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The world’s blind spots: Underreported humanitarian emergencies


Sudan: A Forgotten Crisis. Photo by: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Last year it was estimated that humanitarian needs will reach a new peak in 2022, with 274 million people in need of immediate help for survival. This would amount to roughly one in every 28 people on the planet. Humanitarian needs are therefore currently at an all-time high, owing to the rise of state-based wars, as well as the effects of climate change, environmental degradation, global population expansion, and failed governance. Furthermore, the typical humanitarian catastrophe now lasts almost nine years, with many lasting far longer. Despite this, the gap between humanitarian needs and global resources is constantly and drastically widening.


However, in this context of elevated need, some countries are permanent guests on the list of global issues receiving the least attention. Crises located at the world’s blind spots are often serious and long-term humanitarian situations in which victims receive minimal or no foreign relief. Some of these crises have been labelled as "complex" because natural and/or human causes interact and overlap, making it difficult to isolate their effects. Moreover, there is a significant absence of common definitions for terms such as “crisis, severity of crisis and measures of crisis severity” and thus a disagreement among international organisations and other relevant players in the classification of a country in any of these categories.


Which main elements influence humanitarian aid allocation? And, how exactly can the discrepancies in global attention and action levels be explained? This article aims to investigate the factors behind the underrepresentation of certain humanitarian crises around the globe, while at the same time bringing some of those emergencies to the forefront of public attention. First, it will provide an overall analysis of the main elements that influence humanitarian aid distribution in a domestic and international context. Second, the active role and efforts of the European Union, a key international player in keeping underrepresented plights relevant, will be examined. Third, the article will give a brief outline of two case studies of underreported crises, together with a list of the main conditions which have led these situations to have been ranked among the top ten humanitarian crises underreported in 2021 and thus considered as examples of “blind spots” in the international sphere. Finally, some possible solutions to the problem of underrepresentation in the media will be explored. What is being done and what ought to be improved?


A compass of humanitarian aid distribution. What influences it?

It is widely assumed that the news media, coupled with evaluations of recipient needs and donor states' foreign policy aims, significantly influences the allocation of humanitarian aid by governments. Domestic factors such as electoral cycles and public views continue to play a significant impact in aid distribution. Foreign policy considerations such as proximity, political alignment, colonial history, language, and trade ties with recipient countries have also proven to be important.


Studies done on aid allocation from major donor countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and France have been able to show that media coverage and the bureaucratic process of giving foreign aid are closely associated. Whether due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the escalating climate disaster, global social injustice and new wars and conflict escalations, audiences around the world are subjected to high levels of stress and over-information, resulting from an overwhelming and often terrifying news agenda. Combined with the continuing struggle against misinformation and fake news, it's no surprise that many people tend to purposefully ignore negative news. Consequently, millions of people caught in the middle of wars and other conflicts, displaced from their homes, and without even the most basic medical care do not get the attention that their dire situations deserve. Indeed, media attention is an important, if not the only, element responsible for generating and improving international answers to humanitarian crises.

We all know that a single photo can make the world turn its attention to an issue” - Laurie Lee, CARE International’s interim secretary general


The recent escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict poses as a good example of the existing discrepancy when it comes to the visibility of humanitarian crises. After two weeks of Russian aggression and intensive media coverage, on March 6, the European Union allocated 500 million euros to Ukraine for humanitarian relief, claiming that EU countries had already taken in two million refugees fleeing the Russian invasion and that millions more were expected. The war illustrates what international commentators have called a “double standard” due to an absence of a similar response to other conflicts around the world. Hence, it can be affirmed that aid allocations are correlated with both the volume of coverage as well as with the content of coverage.

The European Union and blind spots

The European Union, as the world's top humanitarian donor, is at the forefront of institutional international interventions in crises that suffer from a lack of attention. Advocating for international blind spots contributes to a significant display of EU solidarity internationally, as well as a vital component of the institution's global mission and responsibility to help those in need, wherever they may be. Inadequate attention to crises is translated into a lack of proper humanitarian aid delivery. But how?


The EU’s Forgotten Crisis Assessment (FCA) has allowed for the monitoring and follow-up of underreported crises around the globe. This is an evidence-based tool based mostly on data from the INFORM indexes, the Europe Media Monitor Tool, and field expert input. The Europe Media Monitor (EMM) is an online tool that allows the reader to quickly view, explore, and comprehend current news from across the world's online media. It is an indicator based on the levels of media coverage and has the same weight as the other components of the FCA assessment. The system uses powerful information extraction techniques to automatically discern what is being reported in the news, where things are happening, who is involved, and what is being said by examining several news sources in over 70 languages. Thus, it aids in diagnosing the problem of blind spots, helping to monitor global media reporting and draw attention to what the main topics of reporting are. In addition to this tool, the European Union has also pledged to allocate at least 15% of its humanitarian budget to “forgotten” situations. Aside from the financial support, the EU has been active in advocating and publicising these plights and bringing international and media attention to them.


Case Studies: Examples of international “blind spots”

Zambia

Zambia, located in Southern Africa, is a country which differentiates itself for its diverse flora and wildlife and for being home to the famous Victoria Falls. Despite the fact that the landlocked country with a population of almost 18.4 million people is classified as a middle-income country, nearly 60% of Zambians live below the international poverty threshold of $1.90 USD per day. People living in rural regions make up the majority of those living in poverty, and they are also the ones who are most affected by hunger and the climate crisis.


Zambia, like many other southern African countries, has been hit by prolonged droughts, which have resulted in a surge of food insecurity. The country’s rates of hunger, malnutrition, and undernourishment have been recorded as among the highest in the world. Between July and September 2021, nearly 1.18 million people in Zambia experienced high levels of acute food insecurity, according to the latest results of an Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis.


Despite a successful harvest in 2021, extreme food insecurity was caused by flooding between December 2020 and February 2021, increased grain prices, and parasites such as the African migratory locust and fall armyworm. COVID-19 is also contributing to the dire economic situation: 3,660 persons died as a result of coronavirus between January 2020 and October 2020. Zambia was dealing with its third wave of illnesses as recently as July 2021. The economic burden of the pandemic is extremely severe, and people have experienced considerable income losses, exacerbating the difficulty in obtaining food.


Gender inequality is another major issue in the country, worsening the effects of poverty and food insecurity. In Zambia, women make up around 51% of the rural population and poverty rates in female-headed households are often greater than in male-headed households. This occurs despite the fact that women are the primary producers and processors of food in Zambia, with women producing 60% of the country's food supply. According to the Government of Zambia and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), gender equality and women's empowerment are now even more critical in attaining food and nutrition security and rural poverty reduction.

Malawi

Malawi is among those countries that are already facing the full brunt of the climate disaster. Droughts, floods, and landslides, among other extreme weather occurrences, such as dry spells, cold spells, thunderstorms and landslides are expected to continue to rise in the coming years. The main consequences are a worrying lack of fertile soil, ruined crops, and a catastrophic famine which manifests itself in several sections of the country, with the majority of rural populations suffering from year-round food shortages.


Tropical Storm Idai raced across the country in 2019, and many productive crops were damaged by extensive floods just weeks before the harvest season began. Countless families are still enduring the consequences of this calamity almost three years later, while many of the 80,000 people who were displaced during the time have still not seen their livelihoods return to normal. Furthermore, climate-related disasters are projected to become more frequent and severe. Every year, challenging climatic circumstances lead to some 40,000 people being forced to flee to other areas of the country. Food insecurity makes it necessary for women and girls to walk longer distances to acquire food and water, putting them at danger of gender-based violence. Floods have also caused hydroelectric power generation to be disrupted, as well as water pollution and an increase in disease outbreaks such as malaria, cholera, and diarrhoea.


On the Human Development Index (HDI), Malawi is ranked 174th out of 189 countries. Almost half of all children never complete primary school, while the average life expectancy in the country is 65 years. The COVID-19 vaccine campaign has gotten off to a sluggish start, with just a small number of doses having been given out, and the goal of vaccinating 60% of the population by the end of last year was not achieved. There is also a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS within the country, which has resulted in a huge number of orphaned children and has had a negative influence on rural household food production systems, as well as quality of life and long-term livelihoods. According to estimates, about 10% of the population is infected, with many children among them.


What can be done? How to regain the spotlight

Which methods can be used to urge audiences to pay attention to humanitarian issues that are suffering from poor coverage on a global scale, and thus put the media cycle into place?


First, it is important to share tales of resilience. Engaging audiences around the world with the reality of living on the other side of the ocean and across borders contributes to promoting solidarity and fostering action. Connecting journalists, audiences, and supporters directly with the stories and the storytellers is essential.


Second, there is an increasing need to facilitate the creation by affected communities of their own information ecosystems to supply credible news and information during war, conflict, or natural catastrophes as routes and methods for exchanging instantaneous information proliferate. It is important to ensure the availability of safe channels of communication through appropriate types of information systems or applications, together with reliable information. This represents a key instrument in keeping the efforts aimed at tackling humanitarian crises in tandem with those on the ground who have a first hand experience of what is happening. Relatedly, it is important to promote solutions that are developed locally. This means collaborating with grassroot communities and civil society to support and scale effective humanitarian aid programs and involve as many stakeholders as possible. It is critical to strike a balance between top-down approaches based on global indexes and other quantitative data, and bottom-up approaches based on expert analysis and non-expert experience on the ground.


Third, ensuring emergency preparedness from those responsible for reporting on humanitarian crises, such as national broadcasters and journalists, is another important element. This could be done through the provision of specific capacity building training aimed at journalists, humanitarian responders, specific governmental position holders and other key actors. There is also a need for social media platforms and media outlets to actively cut through the noise and endless streams of user-generated content. Information regarding humanitarian crises must be thoroughly scrutinised to be able to verify that it is true and actionable, given that misinformation can only be detrimental to properly tackling and mitigating emergency situations. When the information system and its infrastructure are fully engaged to help affected populations gain greater access and control over information that affects their lives, better informed decisions can be made.


There is no single platform for true and accurate information” - Rina Tsubaki, project manager of the EJC’s Emergency Journalism initiative in Maastricht, the Netherlands


Conclusion

The proliferation of humanitarian crises around the world in the information age has caused a significant shift in the international community’s development goals and approaches. Efforts to deliver humanitarian aid and foster solidarity give way to those crises which might have more acute needs in the ever-changing global humanitarian landscape. Thus, forgotten humanitarian crises pose a harsh mirror to the complex society we live in today and reinforce the need for holistic, common, and continuous approaches in order to be able to mitigate and eventually end these situations. Reliable information can be a lifeline in the age of instantaneous communication, while misinformation can be an existential threat.


The increase of national and international news coverage of humanitarian crises puts pressure on bureautic assistance mechanisms, with the potential to lead to increased emergency humanitarian aid disbursements to specific situations. The media has the capacity to set into motion a domino effect of action, in which accountability institutions apply pressure for policy makers to deliver sufficient and proper aid. Nonetheless, as mentioned above, news coverage does not necessarily tell the whole story; rather, there is a complex and simultaneous interrelationship between various political and cultural factors which also plays an important role in humanitarian aid allocation. Only a multilevel interaction between a diverse set of actors which balances their respective set of organisational and professional logics can provide a sufficient framework to bring the blind spots of the world to the forefront once again.


Nonetheless, with no end in sight to humanitarian problems, media development efforts will need to adapt to meet the needs of those affected and build on easily accessible media platforms that can involve affected communities. In contexts where natural and humanitarian disasters may be predicted, such as in the two cases studies here presented, evolving demands necessitate a transition to more agile and citizen-oriented approaches and capacity building for disaster preparedness. But additional help is needed, including training of journalists responsible for humanitarian coverage and a more thorough digital management of the information itself.


Hopefully, by highlighting these challenges, more public awareness will be raised and translated into a more effective reaction and more awareness of the need for long-term action that will bring those blind spots to the forefront of the international agenda.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are personal to the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organisation, or employer.

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