(HN, October 3, 2011) - The tardiness of news organization to put the ongoing Horn of Africa crisis on their story agendas is among the reasons cited for the disaster getting out of control.
The observation was made by a panelist at a Red Cross panel discussion over the weekend at the Commonwealth Club in London.
Even though organizations such as the World Food Programme (WFP) - led by the very media savvy chief Josette Sheeran - sounded the alarm early on, it was observed that media organizations were slow to pick up on the rapidly growing crisis - which is shaping up to be on of the worst humanitarian disasters in a generation, impacting more than 13 million people in several countries in East Africa.
Aid agencies too were described as being too slow to mobilize on the Horn. Part of the problem was the complexity of the crisis - brought on by what some have described as a "perfect storm" of lack of rains, spiralling food prices and insecurity in Somalia - ground zero of the crisis.
"The early warning system was very effective, but the drought response was not adequate," said David Peppiatt, head of humanitarian policy at the British Red Cross.
If something positive has emerged from the crisis, it was that more attention has been placed on food insecurity and especially the need to invest in agriculture and particularly small farmers, who produce 90% of Africa's food, Peppiatt said.
Mike Wooldridge, the BBC's veteran world affairs correspondent, who has covered past famines, echoed the need for better management of agriculture in the region. "There has never been a greater time of opportunity for agriculture,"
On the media's handling of the crisis, Woolridge said first-hand reporting was crucial. Indeed, some large US media organizations, such as CNN and the three large networks, sent some of their top talent to the region during its early stages.
Woolridge cited an interview with Valerie Amos, the UN's head of humanitarian affairs, on the BBC programme The World This Weekend on 3 July, for galvanising media interest in the story.
During a question and answer session, a participant criticized the African Union and its member countries for their slow response.
To be sure, the response of donors to the crisis has been woefully inadequate - nearly three months after the first declaration of a famine.
According to data collected by The Guardian newspaper, the crisis faces a $671m shortfall. The UN has estimated that $2.5bn in aid is needed for the humanitarian response.
A big reason for the lack of funding may be scepticism among the general public in the developed world.
According to a poll on how aid mney is spent and released late last month by the British Red Cross, more than 70 percent of Britons say they are not well-informed about how humanitarian aid is managed and spent. And only 4 percent of the British public feel very well-informed and 20 percent quite well-informed. A large majority - 71 percent - say they do not know much about how aid is used.
"This is extremely worrying," Peppiatt said in a statement. "It is essential that those who give so generously understand how money is being spent and that lives are being saved as a result of the work of aid agencies."
- HUMNEWS staff, agencies