Here is the news: Africa hurts

By Paul Anticoni, August 1, 2011
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Summer is generally a quiet time for the media. Parliament is in recess, many journalists (and readers) are on holiday, and the frivolous stories deemed to be newsworthy have led to the summer being known as "silly season".

Not this year, though. There is almost too much news. The scandal at News International has held sway for weeks now, and the tragedy in Norway has shocked us all. They are both big stories and clearly merit the attention of the media.

But, meanwhile, one big story has been practically ignored by the world's media though it deserves our attention however we define the term "newsworthy". I am referring to the food crisis in East Africa, now officially designated a famine by the United Nations.

Rains in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia have failed for two successive seasons, causing the region's worst drought for 60 years. Grain prices have skyrocketed and livestock is dying. The scale of the disaster is staggering: 10 million people are directly at risk. People are flooding across the borders of Somalia into Kenya and Ethiopia; thousands are arriving daily at the world's biggest refugee camp. Infant mortality rates are appallingly high. Mothers arrive at the camps reporting that they have had to leave weaker children behind, letting them die in order to save the rest of their family. The famine is compounded by seemingly endless civil war in Somalia. This is a region where the problems are many and the issues deep-rooted.

Mothers say they have had to leave weak children behind to die

The nature of news is that journalists always want to cover something new; a new scandal, a new tragedy. Covering the food crisis means getting to grips with complex regional political and economic issues. It involves trying to comprehend the ongoing sorrow of 10 million people at risk of famine, some forced from their homes, unable to feed their families, losing loved ones. It is almost too much to take in. And of course, it's so far away. The sad fact is many newspapers have short attention spans. Their interest wanes in direct correlation with the distance from our shores that a tragedy happens.

Britain has led the way in mobilising international aid but the response from some other European governments has been pitiful. The Famine Early Warning System expressed concern about the food situation in East Africa in December 2009 but governments and media failed to react.

There are also inherent difficulties for aid agencies trying to draw attention to emergencies of this type. Shout for attention too soon and you run the risk that, without shocking images of the dead and dying, papers won't see it as a crisis, so you'll be ignored; shout too late and you fail the people you're meant to serve.

World Jewish Relief launched its emergency appeal just three weeks ago, and I have been humbled by the response. We have already raised more than £100,000, and donations continue to flood in, showing that the need to react with compassion and generosity resonates strongly with the Jewish experience.

The JC is often the place to read about the issues that drive us apart, but this is an appeal that has truly brought us together. Tikkun olam - healing the world - is still recognised as a very real responsibility.

Donations to the appeal are allowing us to work on the ground in partnership with UNICEF and the Kenyan Red Cross. In Kenya and Ethiopia we are working with those displaced and affected by the disaster, focusing on the needs of severely malnourished children. We have supported the provision of hundreds of water kits which are enabling people to safely collect, treat and store water, and 25 tonnes of a high protein corn and soya product, which will feed 2,700 children for 6 months.

The work of international aid agencies will continue in the region for as long as there is famine, and for the foreseeable future. It may not be making the news, but for people in the Horn of Africa, it is their future at stake. As we return to our news networks and are besieged by phone hacking scandals and privacy orders, let's remember that, in Africa, our support can actually make a real tangible difference to the people that really need our attention.

Paul Anticoni is the chief executive of World Jewish Relief

    Last updated: 11:12am, August 1 2011