Tag Archives: famine

Famine in Somalia and the “CNN Effect”

A displaced Somali woman and her malnourished child. The current famine in Somalia has received much less media attention than the 1992 crisis.

On July 20, the UN officially declared a famine in two southern regions of Somalia, and “warned that without action, famine-level conditions could soon spread to the rest of the south.” As Robert Paarlberg writes in The Atlantic, the situation in Somalia is perhaps more dire than it was 19 years ago, when 300,000 Somalis starved to death. Not only is this famine worse, but the militant Islamist group Al Shabab is keeping needed food aid from the people, “distrusting food-aid workers as spies,” and spreading propaganda that “it is better to starve than to accept help from the West.”

But this creeping humanitarian disaster has, as yet, attracted much less media attention than the 1992 famine or more sudden recent disasters such as the tsunami in Japan or the earthquake in Haiti.  This media “blackout” has hampered fundraising by aid groups, notes a recent New York Times piece entitled “Off Media Radar, Famine Garners Few Donations”:

“Relief organizations say the discrepancies underscore the pivotal role the media plays in spurring fund raising after disasters. The famine in Africa has had to compete with the wrangling over the debt ceiling, the mobile phone hacking scandals in Britain, the killings in Norway and, in Africa itself, the birth of a new country, the Republic of South Sudan.  `I’m asking myself where is everybody and how loud do I have to yell and from what mountaintop,’ said Caryl Stern, chief executive of the United States Fund for Unicef, a fund raising arm for the organization. ‘The overwhelming problem is that the American public is not seeing and feeling the urgency of this crisis.’”

Beyond stimulating greater private donations (the focus of this article) can the media actually drive governments to intervene in humanitarian crises?  This question surrounds research on the CNN effect–the alleged ability of the media (particularly television news) to arouse public attention and compel government action.  Alleged examples of the CNN effect include the 1992-94 U.S. intervention in (and withdrawal from) Somalia and U.S./British intervention in Northern Iraq (1991).  But political scientists disagree about whether such an effect exists and how strong it is; for a good review of this research, see this article by Eytan Gilboa in International Studies Perspectives. As Gilboa notes, despite ongoing debates among policymakers, journalists, and scholars, the empirical evidence supporting the CNN effect is “mixed and confusing.”  There does appear to be a correlation between heightened media coverage and intervention, but whether this is a causal relationship (and the direction of causation) remains unclear.

Will large-scale intervention to deal with this humanitarian crisis only occur when the media places it on the agenda of policymakers?  Even if media coverage dramatically increases, would the United States and other great powers necessarily get involved?  What are the limits of the CNN effect?

Hunger and Public Policy Revisited

When Amartya Sen published his groundbreaking book, Hunger and Public Action, he challenged the prevailing wisdom about the reasons for hunger. Conventional wisdom (which continues to dominate discussions of hunger even today) was that the primary cause of hunger in the global south was overpopulation. The theory, dating back to Thomas Malthus’ analysis in the early 1800s, rested on the assumption that population growth would necessarily outstrip the ability of humanity to increase food production, leading to widespread hunger. In the nearly two hundred years since Malthus’ published his argument, there has been widespread hunger, massive famine, and other calamities. But Malthus’ argument remains problematic. In the vast majority of cases, food remains available during famines. In general, the problem has not been one of underproduction—of a lack of food availability—but of access to the food produced. Even during the worst of famines, food remains available for those who can pay for it. Sen’s work highlights this apparent paradox in through his use of the concept of “entitlement,” which he defines as “the set of alternative commodity bundles that a person can command in a society using the totality of rights and opportunities that he or she faces.” In the context of famine and hunger, then, what is important is not the amount of food produced, but the ability of individuals to secure access to the food that is available. (Georgois Altintzis offers a critical engagement with Sen’s argument, highlighting some of the challenges it has faced since the early 1980s but concluding that it continues to offer a good explanation of food crises sparked by trade shocks, wars, crop failure, erratic weather, and sanctions).

Blogging for Oxfam, Duncan Green offers another take on Sen’s argument, drawing attention to a recent report by the NGO ActionAid published a “Hunger Scorecard,” in which they rank 29 developing countries in their success in addressing hunger. Brazil, China, Ghana, Vietnam, and Malawi fall in the top five, with Sierra Leone, Pakistan, Haiti, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo rounding out the bottom five. The striking point in their analysis, however, is less the individual rankings than the common themes they draw from the most successful countries. According to ActionAid’s analysis, the most successful countries

  • Reject the conventional wisdom of free market economics, instead asserting a central for the state in agriculture, in particular by supporting small farmers (through access to credit, research and extension services, technology, income or price supports, etc.
  • Balance policy support between commercial agriculture for export and production of food for domestic production.
  • Encourage a more equitable distribution of land by engaging in land reform efforts.
  • Establish basic social protection measures.

In short, the most successful countries appear to establish policies that encourage domestic production by small farmers while simultaneously attempting to guarantee food entitelements.