Who cares?

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With Aisha Jallow

Whenever I speak about The Gambia or Africa here in Sweden, I need to do it like a history lesson. People are not updated about any of the conditions anywhere in Africa unless there is some kind of disaster or war. The Western media doesn’t seem to be bothered about Africa that much as long as nothing in particular happens. Disasters, floods, pandemics, terrorist attacks or wars interest media companies and they send reporters to cover them.

Photos of suffering mothers and starving children make money. Big, brown babies with eyelids covered with flies sell the news. Journalists in camouflage clothes, bending down behind damaged cars, covering shootings in an African city, are exciting to see. The same stories are sold over and over again, only with some new photos added. For someone like me, who is really interested to learn more, I can see when the story is exactly the same; only tweaked a little to make it appear as news. Online news agencies are spitting out news every minute, and readers are expecting to be updated at least once an hour.

When I was young, we get newspaper every morning. If something new happened, we would read about it the next day if we were lucky. Nowadays you expect the news to be covered almost immediately after or as it is happening. We want to see pictures, close-ups with preferably nasty details so we have something to speak about at the coffee break at work. Looking at the news from The Gambia, it is not uncommon to see photos of the deceased without the face being covered. Where is the respect for the deceased and his or her relatives? Why are we so fascinated at other people’s misfortune?

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Some years ago, there was a video on Facebook where some Gambians were watching a man who had hung himself from a tree. Why would someone make a video of this and share it on Facebook? It took a while for me to understand what I was watching. The video was taken from a distance. At first I focused on the crowd standing by the tree. When I realised what was hanging from that tree, I was shocked! This tragedy is not something one should share on the social media!

This is a summary from a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council: The NRC is an independent humanitarian organisation helping people forced to flee. They protect displaced people and support them as they build a new future. According to NRC, the world’s ten most neglected crises are all in Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has become a textbook example of neglect. It is one of the worst humanitarian crises of this century, yet those inside and outside of Africa with power to create change are closing their eyes to the waves of brutal and targeted attacks on civilians that shatter communities.

The northeast of the DRC has been plagued by tensions and conflicts, with a dramatic increase in attacks on displacement camps since November 2021. About 5.5 million people are now displaced within the country and food insecurity has reached the highest level ever recorded, with a third of the population going hungry.  A 37-year-old mother told an interviewer:

”I can’t plan for my children’s future, there is nothing beyond finding food each day. The world doesn’t know how we suffer here.”

Five of her family members were killed in a massacre and her house was burnt to the ground.

The aid provided to DRC last year equalled less than one US dollar a week per person in need, and the humanitarian appeal was less than half funded, leaving aid workers with impossible decisions as to what and whom to prioritise. In comparison, the Ukraine humanitarian appeal launched on 1st March was almost fully funded the very same day.  

Despite a large spike in people fleeing their homes in Burkina Faso in 2021, the displacement crisis received substantially less media coverage during the whole year than the average amount the war in Ukraine received each day during the first three months of the conflict.”

The war in Ukraine has demonstrated the immense gap between what is possible when the international community rallies behind a crisis, and the daily reality for millions of people suffering in silence within these crises on the African continent that the world has chosen to ignore, according to a representative from the Norwegian Refugee Council.

It is not only unjust, this bias also comes with a tremendous cost. Lives that could have been saved are lost. Conflicts are being allowed to become lengthy crises and devastate the hopes of generations of people for a better future.

Hunger levels are on the rise in most of the countries on the neglected crises list. The already severe food security situation has become worse due to the rising wheat and fuel prices caused by the war in Ukraine. In addition, several donor countries are now deciding or considering to cut back on aid to Africa, and to redirect funding towards the Ukraine response and reception of refugees at home instead.

The speed at which the UN, the EU and other international partners acted in response to the war in Ukraine should inspire the same urgency for solutions and support to the most neglected crises of our time.

Since the end of colonial rule, Africa has on the whole been inadequately covered by the Western media. It is rarely reported except as a backdrop to disaster or as the scene of a celebrity visit. There is an absence of sustained and well-informed reporting about Africa in the mainstream media. And when the media do cover it, they often get the story very wrong, partly because there is no ongoing understanding of and engagement with the continent.

There is a close relationship between media coverage and aid agencies and that has damaged the cause of informing the public.

Aid agencies have seen a huge growth since the mid-1980s, partly spurred by the power of media’s photo coverage. As media organisations have reduced their commitment to investing in reporting on Africa, journalists have in turn become more dependent upon aid agencies. This symbiotic relationship requires a degree of transparency otherwise there is a danger that it can compromise journalistic accountability.

Let us look at one example. Some years ago I visited the SoS Children’s Village in Ziguinchor, Senegal. As my group of visitors were from Sweden, we were allowed to visit the village and also visit one of the houses.

They had become very reluctant to receive visitors, as they had been fooled earlier by people who pretended to come with good intentions. They told them there were from an aid organisation and wanted to get some inspiration to start something similar somewhere else. We want to trust people who have good intentions. We don’t want to believe that anyone would exploit another’s misfortune, but that happens all the time. There are so many ways to make money, and too many people don’t mind using other people’s suffering. This is why transparency is crucial. A lot of money has been collected to help ease the suffering, but the money never reaches the intended beneficiaries. How about the transparency considering Gambian conditions? Who can answer where all the aid money goes? If someone begins to dig in that ditch, he or she will soon be covered with a lot of dirt!