access for aid agencies, creating a political process around who gets to eat and who gets to die.
  • A general difficulty in fundraising for disaster relief from governments, which Trump’s fund-cutting plans haven’t helped.
  • Part of this is that so much money is going to super-important programs in Syria, which in turn is linked to climate change.
  • I know I’m being a broken record but with all the shit that’s been written about <blink>radical Islam</blink>, have you considered the extent to which climate change is a major major reason for this?

Mass media coverage has been awful. I’ve seen some stuff by Al Jazeera, including the helpful comparison to the 2011 Somalia famine when the world also did jack-shit so 260,000 people starved to death. There are desperate pieces from management in aid organisations, like Matt Wade’s (of the Australian Red Cross) comparing the lack of response this year to the 1984 LiveAid response to the Ethiopian famine. Despite LiveAid’s simplistic, dehumanising, white-savior framing of the situation, it did manage to raise a reasonable amount of dough. Then there’s this press release from Oxfam, with an apt summary of where we’re at:

Famine does not arrive suddenly or unexpectedly. It comes after months of procrastination and ignored warnings. It is a slow agonizing process, driven by callous national politics and international indifference. It is the ultimate betrayal of our common humanity.

I don’t think that Diana’s death should have been bumped from the front page that day, but it should have included the Rais massacre. Isn’t there enough room on our front page for the both? Can Trump really take that away from us too?

To me, any media outlet that hasn’t been running the four famines on every front page for the last few months is complicit. In the future, it should and hopefully WILL be judged similarly to the buried Holocaust lead. Despite the major differences, we there is more we can do about the famines than we could about the death camps at the time. But given the nature of media in 2017, we are just as responsible as the media and will be judged as harshly.

The data-driven nature of online news these days completely kills the conspiracy theories about Them keeping us ignorant. Mainstream media can what stories get traction with what readers (much more than in the offline news era) and their survival absolutely depends on them monitoring it. They are. We vote with the tap of our phone and here we’ve voted that we don’t give much of a flying fuck.

So yes, definitely donate if you can. But either also, please engage in some clicktivism. Sign an online story. Share one of the fact-based stories floating around about the famines. Follow Fati Abubakar. Like/react to posts you see about the famines on social media – this get them seen by more people. If you have a platform, use it. If you can’t manage an emotional reaction that’s appropriately proportionate (20M people!) because of what’s happening then at least please click a like button.

Engaging in clicktivism doesn’t just help spread awareness. It’s common to hold a cynical view that awareness by itself can be next to worthless. Often it is — for example see my posts about the Susan G Komen Foundation and Kony2012/conflict minerals. But for international disasters, media coverage and general outrage do affect levels of response/aid, at least based on some research and analysis.

The famines are the result of systemic, complex geopolitical problems that feel beyond most of us, hence a lot of disengagement with the world I’ve seen. But we can click.