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Media inattention towards Horn of Africa crisis 'inconceivable' and 'wrong'

A mass grave for children in Dadaab. Children have walked for weeks across the desert to get to Dadaab refugee camp, and many perish on the way. Others have died shortly after arrival. On the edge of the camp, a young girl stands amid the freshly made graves of 70 children, many of whom died of malnutrition. Photo: Andy Hall/Oxfam.The Horn of Africa is facing its worst drought in sixty years. But despite some notable journalism, the crisis has struggled to obtain media coverage and raise sufficient funds from donors. It now risks becoming a "hidden emergency", says relief and development agency Concern.

In July and August, the famine accounted for just 0.7% of mainstream media news coverage in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

For man-made reasons, the emergency in Somalia is particularly severe. Yet, Google indexes only 70% more news stories about "famine" in Somalia in 2011 to-date than stories about its pirates (4,770 vs. 2,770).

Social media and Internet traffic figures suggest that the public is also paying little attention to the humanitarian emergency.

Yesterday (September 21), Concern Worldwide warned that the drought and conflict-induced hunger and nutrition crisis in the Horn of Africa is already dropping off the news headlines just as the imminent rainy season "threatens to exacerbate an already dire situation affecting nearly 12 million people in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia."

Just back from Somalia and Kenya where he witnessed first-hand the scale of the - still unfolding – crisis and its true human impact, Concern’s Overseas Director Paul O’Brien said: “The Horn of Africa is in danger of becoming another ‘hidden emergency’ as the media spotlight falls elsewhere. While this is partly understandable given the number of significant global issues at present, it is inconceivable and, indeed, wrong that a food and nutrition crisis on the scale of the Horn of Africa seems to be disappearing off the general media and wider public radar.

“It is important that the media continue to highlight the situation there for a number of reasons, not least in drawing attention to the fact that the overall international humanitarian response is less than 50% funded for the whole region, while in Somalia 53% of emergency funding needs are unmet. Funding the humanitarian response is an urgent, immediate priority.”

Fundraising has been compared with that for the flooding in Pakistan, which was slow and never came close to matching the 2004 tsunami or last year's Haiti earthquake. Relief organizations say that the media's role in fundraising is pivotal.

Concern is now targeting over 500,000 people in the Horn of Africa with emergency nutrition as the top priority, along with food, shelter and water and sanitation programmes. In the context of the imminent rainy season (end of September to December), the latter are key in helping to prevent and contain water-borne illnesses such as cholera and diarrhoea as well as measles, respiratory infections and malaria, according to the agency.

Malnourished children, in particular, are highly vulnerable to such diseases, and Concern is prioritising them in its emergency nutrition response and other prevention programmes.

The agency is also investing in disaster risk reduction and long-term development. Mr O’Brien added: “We are harnessing all the experience and local relationships and partnerships built over 25 years in the region in order to prevent a bad situation getting worse and to contribute to better and more stable humanitarian picture in the future for the region.”

Note: Paul O’Brien, just returned from the Horn of Africa, is available for interview. Contact: Paul O’Mahony, Concern Worldwide on +353 87 965 3877.

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