Stealth disasters – chosen disasters

Huilende vrouwen na een rampI have blogged pretty regularly about Virgil Hawkins’s work on stealth conflicts and chosen conflicts: the idea that certain conflicts get disproportionate attention (in the media and politically). For instance, the Israel / Palestine conflict gets enormous attention whereas the atrocities going on in the DRC consistently remain under the radar.

I would argue that the same distinction applies to disasters: certain disasters are more equal than others when it comes to media attention and the corresponding level of aid that can be expected. Roger Yates makes that point in the Guardian. And, as always, Africa gets the short end of the stick:

“The reasons why certain disasters get more media attention than others are a great source of conversation and debate within our sector – what makes a disaster newsworthy? Why do some catastrophes grab media attention while others are left behind?

Sheer death toll is an obvious benchmark for the amount of attention a disaster receives. Without high death tolls there is less media attention, meaning an emergency can reach an extreme stage before it hits the news. The current floods in Pakistan are an argument against this idea, but due to the extraordinary scale of the floods as well as the fact that Pakistan is a significant country in any news agenda, the floods are getting good coverage and, therefore, more donations. Regional relations, common language and colonial ties also help to determine what scale of press attention disasters receive. But somehow, some emergencies still fall into the “hidden crisis” category.

This can be said of the food crisis in Niger and subsequent floods. The food crisis has been going on since at least May but it was not until the media was actively lobbied by NGOs that they took notice. The type of disaster it is bears heavily on how it is perceived – slow-evolving disasters like flooding and food crises are not as “shocking” as other emergencies. Niger does not have a full-blown famine, and the death toll is low, but a combination of seasonal, political, and cultural factors mean that this is a problem that the country will take a long time to recover from. There is no singular reason for this crisis, making it difficult for the media to report on and therefore difficult for the public to know what is going on and engage with it.”

This is exactly what Hawkins discussed: the objective measurements of the disaster do not explain the amount of attention a disaster will receive. Here, as in the case of stealth conflicts, simple explanatory frameworks are key. If a disaster can be summarized as uni-causal, and the victims can be portrayed in an easy-to-understand “innocent victims struck by disaster”, then more media attention will follow. The media, especially cable news, does not deal well with complexity and multi-causality.

Also, does the disaster produce some stunning, catastrophic visuals? If yes, more media attention will follow. That is something  that have been nicknamed “disaster porn”, the relishing of disaster imagery and human misery. So, protracted famine does not generate such images.

Also, simplicity of explanation, as in the case of Haiti, conveniently allows the avoidance of painful discussions as to the role of Western countries in the permanent state of economic collapse and political instability that has marked Haiti long before the earthquake that devastated it. All that we needed to see were the dramatic images of a destroyed Port-au-Prince.

So, when Yates concludes with this:

“I hope that journalists and indeed the people who read their work consider the complexities behind the headlines, and ask about the things that didn’t happen. Why did the Niger food crisis not become a full-blown famine? Can other nations with food security problems learn from this? Why was Haiti so unprepared for the earthquake – what strategies are being used to make the country safer as they rebuild?”

I think he is naive. To explore the Niger food crisis (or the current food riots in Mozambique for that matter) would mean exploring the current food production system, with all its inequities and the very unfair rules promoted by global institutions such as the World Trade Organization, as well as the current land grab going on in Africa as the more recent form of neocolonialism. None of this is very simplistic and it is not entertaining. Actually, it would contain some disturbing truths about corporate food empires.

By Socprof (@SocProf)

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    DRC: Gangreen (Jef Geraerts) – koudvuur dus ’t komt niet in de krant (vrij naar B. de Groot)
    -zomaar ’n associatie op de late avond-