Local media representation of famine in Africa: cover-ups, instability and death

De Waal’s seminal publication in 1995, Famine that Kills, altered Western academia’s interpretation of famine.  The basis of his thesis is that the African concept of famine does not use the presence of deaths from starvation as a criterion for famine.  Rather, they describe a three-fold process in line with maja’a, the Arabic term for famine.  First is hunger, which is something you put up with.  Second is destitution, which to try your utmost to prevent.  Third is death, which is beyond your power or influence.  It is important to note that this theory is applicable famines with low mortality rates, which de Waal argues is most famines.  The famines where mortality rates were astronomical, such as the Ethiopian famine (1984-1986) and the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), are exceptions to his thesis.  My research focuses upon the validity of his theory that there is a disparity between the experiences of famines by Africans and the western perceptions of famine, relating to all three stages of the famine.  However, I am most interested in how westerners are fixated upon death during any famine whereas most Africans during most famines do not experience famine as synonymous with death.  Rather, they see it as a socio-economic problem.  This branch of research led me ask how local media represented of famine?  Was it closer to the western perception of famine or the African experience of it? In search of any answer to this question I travelled to the BBC Written Archives in Reading and explored the Summary of World Broadcasts (SWBs) held there.  For those that do not know about SWBs, the BBC have been summarising the radio broadcasts of most nations across the world since the end of the Second World War.  I was focusing upon Ethiopia (1973-74 and 1984-86) and Sudan (1984-86).  The collection was extensive, nearly one every day, and covered a variety of issues, from economic performance to political developments.  I manage to find some really useful information and began to examine it thoroughly in the final chapter of my dissertation.  The study revealed that the local media emphasised death rates in the Ethiopian famine of 1984 to 1986, which was to be expected due to high mortality rates.  However, they did not do so for the Sudanese famine from 1984 to 1986 and the Ethiopian famine between 1973 and 1974.  Crucially, these were the famines that had a relatively low mortality rate and thus a majority of those experiencing famine would not have focused upon death.  After exploring two potential causes for this difference in media representation, the most logical conclusion is that in the first Ethiopian famine and the Sudanese famine both governments did not possess the political stability or economic base to enact wide scale changes.  Therefore, they covered up the famine.  However, I understand that more research into this topic is needed for this conclusion to be validated.  Hopefully this will be achieved when I complete my MSc in Development Studies at SOAS.  In conclusion, local media representation of famine in Africa has not been addressed by academics.   This is strange given the 2008 report by the LSE that emphasises the importance of the media upon the accountability of governments during a famine [http://www2.lse.ac.uk/media@lse/POLIS/Files/dgmfull.pdf.]

Brendan Lawson, 3rd year BA History student at the University of Leeds

About perspectivesonafrica

Research and news about Africa
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One Response to Local media representation of famine in Africa: cover-ups, instability and death

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