In its latest Suffering In Silence report, CARE International lists the most underreported humanitarian crises of the past year and explains why global media attention is so selective.
Armyworms, which originate in the Americas, arrived in Africa as an invasive species a few years ago. The insects have since spread to the island of Madagascar. El Nino-induced droughts, and armyworm infestations, have decimated rice fields, maize and cassava crops on the island.
In late 2019, Madagascar suffered a severe drought, which reduced crop yields. The island's armyworm infestation further exacerbated the food shortage. Roughly a fourth of the island's population — over 916,000 people — were dependent on food donations. Three-quarters of the population live on just €1.70 ($1.90) per day.
Madagascar has the world's fourth-highest chronic malnutrition rate — every second child below the age of 5 is malnourished. This adversely affects children's cognitive and physical development and increases their risk of contracting diseases. In early 2019, the Indian Ocean island also suffered a major measles outbreak with 127,000 confirmed cases. Madagascar has also seen seasonal plague outbreaks.
Although Madagascar's humanitarian situation is evidently dire, it barely made international headlines. CARE International, therefore, lists it among the 10 most underreported humanitarian crises of 2019 in its latest Suffering In Silence report.
Read more: Billions of locusts swarm over East Africa
Central African Republic (CAR) and Burundi
A similarly overlooked crisis presented itself in the Central African Republic (CAR), according to CARE. The latest internal conflict in CAR broke out in 2013 and intensified in 2017. Many people were displaced by the fighting. Though a peace agreement was signed in early 2019, the country's security situation remains tense. Half of the population, some 2.6 million people, rely on humanitarian assistance.
The people of Burundi, meanwhile, have been suffering from political instability, poverty and a precarious human rights situation. This has been compounded by natural disasters, malaria epidemics and the danger of an Ebola outbreak. Many people were forced to flee. This situation, too, has gone underreported.
Currently, 326,000 people from Burundi are seeking safety in neighboring Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Many of those in exile lost their land. And currently, there are more than 106,000 internally displaced people in Burundi.
Why is global media attention so selective?
Why are severe humanitarian crises like these not receiving the media attention they deserve? Sabine Wilke, director of communications and advocacy at CARE Germany, explains that "countries and crises of great political interest — especially the Middle East — receive significant media attention." She says greater attention is therefore also devoted to the humanitarian situation in these regions.
Wilke says regions visited by international heads of state and government tend to be reported on much more than others. And, she says, a country's geopolitical significance matters as well. Smaller media outlets, meanwhile, often only begin reporting on humanitarian crises once major media outlets have taken the lead.
Zambia, Kenya, Chad and North Korea
According to CARE International, 9 of the 10 most underreported humanitarian crises of 2019 occurred in Africa. For instance in Zambia, climate change has caused heat waves and drought, destroying crops and causing food shortages. Kenya, meanwhile, also faced droughts along with floods. Countries on Lake Chad are confronted with the serious consequences of sinking water levels. CARE International's report lists North Korea's dire humanitarian situation as the only overlooked non-African crisis.
Several African countries continue to struggle with drought conditions which have caused food shortages
Limited media coverage
While Africa does feature in western and especially in European media reports, this coverage is limited. Wilke explains that "the continent's numerous struggles mean news desks stop covering further crises." Africa's Ebola outbreak made international headlines, for example, she says. This meant media outlets then shied away from reporting on other African problems, she notes, out of a kind of disaster fatigue.
Europe is devoting growing attention to some African countries due to the inflow of Europe-bound migrants and asylum-seekers. But other African countries are seemingly being forgotten, such as Madagascar. Wilke says this is surprising, as "those trying to flee the island to escape chronic poverty, hopelessness and hunger are taking a big risk."
CAR and Gambia are not typical migration countries, either — due to their locations, Wilke says, which are too far from the Sahel and northbound migration routes. Most people from these countries simply lack the financial means to migrate: "They are so poor that they have no chance to leave their country."
Journalists are agenda-setters
160 million people living in these crisis-stricken regions depend on humanitarian support. CARE International estimates that providing this assistance will cost €26 billion — five times what the UN projected in 2007.
Care Germany's Wilke says her organization's report aims to raise awareness of these crises among governments, politicians, aid agencies and the media. She says "it wants to make clear to journalists the role they can play as agenda-setters, and we want to encourage them to report on issues irrespective of how many clicks they garner online."